Affordance Impacts on Human Performance

How our environment communicates purpose and offers possibilities for action

by Jeff Reuschel

The workspace is much more than a container for people—and it’s much more than a tool used to perform a task. The workspace can have a direct effect on the ability of employees to do their work, which—consequently—has an indirect effect on business goals. Thus, the elements within a work environment have a profound effect on people's ability to do their work. Haworth has adopted the concept of Affordances, which we've been studying for over 15 years, to help identify the characteristics of a workspace that help people do their best work.

What are Affordances?

According to the Harvard Business Review article, “Who Moved My Cube:”

"The concept of affordances, developed by the psychologist James Gibson, explains how an object or an environment communicates its purpose and offers possibilities for action. Handles afford grasping; doors afford entry and exit.... Gibson argues that when we look at an object or an environment, we perceive its affordances for action even before we notice qualities such as shape and color—although we might ignore or misinterpret the affordances or, when they are especially subtle, fail to see them at all until a change to the environment alters or eliminates them."

Consider, for example, the affordances of a doorknob. None of us would teach our toddler how to use one because at that age we’d prefer they didn’t know. However, children learn quickly on their own because the doorknob’s shape, location, and configuration make those affordances so strong.

Affordance and Space Design

A well-designed space that takes Affordances into consideration enables optimal human performance. Haworth has developed a comprehensive framework that identifies the space-related elements that contribute to human performance. These Affordances are divided into three distinct but interrelated categories:

  • Cognitive Affordances help people do their mind's best work. 
  • Emotional Affordances nurture a person’s psychological state.
  • Physical Affordances support the body's needs.

By tailoring spaces to the specific needs of individuals and groups in these three categories, Haworth and our dealer partners can offer solutions that optimize human and organizational performance.

Much attention in the past 25 years has been on improving facility performance metrics—reducing square footage, dematerializing workstations, unassigning workspaces, etc. These actions focused on reducing the return on assets. Affordances aim to increase human performance—as even modest gains here far outweigh the impact of cost reductions. (The cost of people to an organization is at least 10 times any other cost.) Ultimately, what any organization wants from its people are the highest possible levels of judgment, planning, strategizing, analysis, creativity, and decision making—all impacted in the workplace by the cognitive Affordances. But organizations also want their people to be fulfilled, engaged, happy, collaborative, safe, and comfortable—all supported by the emotional and physical Affordances.

The Bottom Line: Practical Application

David Kirsh of the Department of Cognitive Science at UC San Diego says this about a worker’s relationship to workplace:

“. . . whether we are aware of it or not, we are constantly organizing and re-organizing our workplace to enhance performance. Space is a resource that must be managed, much like time, memory, and energy. When we use space well we can often bring the time and memory demands of our tasks down to workable levels. We can increase the reliability of execution, and the number of jobs we can handle at once.”

While the science of Affordances is interesting, it is only through application that it is valuable to business. At Haworth, we’ve created a system of Affordances that allows individuals and groups to accomplish their tasks. For example, one of the three core physical Affordances is movement: The workplace must afford the worker various opportunities to change posture, position, and location. Identifying opportunities for movement within a work environment can be aligned with activity-based design characteristics that people desire within their workplace.

We believe these Affordances are necessary for the employee regardless of who they are, what tasks they have, or where the tasks take place, which means that they can be applied across job functions, cultures, and geographies.

It is important to note that no single work location or instance can accomplish all the Affordances; in fact, the presence of some requires the absence of others. It is rather the cumulative effect of an employee’s entire workplace system that must completely meet their physical, emotional, and cognitive needs. These Affordances and the principles that accompany them form a basis from which we develop new concepts and craft each unique Organic Workspace®.

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