Suzanne Carlson

Suzanne Carlson

Corporate Practice Director, NBBJ
Suzanne began her professional life on the stage. Literally. Theatrical performance proved the perfect first career and training ground for a life in architecture and design. NBBJ has offered her the opportunity to reaffirm that we are truly better together than alone, and has reinspired the belief that space matters on the deepest of levels. This year’s goals include finally diving into Rosetta Stone so she can join the New York Studio’s LLL club (Latin Ladies Lunch) and completing her long-awaited bathroom renovation.

The Workplace Should Be Organic

Six Ways to Create a Strong Connection to Nature in Any Workplace

January 20, 2022

Corporate Practice Director, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Suzanne Carlson and Ryan Mullenix

Editor’s Note: This post is the third in a series on Healthy Buildings. The first post focused on lighting and how building design can support circadian rhythm, and the second explored the relationship between noise and productivity and healing in corporate and healthcare environments.


The very first buildings—and those for thousands of years after—were designed to shelter us from the elements. Walls, roofs, windows and heating systems overcome the unpredictability of nature by keeping it outside. Before buildings, however, our bodies grew so accustomed to the natural environment that our health still depends on our exposure to it. Time spent in nature yields measurable value to our lives, improving cognitive function, increasing creativity and decreasing stress. Yet despite its many benefits, incorporating nature into the built environment remains a challenge.

For example, even though some European hospitals integrate nature into their buildings, hospitals in North America are often required to eschew greenery indoors due to code requirements. Like healthcare buildings, the modern corporate office also acts as a barrier to nature, removing workers from green space and making it difficult to open a window or step outside. And although the pandemic and subsequent shift toward remote and hybrid work provide flexibility to embrace gardening, go for a walk, or at least gaze out a window throughout the day, many of us still spend much of our time indoors.

Integrating nature in the workplace (and all buildings, for that matter) is critical to the well-being of employees, teams and organizations. Here are six drivers that borrow characteristics from the outdoors to integrate nature into every workday.

1. The Workplace Should Be Organic
Establishing biophilic drivers for decision-making early on in a project leads to the thoughtful development of a calmer and more productive atmosphere. According to neuroscience research done with NBBJ fellow and molecular biologist Dr. John Medina, human beings are biologically predisposed to require contact with natural forms. Implementing a color palette that is associated with our experiences in nature, such as blues, greens and oranges, can offer motivation or focus, while rounded edges can make us feel safer than sharp corners.

2. The Workplace Should Change Frequently
On an even larger scale, hubs such as outdoor amphitheaters with movable walls or landscaped indoor spaces can support a range of activities such as group classes like yoga, gardening or cooking. These multi-use spaces can also serve as a meeting area or a place of respite, and if done well in harmony with nature, can offer diverse spaces that use zero energy. In addition, companies can explore the use of prefabricated or modular units—“offices in a box”—that can be easily nestled within the surrounding landscape. Not only do these spaces serve as diverse, autonomous places for work and meetings, but they can also be designed to easily open and close depending on the weather.

A prefabricated “office in a box” enables employees to immerse themselves in nature and can adapt to changing work needs or weather conditions.

3. The Workplace Should Be Green
We know the color green raises our cortisol levels, almost instantaneously reducing our stress. That same color also enables our brain to focus as it helps us relax. Lesser known is the improvement that plants can bring to our physical health through anti-fungal chemicals that boost immunity. Including greenery and plants in the office is the simplest way to bring nature into the workplace. At Korean fintech company Hana Bank’s headquarters—which will soon break ground—staff and visitors will be exposed to the health benefits of nature via immersive landscapes that include sweeping plantings, plazas and gardens extending from the existing landscape. However, even smaller planters or living walls offer enough benefit to warrant plants being incorporated into the office at any scale.


A plant-filled space can serve multiple workplace needs, from hosting activities and meetings to a quiet place for concentration or respite.

4. The Workplace Should Be an Immersive Escape
While living plants are preferable since the act of caring for them has a positive effect on happiness and satisfaction, even images of nature—whether digital or still—can improve overall mood and concentration. According to University of Washington psychology professor Peter Kahn, simply looking at images of nature can relax and calm us, while also keeping us engaged. Digital displays, either combined with natural elements or in place of them, can create an immersive experience. If possible, change the architectural program of the space to include a respite room that allows its user to be enveloped in digital sights and sounds of nature.

Immersion in nature, whether physical or digital, keeps employees relaxed and engaged. Hana Bank’s headquarters weaves nature into the workplace with a 12-story public “ribbon park” and outdoor terraces.

5. The Workplace Should Be a Threshold
One benefit of an office tower is the ability to optimize views and access to daylight. However, incorporating intuitive pathways to light and establishing moments to step outside make an even bigger difference in supporting employees’ circadian rhythms and overall health. At the campus of a Zhejiang-based large internet company, each employee’s workspace is located less than a minute from outside green space, and all workstations are close to windows that overlook greenery and open to let in fresh air and natural ventilation. Similarly, smartphone maker vivo’s nature-infused headquarters will feature an elegant spiral of exterior gardens, providing every level with easy access to green space for work, as well as paths for exercise.

Outdoor terraces and planted gardens provide every floor with access to green space at smartphone maker vivo’s headquarters in Shenzhen, China.

6. The Workplace Should Be an Instigator
Enacting policies and protocols that allow employees to take advantage of nature throughout the workday is also beneficial. Encourage walking meetings by providing suggested routes and the length of time it takes to complete them. Implement a video-optional policy for certain calls or meetings to allow people to take them outdoors.

Nature’s ability to support both mental and physical health in the workplace and beyond must not be overlooked. The well-being and engagement of employees is critical to an organization’s sustained success, especially now. Incorporating moments to connect with the natural world throughout the workday leads to a happier, healthier, more creative workforce and more successful, productive organizations.

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How Do You Redefine and Create a New Rhythm of Life?

An evidenced-based approach to elevate workplace experience, health and performance.

August 13, 2020

Corporate Practice Director, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Edwin Beltran, Andy Snyder and Suzanne Carlson.

Workplace stress has a significant impact on health and productivity in normal times — but it has become a larger challenge in the current climate as people grapple with high unemployment, social distancing and general uncertainty. As organizations evolve new models for remote and in-office work, the wellbeing and engagement of their employees remains critical to their sustained success. This moment presents a unique opportunity to reimagine a better workplace — not just safer, but also less stressful and more productive, supporting a more purposeful rhythm of the day.

Neuroscience research provides crucial insights into stress, engagement and productivity. Humans are social creatures that find safety in relationships and nature, and are impacted by their environments in ways both large and small. This has important implications for how to design workplaces in an era of stress and uncertainty, suggesting new approaches that better respond to fundamental human needs.

Grounded in neuroscience research from Dr. John Medina as part of the NBBJ Fellowship Program, this post explores ideas on how to elevate workplace experience. Three of these concepts —Paths, Hubs and Nooks— provide people with opportunities to recharge and engage, promoting a new, more uplifting workday experience.



Paths serve as spaces to escape from daily routines, providing opportunities to exercise, find respite and refuge or connect with nature. They can be created out of utilitarian indoor spaces like stairs or hallways, and incorporate several elements shown to reduce stress and improve productivity. Paths can also be created in outdoor settings, creating intentional journeys through curated landscapes with points of interest that encourage people to pause and slow down.




Nooks are calming oases distributed throughout the workplace, particularly in underutilized spaces, that incorporate circadian lighting, natural sounds and moments of delight. Nooks promote mental and physical restoration through mindful slowdowns and positive distractions, which have been shown to reduce stress. They can be programmed to provide immersive experiences, or a supportive environment for a restorative nap, conversation or meditation.




Hubs are larger-scale restorative amenities that promote social connection, connection to nature or restorative breaks.  Intended for groups of people, hubs can be created within repurposed indoor spaces or outdoors, and can be programmed with engaging activities like exercise or meditation. Hubs can range from immersive audiovisual experiences, to lounges and chill-out rooms, to indoor gardens that could double as meeting and conference spaces.



These ideas are part of a comprehensive report by the NBBJ Fellowship Program which outlines how to create new work rhythms, ways to mitigate stress for frontline healthcare workers and how to remain human in a hybrid virtual-physical world.  To learn more about these concepts and the supporting research, please email to receive a downloadable PDF of the full report.


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How to Reduce Stress as People Come Back to the Office

Applying Neuroscience Principles to Foster Comfort and Improve Workplace Health

April 27, 2020

Corporate Practice Director, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Suzanne Carlson, Edwin Beltran and Hannah Smith.


As Covid-19 sweeps the globe, it’s creating two health crises: one that is physical based on the impact of the virus itself, and one that is emotional due to the wide-ranging toll it takes on mental health.  When it comes to emotional health and work, a specific stressor is the thought of returning to the office and the fear of getting sick from fellow commuters or colleagues.

Acute and chronic stress negatively impacts our lives, from job performance to relationships, to critical thinking and educational outcomes. Neuroscience research shows that stress can literally make our brains shrink, yet there are also proven ways to re-energize and feed them.

Over the past decade, our workplaces have been optimized to increase productivity, collaboration and innovation. Now more than ever, our offices need to not only optimize job performance, but provide comfort, mental stability and focus — to help us flourish while keeping us safe. But how?

Neuroscience as a Framework

Dr. John Medina, an affiliate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and an NBBJ Fellow, examines the causation of stress and its impact on us as humans. Applying Dr. Medina’s research to the workplace in our Covid-19 world may help not only alleviate stress, but also support comfort, resilience and optimism in these difficult times. Here are some specific ideas, backed by neuroscience research that can help:

Provide choice to increase comfort and calm.

When employees have greater control over their work, it reduces stress, which is especially critical during a pandemic. An important first step is to give employees the choice to work from home, return to the office, or combine both modes. In the workplace, providing options can also mean creating spaces for “prospect” and “refuge” — areas where colleagues can both see each other and also go to retreat.

Offices that provide prospect and refuge mimic the savannah environment in which our pre-historic ancestors lived, with views of the sweeping plains and a cave close by. “Developing simultaneous preferences for expansive space and enclosed shelter was fundamental to our survival,” writes Dr. Medina. Today, in office plans that provide high levels of visibility, modular “micro offices” with easy-to-clean materials can help with infection control and offer social distancing, flexibility and balance, in addition to privacy and quiet. These strategies, coupled with operational changes — such as stringent cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting protocols — may help.

Support an active workday and policies to help build resilient behaviors.

Offering ways for employees to incorporate motion into their work activities is especially important during the pandemic, to improve not just physical health, but mental clarity too. Studies show walking meetings at 1.8 miles per hour optimize information processing, while lowering the stress hormone, cortisol. Circulation paths in and around the office could serve as meeting and fitness loops, with graphic markers to facilitate proper social distancing and indicate the amount of calories burned based on distance traveled. Allowing walking meetings, where employees have the opportunity to go for a walk outside the office too, is a win-win. It helps maximize cognitive focus, provides fresh air and reduces stress.

Adopting policies that address social distancing guidelines and employees’ needs for solitude and socialization can lay a positive foundation too. For example, welcoming stairs can help people to get in their steps, increase their endorphins — and avoid the close confines of an elevator — while promoting greater connections between colleagues on different floors, which can reduce stress as well.

Employ nature’s healing benefits.

As humans are wired to spend time outside, it’s even more critical now than ever before to consider the positive effects of nature on our health and productivity. Numerous studies show that looking at plants and the sounds of running water can lower anxiety, speed healing and even boost the immune system. These are key elements workplaces could benefit from, and particularly so during the coronavirus crisis.

While some workplaces connect with the outdoors in a significant way, incorporating smaller touches can help too. Simple strategies like access to natural daylight by opening blinds and pulling in fresh air via operable windows could lower indoor contaminants, because sunlight and higher rates of ventilation can reduce the viability of viruses in the air and on surfaces — like a natural disinfectant. In addition, weaving in green-colored accents like rugs and furniture, facing desks toward views, or even bringing in certain plants with antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, can increase employee wellness.

Engage the senses to create restorative moments of reflection.

Providing a sensory experience in the workplace that acknowledges heightened emotions could provide comfort and familiarity in these challenging times. Studies show indirect attention breaks — such as views to outdoors, listening to calming sounds and smelling soothing natural scents like lavender — for 10 minutes per every 100 minutes of focused attention, can minimize stress and blunt the negative effects of mental fatigue, but also promote mindfulness and increase executive function.

These restorative experiences could be amplified by creating niches filled with peaceful artwork, inspiration boards or team achievement walls to provide additional ways for employees to pause, regroup and reconnect with themselves and their teams.

In Summary

As we return to the office, stress levels of employees will be high for a variety of reasons — but we should strive to avoid the workplace itself being a cause of such stress. By incorporating the benefits of neuroscience into the workplace, we can transform our offices to evoke a sense of calm during what is a difficult situation for all, and be ready for whatever the future may bring.


How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at

Banner image courtesy Sean Airhart.

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High-Tech in the City

Things Will Be Great When You're Downtown

July 5, 2013

Corporate Practice Director, NBBJ

We’ve had the privilege to work with many of the world’s greatest high-tech companies, brands like Amazon, Google and Samsung. Many are located in suburban environments, in low-rise, horizontal buildings. Here, wide open floors make it easy for coworkers to bump into each other, spurring the serendipitous encounters and conversations that lead to new ideas. Cafeterias promote socializing outside the office. Landscaping brings workers closer to nature for relaxation and recreation.

Historically, these environments were perfect for a workforce that increasingly suburbanized in the 1940s and ’50s: think of Eero Saarinen’s epoch-making facilities for IBM and Bell Laboratories in the suburbs of New York. The paradigm continued into the ’80s and ’90s, notably with Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington, and with the explosive growth of California’s Silicon Valley.

However, in a far-reaching historical shift, people are increasingly moving back into city centers. High-tech firms are realizing that, once again, they may have to follow their workforces, just as IBM and Bell Laboratories did in the 1950s. For instance, Salesforce plans to lease an entire high-rise in San Francisco, joining Twitter, Yelp, and many other startups downtown. Amazon is building a three-tower campus in downtown Seattle. And Google and Facebook now have significant presences in New York, where Cornell University is planning an entire technology campus.

This poses a challenge: how can the collaborative features of high-tech workplaces translate into high-density urban environments, like Manhattan or downtown San Francisco? In comparatively slender high-rises, larger companies must stack on multiple floors, making serendipitous encounters less likely. Older high-rises may have irregular floor plates, obstructive columns, low ceilings, or nonstandard windows and partitions, requiring unusual office layouts. Older buildings may also contain inefficient elevators and mechanical infrastructure, which can lead to greater inconvenience and cost.

However, we as designers can do many things to remedy these concerns:


Multifunctional Spaces: Because space is at a premium, nothing can be wasted. Collaborative spaces should be multifunctional — conference rooms, kitchens, reception and casual seating can double as touchdown space for small informal meetings. Some meetings can even be held offsite, in cafes or outdoor plazas.


Open-Plan Offices: Open office layouts allow more people to fit in a smaller area, and also provide flexibility, the ability to accommodate odd floor plans and awkward column locations. Though open plans reduce privacy, they often increase collaboration, thanks to increased visibility and overheard conversations.


Mobile Working: In offices with highly mobile workforces, one work area can serve multiple employees, through benching, hoteling or hot-desking strategies.


Advantageous Co-Location: Serendipity can be encouraged by co-locating people from different departments, those who might bring new perspectives to their neighbors’ work. This happened in MIT’s famed Building 20, where linguists worked alongside nuclear engineers, spurring breakthroughs in both fields.


Vertical Connections: Open atriums and stairs encourage people to see, encounter and collaborate with colleagues on other floors.


Communications Technology: Technology solutions like instant messaging can overcome the barriers to communication that come from being on different floors. The placement of devices can also help, for example, when people encounter each other en route to the printer.


Workplace Culture: Finally, workplace culture plays a vital role — the value of happy hours, group meals and other social functions should not be underestimated.

What’s more, the city offers its own unique benefits. With greater density comes proximity to amenities like restaurants and fitness centers — as a result, companies can omit these features in their own offices and concentrate exclusively on workspaces and collaborative areas. With more people (often younger, more technology-savvy people) living in the city, high-tech firms can hire from a larger talent pool. And studies have shown that city residents tend to be healthier — from walking more and driving less — which saves on healthcare expenses and creates happier employees.

Cities have always been crucibles of human industry and innovation. And in many ways, the suburban corporate campus tries to replicate the city, with cafeterias instead of restaurants, courtyards instead of parks, daycare centers instead of schools, fitness centers instead of gyms and racquet clubs. When a worker leaves her desk to collaborate with colleagues in casual touchdown spaces, it echoes the city dweller who leaves his tiny apartment and enters the dynamic, serendipitous public space of the urban environment. For those high-tech firms looking to expand within the city, they may find their new workplace paradigm a more natural fit than they expect.


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