Person-Centered Design: The Importance of Balance in an Era of Constant Change

September 10, 2020

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s note: Our healthcare clients are on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. We seek to support them as they courageously care for the sick. So we’re posting design ideas based on work with them, in the hope that we can contribute from our base of expertise to help combat the epidemic. From all of us at NBBJ to the many doctors, nurses and support staff in hospitals and clinics, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.


As a child, I loved seesaws — one moment having my feet on the ground and the fate of the other person in my control, the next second trusting them to lift me so high into the sky I could see over my mom. I learned to create a balance of sorts across from my older brother by sitting far back or scooting closer so that he had a harder time throwing me off.

I’ve been thinking a lot about balance lately. As designers we use it as a basic element in composition; as a civilization we equate it with stability and fairness; as humans we need it to simply stand upright — all dynamic equilibriums needing our attentiveness lest an unknown thing threaten the equation.

This is how the world seems to many of us right now — all was moving along fairly balanced with a degree of control until the pandemic sent us teetering.

Recently, I’ve started two projects that have me thinking deeper about what role balance plays in design, specifically in creating hospitals for person-centered care. Person-centered care is the compassionate perspective that we are all individual human beings first before we are anything else: spouse, parent, student, friend, employee, patient.

Founded by Planetree — an organization that promotes the thoughtful response of healthcare systems to individuals’ human need for respect, control and supportive care — this philosophy focuses on creating environments for positive human interactions between patients, families and care givers. Primary tenets include empowerment with information, integration of the arts and complementary therapies and the nurturing aspects of nutrition, spirituality and human touch — all creating better outcomes.

The physical space within a hospital or clinic plays an important role for connection to take place. It can bring equilibrium between the often-conflicting goals of human-centered experiences and operational efficiencies — that’s where our design teams come in.

So how do I design something centered around another person when I barely feel centered myself in these turbulent times? Can my environment be a part of my solution just as we expect it to be for the patient?

The real work for the patient — and for me in this pandemic — comes from within. Perhaps the space we build outside the patient is only successful if it enables the construction of a healthy space inside the person.

One way to empower this internal effort is to create environments that anticipate personal needs. For example, we know through inquiry and observation that the most frequently asked question at information desks is often the location of the restrooms. Anticipatory design places those elements in easy sightlines before patients stop to ask. By developing experience maps, we can identify and eliminate the outside struggle with blockades that throw people off.

Another aspect is to make spaces that become easy portals to colleagues, friends, and family — more thoughtfully crafted to individual needs, making connections readily available to overcome the disruption of distance. Smart televisions in patient rooms that can accept a video chat from a private phone accompanied by an overbed table device to hold the phone camera would connect families during this isolated time.

By removing barriers to compassionate human interactions in the healthcare setting, we can create conditions for the patient to do the hard work of centering themselves emotionally in their new world of diagnosis, treatment and healing. To find a fulcrum for grounding. To feel themselves again.

On a seesaw, when both people put their feet on the ground, they create a bridge between them, a stable connection built on trust. Design created through a lens of person-centered care enables both those receiving care and those providing it to create balance, building bridges between them.

In a world that is teetering, perhaps extra attentiveness to human-centered design is our chance as architects to scoot closer to those for whom we design, stretch our feet down to the ground and bring back some balance on both ends.


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

Banner image courtesy Adobe Stock.

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How to Reduce Social Isolation for Healthcare Workers and Patients During the Coronavirus Pandemic

September 1, 2020

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s note: Our healthcare clients are on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. We seek to support them as they courageously care for the sick. So we’re posting design ideas based on work with them, in the hope that we can contribute from our base of expertise to help combat the epidemic. From all of us at NBBJ to the many doctors, nurses and support staff in hospitals and clinics, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

This post initially appeared on Forbes. It was co-authored by Bryan Langlands and Teri Oelrich.


COVID-19 increases social isolation for almost everyone, but especially for caregivers on the frontlines and patients in hospitals. This is in part due to critical infection prevention systems, safety protocols and social distancing measures, such as multiple layers of PPE, single-patient isolation rooms and no-visitor policies.

Studies reveal isolation, which can lead to loneliness, can both increase anxiety and depression as well lower trust, energy and social engagement. Yet despite countless conversations with healthcare workers on the front lines — from nurses to pastoral care — who say social isolation is a challenge for both caregivers and patients, there is hope. Below are key insights from these discussions, as well as strategies to create environments that ease isolation.

How to combat the effects of isolation

Because of the increased isolation due to COVID-19, the pandemic takes a toll on both extroverted and introverted staff. Extroverted staff that gain energy from social interactions may have a more difficult time than introverts, who typically enjoy more time alone. Yet while it may be easier for introverts to cope in the short term, introverts need social time as well in addition to downtime that’s not just with a patient. For example, in conversations with frontline workers, they report missing  the after-work informal socialization at restaurants and bars. How can caregivers be connected to others so they’re not fighting the battle by themselves? Here are a few strategies that may help.

Offer space for enhanced communication

Studies show that body language may account for up to 65% of all communication or more, so it’s crucial to employ innovative ways to communicate. Masks and PPE hide dialogue, greetings and facial cues, which are all crucial ways to convey not just critical patient information, but also ideas, feelings and beliefs.

Clinical staff who work with patients on isolation could use glass doors to communicate with colleagues outside the room by writing notes to each other on the transparent surface. In addition, digital and analogue message walls can provide opportunities for staff to share more informal, personal notes of encouragement that can be pushed from their smartphone or posted via sticky notes. Furthermore, nursing units with decentralized nurse stations could help minimize social isolation.

Boost opportunities to personally connect

It’s important for caregivers to share experiences and connect personally outside of work tasks, as well as celebrate milestones and work successes. Staff potlucks, birthdays and holiday celebrations are a mainstay on nursing units, and an important way for staff to interact and connect with one another.

In feedback from frontline caregivers, there are valuable opportunities to provide better break rooms. These areas could feature operable windows for fresh air, sunlight, and views of green plants, to not only create a more pleasant space for socializing, but to help boost mood, improve cognition and decrease stress. The size of break rooms should also be considered if social distancing is required when eating because a room which previously held 10-12 staff might only hold 3-4 now.

In addition, stairwells and the ends of corridors could serve as places to catch up with colleagues, and instead of places solely dedicated to circulation, they could also serve as destinations. Feedback from staff who work in hospitals where staircases are along glass perimeters of a building tell us that they become a “found” place for restorative respite, to take a moment to pause or to encourage exercise. Staircases with daylight and generous width and landings are highly popular with staff as a place to take phone calls, meet with a colleague, take a “time out” moment, and for some, to even have lunch.

Expansive windows with views, soft bench seating and even small side tables could help create a welcoming environment. These areas could also serve as informal touch down spaces for virtual team building events, such as Zoom coffee breaks, to provide ways for distributed teams to connect. And when able to step away from the floor for a rare longer break, or before or after a shift, easily accessible green roofs and healing gardens are especially important.

Another change since the pandemic has been that hospitals are decreasing the number of entrances and exits to facilities. Staff are usually diverted to one entrance where they can get their scrubs for the day and change their shoes. This area could also be an opportunity to create positive communication and gathering outside this door.

Enable peer support and mindfulness

A solid support system is crucial — especially at work. Employees who have a best friend at work are seven times as likely to be engaged in their job. When people have more friends in the workplace, they are more productive and less stressed. Calming spaces filled with comfortable furniture and soothing lights for healthcare workers to listen to one another and provide emotional support — such as affect labeling or putting feelings into words — as well as planning and problem solving, could help. These rooms could also provide spaces for staff to connect with a virtual therapist.

In addition, opportunities for caregivers to cultivate mindfulness and seek individual respite allow staff a way to recharge and find ways to cope with the stress of social isolation. Multi-sensory decompression rooms filled with gentle lights, sounds of nature  and images of a verdant forest, could promote rejuvenating, meditative retreats.

Strategies to Decrease Patient Isolation

As many hospitals reduce visitors, social isolation can be incredibly debilitating for patients too. While some hospitals allow one visitor, others maintain a no-visitor policy. Although a hospital with fewer visitors can be a quieter, more restful place, it can be lonely for patients, especially during their most vulnerable times. This is especially true because patients feel more comfortable and trusting of care when a family member is present, not to mention that it helps staff communicate with the family about the patient’s history and medications.

At times, these restrictions also require healthcare workers to take on the role of caregiver, family and friend to their patients. These challenges are also compounded with PPE requirements. In the era of the coronavirus crisis, communication between caregivers and patients is more nuanced and complex. Below are a few ideas to overcome isolation for patients.

Employ creative communication methods

In discussions with caregivers, patients and healthcare staff alike are retraining their communication methods. Many facial expressions and of course speech, are tied to the mouth, but facial coverings mask these cues and soften spoken words. Instead, eye and eyebrow movements may be even more essential to convey meaning.  One patient shared that they were not concerned about seeing their caregiver’s face because they “believe that people smile with their eyes.” This patient’s advice was to “focus on what you can see, not what you can’t.”

Increased focus on intentional or physical communication is key: staff can put photos of themselves on their PPE so patients can see what they look like behind their masks, while patients can also include photos of themselves and their families in their rooms. Celebratory rituals could also minimize patients’ isolation. When patients reach a certain milestone, or are discharged from the hospital, upbeat music and simple encouragement can be immensely uplifting.

Offer engaging technology

Technology can bring people closer together and provide positive distractions to help improve the patient experience. Wall-mounted screens in inpatient rooms that work in tandem with patient smartphones and iPads  could display medical information and history, but also provide video conferencing,entertainment options and relaxing music. These custom, built-in screens could also provide translation assistance to supplement current services. The post-traumatic stress for staff who have had to hold a phone up to a family member’s ear during their loved one’s last moments or being the vehicle for the patient to Facetime with family who are restricted from visiting is tremendous. We can do better.

Streamline entrances and exits

For hospitals that do allow visitors, streamlining entrances and exits with clear, direct signage is critical. For example, using recognizable shapes like circles and unusual colors like pink within the visual signage allows for visitors to navigate their way to, around and through the hospital.

Provide meaningful spiritual care

Spiritual care may offer a powerful means for patients to share their wishes, desires and fears. Within a hospital we tend to focus on the physical and medical, but not the spiritual. Patients who have no visitors want someone to listen to how their lives and their family’s lives have been impacted by their illness. Focusing on spiritual care is essential and can allow patients to reflect on life’s joyous and challenging moments.

A disconnect between caregivers and their work environment, and patients and their families, can create emotional exhaustion. Thoughtful and considered design does not need to come with a high price tag. Look for opportunities in planning and design where a small move can be the difference between functional and generous. From extra inches in stair widths and landings to ending corridors in glass instead of drywall to larger and more staff lounges, these design choices show the emotional well-being of the staff and patient is as important as clinical care and patient safety.


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

Banner image courtesy Chuck Choi.

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How to Feel Together While We’re Apart

Where Work and Collaboration Meet in the Era of COVID-19

August 19, 2020

Principal, ESI Design, an NBBJ Studio

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Emily Webster and Andrea Vanecko.


In the traditional workplace during “normal” times, an employee’s presence is felt as soon as they step foot into the office. Yet in the era of COVID-19, where some are in the workplace and some are remote, employees risk feeling increasingly disconnected from each other. While some tech companies and startups have worked with a distributed workforce for a while, many more organizations now have to consider how to effectively adapt to this unique way of working.

Now is the time to experiment. After months of working remotely, our perspective about our work and our office experience has changed. As new work styles and environments evolve, it’s important to continually test how people truly use their space and connect with one another. Changes to process, policy and the physical design of a workplace can mitigate this sense of disconnection, of which we list a few ideas to consider below. But the first step is to consider company culture:

  • How do employees, teams, departments and your organization work and meet? What are the daily patterns and rituals that make your company unique?
  • How do collaboration rhythms impact roles and departments that are more independent, versus others that are more team-based?
  • Does your company provide services to clients or produce internal products? Is your work on display or private?
  • How do you share exciting moments?

Answering these questions will highlight habits and perspectives that are central to an organization and reveal ways to carry these cultural benefits forward through the coronavirus and beyond. With these questions answered, the following design strategies can be integrated to create an environment of social cohesion, productivity and collaboration.

Humanize the Workplace

Employees who work remotely still want to chat, connect, and share ideas with their colleagues, even if they can’t share the same space. To build staff’s presence in the workplace, incorporate digital platforms to enable them to communicate in real time and customize their environment. Employees could push photos of themselves, share their work or send messages to colleagues on various-sized digital frames that can be used in the office or at home — and placed on a desktop or a shelf, or hung on a wall. Rather than computer monitors, empty desks could also feature dynamic computer wallpaper with digital greetings, documents and notes for in-office teammates.

Offer Dedicated Team Areas

Work stations may partially transition away from individually-assigned desks. Instead, staff could be assigned to dedicated team huddle areas. These rooms — located in or near the work zone — could feature tactile digital walls for collaboration sessions, brainstorming, project updates and idea-sharing. Teams could also leave analogue components, like sticky notes and posters, as well as other leave-behinds. Built-in cameras would allow remote team members to video conference in, and could also take photos and videos of the collaboration wall to share real-time progress with distributed teams. These areas could also feature more lounge-like furniture, such as couches, lounge chairs and ottomans to create a more comfortable environment for in-office employees. This would also allow remote staff to feel more connected as they could see more than just their team members’ faces, as body language is a crucial part of effective communication. In addition, these huddle rooms could have three walls or panels for a more porous feel, yet still provide an intimate space to build closer collaboration between virtual and in-person team members.

Create a Shared Dialogue in Communal Spaces

When colleagues are separated, how do you recreate the impromptu chat at the water cooler or the catch-up over coffee? To help connect staff in the office and those working from home on a more casual level, a “sharing space” that is physically present in the office but also tethered to the online world could help decrease isolation. Interactive space, simulation environments and sharing platforms could be created to allow staff to engage with their colleagues in a more personal way. Staff could leave artifacts — such as virtual messages, videos, social media feeds and other work or personal updates for remote and in-office employees. These could sync with the displays in conference rooms as well, or even augmented reality collaboration spaces. Finding ways for distributed team members’ personalities to come through, even if the entire work force isn’t physically present in the same space, maintains a sense of comradery. To strengthen a community connection, these solutions should not only be digital. In-person staff could leave friendly handwritten notes, community event flyers and team photos on these social sharing walls to be seen by colleagues the next day.

Maximize Nature Outside-In

The positive effects of viewing green plants — whether real, simulated via digital displays— are proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure. Offer novel opportunities for distributed employees to connect with green spaces to create a more invigorating and nourishing environment. Outdoor cabanas or “offices in a box” could provide a refreshing and meditative change of scenery as well as natural ventilation, to offer staff unique ways to collaborate in person and virtually, as well as decrease stress. Outfitted with conference tables and chairs, or even lounge-style couches — and equipped with lush planter boxes and the latest teleconferencing technology — these spaces for one to six people could powerfully leverage indoor-outdoor connections for distributed teams. Rooftops with shaded tables, seating and wifi could also provide ways for in-person and remote staff to collaborate outside, even in drizzly weather.

Yet nature isn’t limited to the outdoors of course. The interior environment can be landscaped too, to help better connect a distributed workforce. Donut- or triangle-shaped multi-desk configurations with trees and green plants placed at the center can bring the positive effects of nature into the workplace to both profound and breathtaking effects — and create more engaging spaces for video calls. Other areas around the office can create peaceful, nature-filled nooks for remote touch-bases, such as booth banquets with planting screens. When true natural views aren’t possible, offering bucolic digital views for both in-person and remote staff could still bring benefits.

Change is inevitable. How do we embrace the new structures of the workplace and the work day? To flex to this new era and the “next normal,” it’s critical to rethink how and where we work. As our work environments evolve, it’s important to continually test new collaboration modes. With this unchartered territory, success lies in transforming this disruption into positive opportunities to reconnect with colleagues on new levels.

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


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