Stress at Work? Maybe It’s Your Space, Not Your Pace

Five Questions to Ask About Your Workplace Instead of “Open Office or Closed Office?”

March 1, 2016

Partner, NBBJ


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Inc.

As companies build a greater appreciation for activity-based work, improved mobility and team-based problem-solving, it has become increasingly difficult for them to predict or track a workday for one individual, let alone an organization of hundreds or thousands. Each person’s brain is wired differently, so it shouldn’t be surprising that a “one size fits all” mentality threatens the ability of teams to thrive. It’s why, when asked by clients the seemingly straightforward question of “should we go open office or closed office?” I’m convinced it’s the wrong place to start.


Asking the Right Questions

I’ve been privileged to work on teams that include both social anthropologists and some of the world’s best design thinkers. I’ve also spent the last two years with Dr. John Medina — a molecular biologist at the University of Washington and author of the New York Times bestseller Brain Rules — learning about how our brains respond to physical space. As the world discusses ad nauseam the desire for innovation, collaboration and satisfaction, I’ve come to believe we should stop focusing on office configurations and instead explore how physical environments can reduce our key adversary to doing great work: stress. Stress is a direct inhibitor to cognition, creativity, trust and comfort, all of which bolster greater ideation, productivity and meaning in our work.

When designing a workplace here are five questions you might ask before the “open office versus closed office” debate even enters the conversation:


Is it personal?

As designers, we constantly explore how place has character that is relevant, contextual and specific to its users. Linked to that character is the ability for occupants to not only personalize their space, but also to have control over it. Coincidentally, in research, stress is often defined similarly; it’s the inability to control an aggressive stimulus. Light, natural ventilation, temperature and acoustics are all factors that strongly impact our actual and perceived comfort in the work environment. But take that a step further: given how much our tasks change throughout the day — and how different our preferences are as individuals — how can we find the perfect space without wandering and wondering? Deloitte’s new headquarters in Amsterdam, The Edge, comes very close to achieving this through the use of apps that align employee schedules and preferences for light and temperature with available spaces, therefore reducing the frustrating friction they might feel daily in trying to find the perfect location for the task at hand.


025258_00_N399_mediumCan we get outside?

Much has been written about biophilia, a 30-year old hypothesis that illustrates our innate attraction to nature. There are numerous scientific articles describing the physical and mental benefits of spending time outdoors. For example, the color green — a symbol of life — promotes greater focus, and seeing natural movement stimulates our brains more. What perhaps hasn’t been fully yet understood, however, is how nature mitigates the impact of “arousal fatigue,” the psychological exhaustion that results from sustained stimulation without intervening breaks. Sound familiar? The solution to this is “indirect attention,” or mild distracting stimulation without clear focus or intention. Gardens are wonderful at compelling the brain into states of sustained indirect attention; this stress-reducing impact is evident in Amazon’s design for its garden-filled spheres.


Can “work” be an active verb again?

025258_00_N298_mediumSome say sitting is the new smoking. Sitting for extensive periods of time can cut years off your life, as has been documented by Dr. Steven Blair. It’s estimated that the average office worker spends more than 75% of the workday in a seat without even realizing it. So let’s be proactive in designing more active spaces. Stairs, for example, promote exercise when they create inviting experiences that are more efficient to use than elevators. Walking meetings have proven to yield more solutions to difficult problems than meetings that take place while seated. Visibility across and between floors can encourage employees to explore, to create new relationships — and to be active. Have a competitive workforce? Use wearables to encourage greater health awareness. And remember, this benefit is as much about the health of an organization as it is about the health of the employee.


101014_03_Samsung_N51_mediumIs it safe?

At first, this sounds like a ridiculous question. But understanding that the brain’s primary focus is to keep you safe — and ultimately alive — you realize your ability to focus is often subconsciously marginalized. The theory of prospect-refuge was introduced 40 years ago by “human geographer” Jay Appleton, who understood that over eons, humans flourished in spaces that provided them with both shelter and high visibility. Our ancestors grew up on the savannah, with both a view to the plains and a cave nearby. Being able to retreat to safety and yet see the horizon gives us the perfect perch for survival. Unfortunately, an open-office environment leaves us exposed, and a closed-office environment leaves us isolated. Neither in isolation is the right answer; balance is essential.


Is it beautiful?

I’m biased of course, but this is one area that designers have been working to get right for centuries. For those who are intuitive and artistic, the emotional impact of entering a beautiful space can be incredibly uplifting — the play of proportion, light and material is often enough to inspire a sense of surprise, curiosity and awe (emotions that all have benefits). For the more analytical- or scientific-minded, believe it or not, research tends to agree on the importance of beauty. When looking at something beautiful, the reward part of your brain lights up. However, in viewing something ugly, your motor cortex activity increases, as if your brain is preparing to escape. In the end, beauty is subjective; its importance is not.


A Different Theory of Disruption

Before we start designing where people work, let’s explore the core requirements humans have to be great at what they do — and what has gotten in their way. As a species we have evolved over multiple millennia, but in just the last few decades we’ve subjected ourselves to working conditions that simply aren’t compatible with our physiological structure. Tinted windows, artificial lighting, recirculated and tempered air, unhealthy and synthetic materials, cubicles, vertical conveyance — all have been introduced in just the past 100 years. One could argue that architecture — specifically the design of conditioned environments — has disrupted human existence more than technology. It has tried desperately to parallel the speed of the digital revolution when it might serve us better to slow down to the pace of human evolution.

All images courtesy of NBBJ (photography by Tim Griffith, Sean Airhart and Timothy Hursley).

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