An Office Designed for Human Nature (and Happy Workers)
The 20th century metaphor for the workplace was the assembly line, with workers playing the role of robot-like cogs in a standardized environment. Now, though, robots do the work of robots, and humans are valuable because they're, well… human: creative, clever, adaptable and empathetic.
Offices, it follows, should stop being designed for cogs and start being designed for humans.
And what determines, at least in part, what makes humans happy? Millions of years of evolution. You might be a long way from the African savannah when you're tapping away at your laptop in a coffee shop, but according to a recent post on the British Psychological Society's Occupational Digest blog, many of the preferences and rhythms human developed way back in their hunter gatherer days persist into the office era. To build the office of tomorrow, therefore, business owners should look to the past and brush up on their Charles Darwin.
The BPS post looks into a recent paper by Carey Fitzgerald and Kimberley Danner exploring the lessons evolutionary psychology might have to teach us about our work environments. They uncover three ways the stereotypical office runs counter to our evolutionary preferences (and offer one bonus suggestion that will please pet lovers).
Greener and Brighter
"There is evidence that exposure to natural environments improves our quality of life; for instance, jogging in a park is more effective than urban jogging for lowering anxiety and depression. In a workplace, this could translate to the presence of plants, and studies have shown that their presence can improve concentration and remove stress," notes BPS.
Kevin Kuske of office furniture company Turnstone has also told Inc.com that adding greenery can boost creativity, as can increasing natural light. Another recent study found that, "compared to the afternoon, people who had DL (Daylight) were significantly more alert at the beginning of the evening, and subjects who were exposed to AL (Artificial light) were significantly sleepier at the end of the evening,” reports blog buffer, which explains that "our cortisol levels drop significantly under artificial or poor lighting conditions. That means that we’ll be more stressed, and have less ability to stabilize our energy levels."
Born to… Sit?
Nope, says BPS, humans definitely didn't evolve to sit around all day. "Most workplaces, especially white collar ones, are sedentary environments that contrast with the lifestyles our species developed to cope with. One recent response to this within workplaces has been permitting or encouraging standing desks," says the post. Or simply take more breaks for walks outside: "Other approaches can include building opportunities to exercise, which if taken outdoors could kill two birds with one stone."
Human beings have natural rhythms of wakefulness that cause many of us to get sleepy in the afternoon. Traditionalists force employees to fight the after-lunch drowsies with caffeine, will power and—for extreme cases—cute kitten pictures. BPS suggests giving in to our natural inclination to snooze.
"Inadequate sleep can impact motor skills, insight formation and language perception," explains the post, "but we have a natural escape valve from overtiredness, and it's not sold at Starbucks. A short afternoon sleep is a feature of cultures worldwide, and is more effective than caffeine at improving performance in areas like motor and verbal tasks. It seems likely that napping is a feature of our circadian rhythms: it's a natural way to operate, not just a byproduct of a heavy lunch."
And a Win for Pet Lovers
The post ends with a win for fans of furry office mates. "Bringing a pet to work can reduce your own stress, and a dog in the office can facilitate group cohesion, cooperation and trust," it concludes.
Check out the complete write up for more details on all these points.
Which aspect of office life do you feel is most ill-matched to human nature?
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.