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 toward office design 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.
In designing a positive workplace environment that reduces--instead of encourages--stress, it's not just a question of choosing between an open or a closed office. Here are some key factors you should think about first:
Workers are most at ease in an environment over which they have some level of control. It's the inability to control an aggressive stimulus, like light, ventilation, temperature and acoustics that strongly impact our sense of control. 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.
Bringing the outdoors in.
It's been shown being outdoors or seeing a natural environment not only stimulates our brains but also can undo the kind psychological exhaustion that results from sustained mental effort. As it turns out indoor gardens are proving to be perfect solutions to this kind of mental fatigue as evidenced in Amazon's design for its garden-filled spheres.
Designing for physical activity.
It's been estimated that the average office worker spends more than 75 percent of the workday sitting down. Getting people moving is not just a physical stimulus but a mental one as well. That means creating active spaces. Stairs promote exercise when they create inviting experiences. Walking meetings have shown to stimulate innovative thinking. Visibility across and between floors can encourage employees to explore, to create new relationships--and to be active. Wearables encourage greater health awareness.
Thinking about safety.
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. 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. Ultimately, it's a question of personal space versus public space. We need a balance of both: a place of safety we can call out own within a public space where we can feel part of a coherent group.
Making it beautiful.
It not just a question of putting painting on the wall or sculptures in the halls. It's the design of the physical space itself. 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.
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.
Ryan Mullenix is a partner at NBBJ and a co-lead of the firm's corporate design practice. In his role, Ryan is a strong advocate for data-driven design, a process that uses custom algorithms to link geometry with data to augment both human and building performance.