Yes, we’re talking about remote work again. More and more employees want to work from home, and it’s clear why. More flexible hours, no commute, comfort, there are many benefits for flexible work. The trick for employers who need their workers back in the office is figuring out how to make their space appealing to workers who have spent the past two years working from home. The below article gives some tips on how to make your office space feel like home.
Here are a few we’re seeing with our clients:
– Personalize the individual office with lounge seating areas and furniture separate from the workstation.
– Biophilic design elements, such as indoor/outdoor areas, enhance wellbeing and extend the workplace’s functional footprint.
– Make the office building a city within the city, a mixed-use environment where tenants gain value from coming in. That could be adding food options, workout rooms, etc.
We are actively working with our clients to create a comfortable office space to entice workers back into the office. Want to know more? Give me a call.
PS: I was recently on a podcast talking about Living a Fantastic Life. I shared some of the rules I follow for how I live my life. If you want to learn about these rules and how to apply them to your own life, buy the book here. If you want to watch the podcast, here is the link.
The Best Office Designs to Lure Back Remote Workers
What research tells us about how to make employees less stressed, more productive—and willing to leave home
By: Heidi Mitchell | Published on June 11, 2022
Effective office design can make workspaces more employee-friendly and beckon people to return. JACK RICHARDSON
As employees slowly return to the office, many companies would benefit by looking to an often-ignored aspect of the workplace to lure them back: office design.
The truth is, they have a lot of work to do. Many employees prefer working from home, not only because it eliminates the unpredictable and wasteful commute, but also because “home” is often a much more pleasant place to get things done than an office. It’s brighter, more physically comfortable, more customized to their temperature and lighting preferences, and (usually) less distracting—in terms of both sights and sounds.
Fortunately, there is extensive research that offers a road map for companies looking to reconfigure existing or new spaces to better meet their employees’ needs, and make them happier, healthier and more productive in the office. There may not be any place quite like home, but the research suggests that offices can come a lot closer than they usually do.
Improving the open plan
Research (and employees) has long criticized open-plan offices, scoffing at designers’ claims that they encourage face-to-face interaction and meaningful collaboration between knowledge workers.
But these common office configurations have managed to survive, so the question now isn’t how to kill them, but instead how to improve them. One study conducted by Kerstin Sailer, a professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, looked at four floors of the London headquarters of a large international technology company. She and her colleagues surveyed staff about how satisfied they were with workspaces and meeting rooms, along with specific information on the office seating positions of all participants.
“Previous studies have only looked at open plans as if they were all the same, and as if the experience of workers was all the same,” Prof. Sailer says. “The question arose whether satisfaction with workspace differed depending on where someone was sitting.”
It did. The research found that workers with a higher number of desks in their field of vision, as well as those whose desks faced away from the main area of the room, with many co-workers out of sight behind them, negatively rated various aspects of teamwork—such as sharing information with others, team identity and cohesion—when compared with those who faced the room and had relatively fewer desks in their view.
Prof. Sailer attributes this negative feeling “to distractions and difficulty of talking to co-workers without disturbing others.” Basically, if people saw a lot of colleagues in front of them, it was distracting. If they knew lots of people were behind them, they felt both left out and unsettled because they didn’t know what was happening behind their backs.
As a result, Prof. Sailer recommends that designers avoid row after row of facing desks, which maximize desk density but leave some groups facing a wall while their colleagues stare at their backs. Additionally, she says, free-standing dividers, meeting rooms, whiteboards and walls that are movable can serve to interrupt long visual fields, thus lowering the number of desks in view.
Prof. Sailer also believes that small, intimate team areas, where colleagues can see their closest team members, but not permanently peer at people with whom they are not directly working, could help build team cohesion and increase productivity.
Another recent study that simulated the specific sounds of an open-plan office—from voices to the sounds of telephones, printers and typing—found that the noise reduced psychological well-being as compared with a quieter environment. The author, Libby Sander, an assistant professor of organizational behavior in Bond University Business School in Robina, Australia, found that noise made it 25% more likely that somebody would say they were in a bad mood, and increased stress responses (in the form of heart rate and skin conductivity) by 34%. Other studies have shown that when knowledge workers are interrupted, they may require up to 23 minutes to get back on track.
That’s likely to become a bigger problem in a post-Covid world, where companies are giving up space and cramming in more desks to accommodate fewer workers coming into the office.
Prof. Sander says that open-plan offices don’t have to be so annoyingly noisy. They can, for instance, employ features such as fabric and wall partitions to reduce noise, or pump in pleasant sounds like those mimicking wind in the forest or rainfall. These sounds have been shown to reduce the ability to understand background speech, “and other people talking is what really annoys workers the most,” says Prof. Sander.
Other clever ways to keep distracting noises to a minimum, says Prof. Sander, amount to what she calls “the domestication of the office.” “Area rugs, floor lamps, sofas and other soft objects dampen noise and give a sense of calm,” she says, “and calm brings a sense of well-being.”
Up to a point, that is. “Dead silence isn’t ideal because then you can hear a pin drop, which is also distracting,” Prof. Sander says. “There is a certain level of noise that is good for creativity.” To achieve an optimal workplace, she adds, offices should potentially offer discrete areas that provide different levels of noise—quiet areas and white-noise areas—to suit various tasks and activities.
A return to nature
In addition to making an office feel more like a home’s interior, research suggests that companies should make it feel more like a home’s outdoor living space, too. Architects and designers call this biophilic design, and its aim is to reconnect workers with the natural environment through views, plants, natural materials, daylight, fresh air and even the sounds of nature.
A team of researchers, including Vivian Loftness, a professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, recently published a study revealing that biophilic office settings reduce stress and improve cognitive performance. Participants were split into four groups. One group was exposed visually to indoor plants and digital projections of nature; a second group enjoyed the gentle sounds of nature, such as wind, water and birdsong; a third group had both visual and auditory elements; and the fourth baseline group had no visual or auditory interventions. Each participant wore a wrist stress sensor and was given a daily survey. Across eight weeks, cognitive performance on various tasks improved in each of the biophilic conditions compared with the baseline, and stress ratings were lowest in the multisensory group.
The Atlanta headquarters of Interface, a flooring company, has an exterior wrap meant to evoke a ‘factory in a forest.’ The Interface offices have plenty of natural light, green views and outdoor seating with plants.PHOTOS: NICK MERRICK/HALL+MERRICK PHOTOGRAPHERS/PERKINS&WILL(2)
Some level of biophilic design can be inexpensive and simple, such as installing a carpet with prints of a forest canopy, shrink-wrapping windows in a subtle leaf-patterned, light-diffusing film or hanging photographs of forests and lakes. In addition, biophilic design should include a richness of natural materials for furniture and surfaces, as well as many plants. There are even walls, floating ceilings and lighting fixtures made of dried moss that don’t require watering, says Prof. Loftness, “that double as sound absorbers to offer quiet working spaces.”
While experts say that there is no data to suggest that too much of a good thing can be distracting, it is easy to imagine that working in a fake indoor forest beneath a moss-covered lamp while the sounds of lions roaring in the African savanna echo between cubicles could seem rather off-putting. “It’s all about balance,” Prof. Loftness says.
Air quality, too, is part of biophilia, and biophilic mechanical systems can deliver fresh air and thermal comfort more naturally than old-fashioned, forced-air systems. Prof. Loftness cites a study that found that workers in offices with enhanced ventilation performed significantly higher on strategic thinking and cognitive performance tests administered at the end of the workday, with 15%-50% improvements compared with when they worked in the more conventional office environment with less fresh air.
“Nature has given us a fresh air source that can fill our offices most of the year through open windows or economizing mechanical systems, yet we’ve been starving the office of it for years,” says Prof. Loftness.
Then there is the power of daylight, which can be simulated through modern LED lighting that can be programmed to emulate natural light, should no daylight be available, with most of the same positive effects in stress reduction and task performance as windows. Natural daylight can be reintroduced to the office through high-visibility transmission or electrochromic glass, delivering “light that is naturally blue in the morning to boost serotonin and keep us alert, white midday, and red in the evening to signal the body to produce calming melatonin and help us sleep,” says Prof. Loftness.
Not every worker will be afforded a window seat, but if they are, Prof. Loftness says that science shows that “layered views” are powerful health and productivity enhancers. “Just like our muscles, the eyes need exercise, and a computer screen 12 inches from your eyes offers no exercise,” she says. So if you have a near view, like a photo on your wall or a plant in your room, and the ability to see out a window 20 feet to a tree and then 100 feet to the woods or hills, that is an excellent break, she says, “even if your eye does this one or two minutes every hour.”
Mohamed Boubekri, a professor of architecture at the Illinois School of Architecture at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has been studying the impact of daylight inside buildings on workers’ health, behavior and well-being since 2003. In one study, he found that workers who had plenty of daylight in the office slept on average 36 minutes more per night than those who didn’t have access to any daylight. “Daylight isn’t about flooding the space,” he says. “If you have too much, it causes glare and overheating. Too little is depressing. Controlled daylight is needed.”
In addition, Dr. Boubekri would like to see modern offices offer better access to outdoor spaces to workers—for fresh air, for mental breaks, for a thermal change and for a host of other wellness benefits. “We can design all buildings so that someone could go up or down a few floors to access a terrace or a solarium, enjoy a little fresh air with sunlight and greenery, and then go back to their desk refreshed,” he says.
A maker space at a Microsoft office in Vancouver, British Columbia, where people can gather across hierarchies and departments for work projects or for fun.PHOTO: MICROSOFT
Designing office spaces for workers’ health includes creating opportunities for unplanned, face-to-face interactions, which recent research has found can lead to more collaboration—not to mention a more social, and potentially more fulfilling environment.
“Chance encounters can increase the size and value of an employee’s social network and promote opportunities for information exchange and collaboration,” says Eric Anicich, an assistant professor in the management and organization department at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.
The problem, Dr. Anicich says, is that many people have the misguided notion that it’s the generic open-plan office that will promote these chance encounters. But, he says, research shows that isn’t the case, in part because in the open-plan office employees end up communicating more over email and instant messaging.
Instead, Dr. Anicich says his ideal office design is one that allows employees to withdraw to private workspaces to do focused work, while also creating human funnels with high foot traffic that lead to comfortable, communal areas—for socializing or conducting team-based work, “and where employees are more likely to have chance encounters that can help break down silos, build network ties and increase collaboration across groups.”
To give colleagues the opportunity to interact with others, Dr. Anicich would like designers to intentionally create spaces for collaboration and cross-pollination of departments through shared passions and interests. He likes the idea of using architecture to force workers en route, say, to the bathroom, to pass through communal spaces where core work isn’t meant to be done, such as an attached patio, central kitchen or any sort of creative engagement space.
“Age, race, gender, education, experience, functional hierarchy, rank—there are so many ways to think about diversity in the office,” Dr. Anicich says. Collaborative, fun, creative spaces make the boundaries between departments and affinity groups more permeable. Then, when you need a favor or want to start an initiative, you’ll have allies across departments and hierarchies, the professor says.
“Positive intergroup interactions can create a virtuous cycle,” Dr. Anicich says. And that will make the company office—not the home office—the only place where such serendipitous exchanges can take place.