The Office Renaissance: Part 3

October 25, 2016 | | View Comments

Designing for Emotional, Cognitive, and Physical Wellbeing

By Christine Congdon

Editor’s note: We’re excited to partner with Christine Congdon, Director of Global Research Communications at Steelcase, for this four-part series on The Office Renaissance. Christine will share her team’s research as a keynote speaker at our Workplace Innovation Summit, November 3rd in Boston. Here’s Part 3, check out Part 1 and Part 2.


The Steelcase team’s research synthesis identified six dimensions of emotional wellbeing that can be impacted by the design of the physical environment. When these dimensions are considered, people will feel a greater connection to their organization and become more resilient.

“To foster wellbeing, employees need to have a variety of work settings that they can choose from,” notes Nicholas de Benoist, who collaborated with others for Steelcase’s exploration of wellbeing. “Traditionally workplaces have been designed for efficiency, and sometimes take a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. But that doesn’t offer employees the ability to choose the right kind of setting for the work they need to do. When they have choices, employees have a sense of control that helps them feel more empowered, engaged and less stressed.”

By creating an ecosystem of spaces organizations can lay the groundwork for addressing the six key dimensions of emotional wellbeing identified by Steelcase researchers:


Optimism, Fostering Creativity and Innovation

Optimism is critical to the type of work that organizations need today: creativity and innovation. It influences a wide range of behaviors such as seeing the big picture, exploring ideas, being open to others, taking more risks and facing difficult tasks. It also makes people open to change.

Design Considerations:

  1. Allow choice and control over where and how people work.
  2. Create spaces that allow personalization and individual customization, instead of tightly enforced workplace standards.
  3. Offer settings and affordances that help employees feel supported in their work.
  4. Design for transparency, so people can see and be seen, and build trust.

Mindfulness, Fully Engaged

The focus on mindfulness in business has grown exponentially as organizations recognize that rapid changes in technology, the marketplace and the global playing field have caused volatility, uncertainty, chaos and ambiguity.

“Workers need physical spaces that help them manage the cognitive overload of their daily lives and be fully present in the moment,” notes de Benoist.

Design Considerations:

  1. Create spaces that help people connect with others one-on-one and eye-to-eye, and not just through their technology devices.
  2. Design areas that allow workers to control their sensory stimulation and choose if they want to amp it up or down.
  3. Offer places that are calming, through the materials, textures, colors, lighting and views.
  4. Create areas where people can connect with others without distractions or interference


Authenticity, Really Yourself

Wellbeing is cultivated by personal expressiveness — the freedom to be who you are, at work as well as away from work.

Design Considerations:

  1. Create spaces that help people feel comfortable to express themselves and share their ideas.
  2. Incorporate informal, non-constricting environments with a home-like feel.
  3. Design areas that help people connect their personal values to the brand values.

Belonging, Connected to Others

A meaningful life means feeling connected to other people. Relationships anchor people’s commitment to an organization, its brand and its purpose. Because of this, mobility, alternative work strategies and telepresence across geographies must be intentionally crafted so that employees don’t lose their sense of belonging.

Design Considerations:

  1. Create entrances that are welcoming with visible hosting for people who don’t work there routinely.
  2. Provide ample and well-equipped spaces for mobile and resident workers to work individually or in teams.
  3. Offer videoconferencing configurations that allow remote participants to see content in the room and on the walls, and to hear everyone equally.
  4. Design informal areas for socialization, in person as well as virtually

Meaning, A Sense of Purpose

People need to use their strengths, understand their impact and see how they contribute to organizational goals.

“How we spend our time, doing the right things in the right way, can powerfully impact wellbeing,” says de Benoist. “Spaces that are intentionally designed to help people accomplish meaningful goals can make a tremendous difference in individual performance and overall organizational results.”

Design Considerations:

  1. Include spaces beyond the lobby that reinforce the brand, purpose, history and culture of the company.
  2. Leverage vertical real estate to make thinking and progress visible.
  3. Use technology to display real-time information.
  4. Create an ecosystem of spaces that give people choices and empower them to work productively alone or together.


Vitality, Get Up and Go

Scientists continue to discover how the mind and body function as an interrelated system. We know engaging the body in movement at work is essential for supporting mental and physical vigor.

In addition, sensory experiences in work environments are important, too. Light, sound, touch and other stimuli all influence our mind and body. Investments in the workplace can create a new spatial vibe boosting motivation and performance.

Design Considerations:

  1. Design areas that give people choices for controlling the level of sensory stimulation around them.
  2. Provide easily adjustable furniture to fit a range of sizes, needs and preferences and to promote movement throughout the day.
  3. Include cafés with healthy food choices and displays.
  4. Bring nature in with daylight, views, ventilation, patios, etc.
  5. Support active, healthy lifestyles with centrally located stairways, outdoor walking paths, bicycle racks, etc.

Cognitive Wellbeing

In addition to feeling great about going to work every day, employees want to be able to perform well and think clearly once they are there. Unfortunately with near-constant distraction a way of life, cognitive wellbeing is under assault. Email, instant messaging, social media, texting, phone calls, apps, it’s all just too much. According to the University of California-Irvine, the average office worker is interrupted or distracted every three minutes. At times, focus and productivity can feel illusive.

Fortunately, the research of neuroscientists in more than 40,000 labs throughout the world is shedding new light on the processes of attention and, in so doing, providing decipherable clues into how it can be supported in the workplace.

Part of the problem of our distraction, and the solution, lies in ourselves. By changing our existing habits, we can gain more control of our brains—and our lives.

Steelcase researchers and designers have identified three brain modes that each require distinct behaviors and settings:

Focus: When we need to deeply focus on something, it’s important to avoid unwelcome distractions. Whether the distractions are external or internal, everytime we switch our attention we burn through finite neural resources and increase opportunities for our focus to be hijacked. Design can leverage acoustical, visual and psychological boundaries to support focus. Layers of boundary – from fully enclosed spaces to micro lounge settings – enable users to control external stimuli.

Regenerate + Inspire: Although daydreaming has taken on generally negative connotations in the work world, as it turns out our brains are still working when they wander, even though we feel like we’re not.

“The neurons are forging new pathways versus focusing on what you already know. And that’s when insights really start developing,” says Donna Flynn, Steelcase vice president of the WorkSpace Futures team. “That old adage about focusing too hard so you can’t see the forest through the trees and the stereotype of ‘aha’ moments in the shower or driving to work—now we know that those really have a scientific component.”

A social zone such as a cafe at an intentional crossroad, a lounge space promoting relaxed conversations or a more private area to allow employees to take a deep breath, all support cognitively-overwhelmed workers’ needs to rejuvenate.

Activate: When we need to activate our brains,, moving our bodies is the key. Numerous studies have proven that movement boosts attention by pumping oxygen and fresh blood through the brain and triggering the release of enhancing hormones.

Settings that provide workers opportunities to stand-up or walk refresh the mind and the body. High-sit tables, and Walkstation, an integrated treadmill and worksurface, are just a few examples of design results tied to improving cognitive wellbeing.

Physical Wellbeing

When considering the holistic view of wellbeing, offices might start by giving attention to the physical. And, there’s good reason. During the past 50 years, most jobs have become more stationary and obesity rates are rising. Less activity at work has been identified as a key contributor to the rise of obesity in America.

Physical wellbeing in the workplace is promoted by making movement intentional and supporting the body in a variety of postures. A shared ecosystem of spaces in the office gives employees choice and control over where they work and encourages movement from one part of the building to another. Together, conference areas, team spaces, lounges, and a cafe, can get people moving and interacting more.

By offering a variety of postures such as sitting, standing or lounging, employees are encouraged to move around and re-energize the body. And, if people do have to spend a lot of time sitting, supportive, ergonomic seating is intended to offer active sitting. Active sitting works with the body in any posture, and is flexible as the body moves. You can recline knowing your work surface will stay within reach and your back, and spine will be supported.

Wellbeing is a competitive advantage in today’s business world. To achieve it, workers need to be nurtured by a supportive environment that gives them the emotional capacity to interpret and experience events in a way that leads to productive, positive actions. They also need to be mentally stimulated and physically invigorated. The best places help people engage deeply in what they do by giving them what they need for wellbeing at work.

Designing for Wellbeing

When designing spaces that support the interconnectedness of emotions, physical health and people’s ability to think and solve problems, the Steelcase Design Studio suggests six overall strategies that can help achieve the right balance:

  • Democratize space: Similar to a healthy ecosystem in nature that is biodiverse, create a range of spaces that support different work modes that people can choose to work from, regardless of where they fit within the organization’s hierarchy.
  • Support multiple postures and movement: incorporate spaces that allow people to work in whatever posture works for them – lounging, standing, perching, walking or sitting upright.
  • Take cues from nature: More than just adding plants — which is important – seek variation over uniformity. Incorporate naturally complex materials, a plurality of shapes, forms, patterns and textures.
  • Embed performance: The most inviting and inspiring spaces need to help people make meaningful progress on their work. Integrate technology that makes it easier for people to collaborate, that encourages movement and makes it easier to get into focus. Help people find their favorite places to get work done and provide a feedback loop to the organization about what spaces work.
  • People need privacy: Balance the desire for openness with the human need for solitude. Create spaces that support focused work as well as rejuvenation.
  • Promote personalization: Create spaces that feel bespoke to the organization and the individual. Prioritize self expression and authenticity over perfection.

When thoughtfully combined, design, materiality, and performance blend a more human experience at work with the ability to still get the job done. These spaces create a genuine atmosphere that give people the freedom to choose where and how they work and always perform at their best.

Read Part 4: Best Place Strategy