Workplaces send subconscious signals: research

How to leverage lessons from psychology to improve interior design
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
By Tyler Gilchrist

Ever question why some places charm and delight, while others make people feel as if there’s a hidden hand shooing them away? Ever stop to wonder why office workers seek out smaller, more contained spaces to focus and concentrate, while the expanse and openness of, say, the boardroom or large spaces offsite are where colleagues can reliably come up with important new ideas? Is it possible that people think and act differently depending on the building or the room they’re in?

A new body of scientific research has emerged on how the brain registers its surrounding environments. Leveraging insights from several fields — psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and neuroscience — a new understanding of how people live and think in the world has emerged based on “embodied cognition.”

“This paradigm,” writes Sarah Goldhagen in her book Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes our Lives, “holds that much of what and how people think is a function of our living in the kinds of bodies we do.” Not just conscious thoughts, but non-conscious impressions, feedback from the senses, physical movement and even split-second mental simulations of forms and shapes factor into how people respond to a place, Goldhagen argues. And in turn, places nudge people to think or behave in certain ways.

Most excitingly, this knowledge can now be leveraged in a practical way to subtly but profoundly shape and alter office environments for the better. Through research with corporate workplace clients, figure3 has uncovered some consistent requirements that persist, regardless of the nature of the business.

They’re the things that need to be designed into the space that, for most part, are seen. The fact of the matter is the net effect of the designed environment is (often) invisible. It’s the collective whole that influences people. Designers are concerned with elevating what the designed environment makes possible, what it affords, as well as considering the aesthetic.

The seven things designers need to afford people in work environments again and again, though in unique ways depending on the context, constraints and culture of an organization, include the abilities to:

See people and behaviours

Gone are the days where people come to the office to access equipment or physical resources. In the knowledge economy, people continue to co-locate because interacting with others — with all their non-verbal body language and communication — is valuable. Working with people face-to-face is more effective.

And increasingly, people know that socialization is as important a work attribute as any other. By ‘seeing people’ — in both formal contexts, such as meetings, and informal contexts, such as the happy little interactions that happen in the corridor — people feel more connected to each other, strengthen the quality of their communications and collaborations, and are happier at their jobs.

See work/work in progress

Designing multiple ways for people to visually share their work with others not only increases the chance that colleagues will see people and see ideal behaviours, but it also enables further connection to each other. Making work visible, when a person is physically there and when that person has since moved on, creates the conditions for collaboration and further strengthens working teams.

See choice and variation

Though a simple idea, this might be the most overlooked. People no longer come to work and do the same activity all day, every day. Work is varied.

One moment a person is deep into a focused task. The next a person is collaborating with colleagues. Yet another has a person engaging in a challenging creative thinking. Enabling choice and variation not only allows people to work in environments that best suit their needs at any given moment, it also provides a sense of control and autonomy that is crucial to good work.

See opportunities for movement

It’s taken for granted, but most conventional environments create the conditions for sedentary work lives. Getting up, moving and using the physical body contributes substantially to happier, healthier, more productive work.

See purpose and culture

Employee engagement is the Holy Grail for great organizations. Connecting people to the purpose of their work — why the group exists, why it goes out of its way to co-locate and interact — increases their sense of engagement significantly. The culture of an organization should physically manifest itself in the environment.

What people think about themselves and each other, how they act, what they value, and how they interact with one another is very much influenced by design decisions. Doing so consciously and intentionally is table stakes for good design.

See nature

It’s a simple idea: people are more productive, healthy, energetic and happy when exposed to nature, natural views, and natural variation. Biophilic design has caught on in the design industry for a reason.

See me

Coming full circle, people not only need to see other people, people need to feel others see them (including their superiors and organizational leaders).

By reframing the job to be done by design through what people need to be afforded functionally and psychologically, it’s possible to reframe what’s conventionally considered to be the role of design, rethink what needs designing, and ultimately transform what kinds of experiences people have within workplaces.

Tyler Gilchrist is VP of design research & strategy at figure3.

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