Comfort at the office? This does not have to be an oxymoron.
“There’s no place like the office, there’s no place like the office…” said no one ever—at least not yet. If Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz were pining for a sense of home today, she might stand a chance of finding it in the contemporary workplace.
“Resimercial” design, which has become increasingly popular in recent years, aims to combine the comforts of our residences with the production requirements of commercial products. While we can’t expect that our offices will ever feel quite like home, we can do our best to make them more comfortable, a key component of both happiness and health.
Generally, individuals spend proportionally more of their money outfitting their residential spaces than companies do on their workspaces. The money we spend on our houses and apartments is one way we invest in our relationship with those spaces. The more we customize, the more we feel in control—and the more we feel in control, the more we feel like investing our time and energy. The same thing can happen at work, and increasingly it is.
Many current workplaces maintain mid to late 20th century standards with a focus on machine led productivity rather than serving the emergent knowledge economy where human brain-power and creativity drive the work. In 2018, we’re well into the human-centric, “people power” era of the information age, and workplace designers and business owners are keen to ensure that employees and visitors connect with their workspaces. Now more than ever people are the source of companies’ value, so work environments need to work for humans; they must physically and psychologically support us.
Employee recruitment, retention, productivity, and happiness can increase at companies that emphasize human-centric design. These elements foster personal engagement with the spaces, similar to what happens when people personally curate the details that make their homes unique. (You can read more about this concept in the white paper we authored with our client west elm WORKSPACE.)
These human touches are the basics of a PLASTARC favorite, multi-sensory design. Our relationships with spaces come from the experiences and perceptions we have in them, and those things come from our senses. Yes, we’re talking about the same five senses we learned about in kindergarten: sight, touch, smell, taste, and sound. Upon walking into a room at home or work, our brains interpret its quality and comfort based on how it looks, feels, and smells; what we hear; and whatever we might taste—in the flavors of the food and beverages provided (or not).
In addition to interpreting each sense independently, our brains also combine them into a multi-sensory experience that evokes additional responses. Seeing hardwood floors under our feet and living walls surround us in a hallway helps us imagine nature. The smell of pastries emanating from the break room can remind us of our own kitchens. When we sense the elements of a down-to-earth, comforting place like a beautiful garden or a warm home, we feel better—even if we are, in fact, still at the office. We’re more likely to linger when comfortable, to have creative thoughts when relaxed, to welcome conversation when safe and warm. Smart companies know to invest in these outcomes through resimercial and multi-sensory design.
Making workplaces more comfortable, one room at a time
1. The kitchen table, a key role model
Kitchens and restrooms are where we spend most of our residential dollars, because (in addition to being filled with pricey fixtures and powerful appliances) they are so central to our everyday lives. In our resimercial world, this means that kitchens and restrooms are more important than ever before at the office. After all, these spaces are central to our bodies, as well as the rituals of our interior environments.
In addition to the obvious function of a place to eat meals, we constantly repurpose our kitchen tables as places to gather together, do paperwork, use our laptops, play games, fold laundry, and much more. Within moments, we can easily convert these ubiquitous workhorses to adapt from one purpose to another.
Workplaces have begun to embrace this behavior by designing spaces so employees can use a company breakroom table or conference room as a multipurpose amenity for planned or spontaneous eating, working, meeting formally, or socializing informally. Indeed, this emphasis on multifunction and occupant control has become key to many organizations’ team-building and morale-boosting efforts. “Multipurpose” is a key resimercial trend. In fact, we will see more of it as the evidence of positive benefits grows.
2. Don’t forget restrooms and their multisensory impact!
Another key—but often overlooked—area of residential and commercial spaces is the restroom. We all have to visit restrooms on a regular basis, so why not make it comfortable, attractive, and pleasant experience? While we can’t expect shared office restrooms to be the same as our homes’ individualized restroom spaces, workplaces can do a lot to make their restrooms clean, organized, and comfortable environments.
Needless to say, the restroom is a key location to design for a more inclusive workplace AND more positive multisensory experience: from the benefits of full enclosure stalls which reduce the political challenges of gender designations, to the increasingly famous soundtrack options for restroom acoustic systems. Our sense of smell also figures largely into good restroom design, whether residential or commercial. Workplaces can use standard or custom fragrances with automatic air fresheners, candles, or other conveyances to promote a more respectful environment.
3. The Garden: Nature and nurture working together
We can look at the spaces around a home for inspiration as well. Gardens serve as living elements that reinforce our home lives.
Workplaces are at their most useful when they offer us a chance to restore and refresh through amenities like proper ventilation, circadian lighting, and even dappled light projections – komorebi – on the walls. The more we understand the many aspects of biophilic design to help people feel refreshed and energized at work, the more we see the best designs blurring the lines between indoors and out. They’re adding plants (real and artificial, printed on wallpaper and sitting in pots), and scenting restrooms and lobbies with invigorating or calming natural aromas like citrus and cedar. They’re strategically placing work areas near windows: exposure to sunlight and a view of natural elements, and the outdoors to increase satisfaction and wellbeing.
By including multi-sensory elements that evoke the dynamic qualities of nature, workplaces—just like homes—can counteract the static feel of the indoors and awaken our dormant faculties. Sunlight, plants, scents, healthy snacks, music, and natural materials like wood and wool can all play a role in creating a wholly stimulating, happier work environment.
Maybe, even bring that garden furniture indoors! Opting for reclaimed wood for a conference room table top can be a powerful choice. Weathered wood more fully expresses the material’s inherent grain and uniqueness, making it visually stimulating and undeniably reminiscent of nature. Whether literal (a bouquet of flowers) or abstract (a photo of flowers in a field), people are innately drawn to biophilic imagery—so much so that even representations of nature recall healthy associations, helping us to relax whether we’re indoors or out.
Extending the family and welcoming newcomers: Multi-sensory design working for everyone
The more intentionally designed a workplace environment is, the better it could be for diversity. After all, it’s not all about you—it’s about how your home or environment accommodates others. When people visit your home or office space, you want them to feel as comfortable as possible. The drivers are the accommodation and comfort of every individual.
With a wide range of ages represented in today’s workforce (potentially up to four generations from Millennials to Traditionalists, with Baby Boomers and Gen X in between), it’s more important than ever to invest in diverse workplace experiences that foster employee inclusion. Just as a thoughtfully designed home can offer a comfortable environment for children, parents, and grandparents, today’s workplaces must emphasize familiarity and accessibility for all ages, as well as all abilities. Companies can go a long way toward addressing this need by including resimercial and multi-sensory elements in their spaces.
Regardless of the age, color, or abilities of our eyes or ears, the best environments will be enjoyable for all. Visual materials, for example, whether print or digital, should be legible and provide a satisfactory viewing and reading experience for all types of eyes, whether near-sighted, far-sighted, or seeing 20/20. Lighting schemes should include a personal light source that’s customizable by each occupant. Sound-wise, office acoustics must accommodate workers’ needs to have private conversations, speak to a large group, and distinguish between the two.
The key to transformation
Any office environment can become more residential. The key to its transformation is the introduction of human-centric, multi-sensory design elements that awaken our faculties and recall our human nature. Most of us spend a lot of time at work—sometimes more waking hours than we spend at home—so our individual and collective health and happiness are at stake.