Why Measuring the Human Condition Results in Better Space Design

How do we create better workplace design solutions? If we unpack the words, we find hints about where we should begin.

Workplace is no longer just a place of business; it is a space where people come together, it’s a home base for staff, and, for many businesses, it’s is a tool used to express what makes them different from their competition. Design is an organized set of characteristics that is unique in its application and usually created as a physical representation of culture and values. “Solution” is the answer to a challenge or problem, and the best ones most often satisfy a direct function and an indirect desire. We must introduce people into the equation for each of these words to be meaningful.

Your organization could have the best technology, the most efficient processes and the most beautiful design, but at the end of the day, these things are just attributes of the workplace. The actual work gets done by the people. So, it’s no surprise that the most successful workplace designs are ones that have been developed with a strong and comprehensive people strategy as a foundation.

To develop this strategy, you need to understand people, their emotional response to space, and what makes them feel purposeful, supported, and productive. While quantitative measures of the workplace –such as space utilization studies – can tell us a lot about how staff are currently using a space, they don’t tell us anything about how staff feel about the space.

Why is it important to understand how people feel in a space?

Various literatures, from business to psychology, have found that when businesses look after staff needs the business flourishes. Staff needs go beyond a ping-pong table or extra vacation days and time off. People need to have the ability to find purpose and meaning in their work, the ability to concentrate, the ability to build relationships, the ability to re-focus, and the feeling of being in a safe environment and feeling supported to get their best work done.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs [i] provides us with an understanding of human needs and the road to self-actualization. It is important to realize that you cannot reach self-actualization without satisfying the needs below it in the pyramid. It is no surprise that the characteristics of a self-actualized person and the behaviors to take on to reach that state align very closely with job postings of leaders in today’s job market. In an interview, Aaron Hurst, author of The Purpose Economy and CEO of Imperative, links staff feelings with organizational performance in stating that if the percentage of staff that feel purpose in their role were to increase it ‘would fundamentally change the culture and performance of the organization’ [ii].

Image Source: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

Even the most primitive emotional and physiological responses of fight or flight in response to threats play out in our workplace every day. In the brain, it is our limbic system (the area of the brain that produces emotional responses) which receives information from the world first before it reaches the pre-frontal cortex (the area of the brain that produces rational responses). This means that our thoughts are initially emotional before rational and unless we ‘sleep on it’ so will our actions.

Image source: https://psychologycompass.com/blog/what-is-emotional-intelligence/

The design of a space can triggers feelings of safety or risk and these feelings will ultimately interfere or further support thoughts and actions. In action this means that a design that threatens people’s personal space may impede their ability to feel safe and comfortable at work and their focus on the work hence, impacting their individual performance and overall productivity. In contrast to a design that respects culture appropriate zones of proximity supporting one ability to focus thoughts on the task at hand.

Image source: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Halls-proxemic-zones_fig2_254058742

More and more, we are seeing the workplace leverage this research to create thoughtfully designed spaces. Over the past decade, extreme densification or lack of people strategy development before taking on a project has resulted in mistrust in the workplace and organizations reaching below the target they hoped to achieve. The way to get back on track is to reintroduce the impact of the human condition on overall business success. Barry Schwartz puts it nicely in his 2015 book Why We Work, ‘If we design workplaces that permit people to do work they value, we will be designing a human nature that values work. If we permit people to find value in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work’ [iii]. To design these types of workplaces we need to collect the right combination of data to develop more informed strategies to make better design decisions.

What is the right combination of data?

A good workplace design strategy is devised of both quantitative and qualitative data. While it is be difficult to explicitly measure how staff feel, qualitative data is the best way to reveal insights about the human condition.

A space utilization or sensor study (quantitative data) may tell us that daily there is a crowd waiting outside conference room B. One might assume it is the most popular conference room and all other conference rooms should be modeled like this one. A staff focus group (qualitative data) may reveal that outside conference room B sits one of the funniest people in the firm, who at 3pm every day, after the 3pm slump, provide visiting staff with a boost in morale, energy and sense of comradery.

A space utilization or sensor study (quantitative data) may tell us that the café is never used. Interviews (qualitative data) may reveal that there is poor facility maintenance and clean up, that there is no natural light or that the tables are wobbly.

A space utilization or sensor study (quantitative data) in a no-partition organization may tell us that there is no collaboration occurring in the workplace. First-hand observations (qualitative data) may reveal that the types of collaboration required for them to do their best work does not include white-boarding or meeting in rooms, instead quick conversations which they can have from their desks by simply catching each other’s eye over their monitor.

Below I have included two examples of data gathered across client site. Take a look at source A in isolation and reflect on what recommendation you might make if you were only provided with this quantitative data. Now reflect on how different your recommendation would be if you only received qualitative data, source B. Source B tells us how staff feel about the situation, what they think and how they see it; it is their reality which impacts their day-to-day. Which quote do you think came from a people manager vs individual contributor? Now, imagine what you could recommend and further enquire about if you had received both types of data.

Source A:

Graphic created by Ted Moudis Associates

Source B:

Graphic created by Ted Moudis Associates

Our data-driven recommendations influence not only the types of environments staff need and want but the technology, policy, cultural as well as tangible attributes of the space. While we would need an understanding of the leadership goals, company values, culture and staff practices, based on source A and B above we may make recommend the following:

  1. Conduct technology audit to determine which tools, software and hardware are most effective and reliable for organizational and staff need
  2. Implement smart room reservation system that has a room release system if not in use
  3. Conduct a needs analysis and understand long term plan for consultants to determine whether they need to be in an enclosed room and if so, program for additional enclosed spaces
  4. Provide technology training and general meeting etiquette to all staff

The rule of thumb: For every quantitative source of data gathered you should gather two sources of qualitative data for validation. The two sources of qualitative data should come from different levels of the organization; management and more junior staff to help reveal any disparities in perception vs. reality.

What role will the data play once the strategy is developed and approved?

Once the client has understood the data and approved the recommendations and the strategy, it is important to keep the data alive throughout the duration of the project. In most cases, internal and external forces may sway choices in design solutions which can create misalignment from the overall strategy. This could range from a compromise in the choice of healthy materials, attempt at densification, to change in appropriate ancillary furniture or space types. Keeping the quantitative and qualitative data alive ensures that all parties understand the types of environments staff require to do their best work.

Have we done enough for a successful project?

As we have well established, people’s emotional responses and experiences drive thought and action or inaction. From a business perspective, change management might be the most important thing you can do to realize your return on investment. It will ensure you have a plan to support the business functions, processes and people to respond and prepare for the workplace project. Change strategies might include communication, coaching, behavioral education, policy change, technology training and habit development of staff from an existing state to a well-defined future state.

Neil Usher explains, ‘Change Management is not a downstream plug-in to a workplace project; rather the workplace project is a downstream plug-in to the change journey that began with the first twinkle in the eye’ [iv]. The change manager should be well integrated into the project team from the beginning.

Integration into the project and partnership with the client will be critical. The project team will be focused on the efficiency – budget, time, quality of the tangible workplace and ensuring the project is completed right. The change manager will be focused on effectiveness – basically making sure that all the work the project manager is doing will be successful – people and the business can function and are thriving in the newly designed workplace.

“Efficiency is doing the thing right. Effectiveness is doing the right thing.” – Peter Drucker

If you don’t have the opportunity to onboard a change manager at project conception, while not ideal, you will have opportunities further into the project. In most architecture and design projects this opportunity arises most frequently between strategy approval and schematic design. While we spend incredible amounts of time collecting data and developing a workplace strategy to prepare the space for the people, we mustn’t forget to prepare the people for the space. Even at this stage of the project, change management can be very pivotal in realizing the benefits the business set out to accomplish.

Graphic created by Ted Moudis Associates

Remember: Square footage has no correlation to change impact and support required!

In 2016, Prosci published its study results and found that projects with excellent change management effectiveness were more than six times more likely to achieve project objectives than teams with poor change management effectiveness, 94 percent to 15 percent respectively. Excellent change management correlates with staying on budget and staying on schedule [v].

What about the actual Design Solution?

It’s important to understand that a design solution shouldn’t ideally be the starting point for a workplace design project. When it is, you may find yourself with a beautifully designed yet dysfunctional workplace or end up having conversations such as ‘which chair is the quiet one?’– no piece of furniture is quiet! The zone is quiet, the people are quiet, not the design solution.

Rather than starting with the design solution, you can start with a design concept or design philosophy that can be interpreted in various ways depending on client needs. An example of such a concept that has also been proven to elicit regenerative emotional responses is biophilic design. Biophilia is the concept that implies that ‘humans hold a biological need for connection with nature on physical, mental and social levels, and that this connection affects our personal wellbeing, productivity and societal relationships’ [vi].

Michelle Beganskas, Senior Designer at Ted Moudis Associates explains, “The concept of biophilia is applied to the built environment through biophilic design strategies. Through the implementation of these strategies, interior designers have a great opportunity to provide people with the benefits of biophilia. There are many ways biophilic design can be introduced into the built environment, ranging from visual to experiential representations of nature that can manifest in patterns, textures, colors, and spatial configurations.”

Biophilic design not only provides staff with the health benefits of biophilia, it also provides economic benefits to the employer. There is research that links the impact biophilic design has on direct and indirect measures of productivity in the workplace including billable hours, net income, and market share gained [vii].

Is there such a thing as a Bad Design Solution?

No. There are bad strategies, bad briefs, bad guides, bad advice, bad design choices, wrong questions and irrelevant data but never bad designs. Remember the design is not the strategy, the strategy is the strategy.

Three Key Takeaways

  1. The success of your organization will only be as successful as your staff.
  2. The success of your staff will only be as successful as your strategy.
  3. Your strategy will only be as successful as your data (quantitative and qualitative).

The most successful organizations understand that while design may bring the strategy to life and is a factor of the overall workplace experience, it is folded into the three key takeaways, not an independent.

People’s user experience and their emotional responses are driving change. While big data exists and informs how we do business, how we plan our spaces and how we should work, our limbic system will ALWAYS receive the information first. For this reason, qualitative data will always have a significant place in validating and bringing meaning to quantitative data in designing better workplace solutions. When in doubt, ask ‘what are the circumstances when you feel good and most productive at work – what does it feel like, what does it looks like, why does it happen that way?’… and go from there.



[i] McLeod, S. A. (2018, May 21). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

[ii] Pontefract, D. (2016, June 26). Maybe We Need To Think About Workplace Actualization. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/danpontefract/2016/01/26/maybe-we-need-to-think-about-workplace-actualization/ – 179ec3b14046

[iii] Barry Schwartz. (2015). “Why We Work”.

[iv] Neil Usher. (2018). “The Elemental Workplace”.

[v] Tim Creasey. Robert Stise. (2016). “Best Practices in Change Management 2016 – 9th Edition)”.

[vi] & [vii] Browning. W., Garvin, C., Kallianpurkar, N., Labruto, L., Watson, S., & Knop, T. (2010). “The Economics of Biophilia: Why Designing with Nature In Mind Makes Financial Sense”. Terrapin Bright Green LLC.

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