How designing for different work modalities can help people do their best work and ultimately become the best versions of themselves.
Take a second to ask yourself, when the last time you felt productive while working? Was it at your desk? In an office? Was it even at your office? Was it perhaps at your favorite coffee shop? Or, maybe, was it in your brown leather Barcalounger at home you’ve named “The Thinking Chair?” Regardless of where it was, or the type of work you were doing, there was most likely a correlation between the type of space you were in and your level of productivity.
Over the past two decades, the workplace industry has seen the debate around open-office vs enclosed-offices play out in lectures, news articles, and chatrooms across the world. Last month, Jeremy Reding gave a brief history of this debate with his own article. As he pointed out, when a pendulum swings to one side of the debate, we often lose perspective on the benefits of the other. This debate centers around a much larger question we should be asking ourselves: As technology improves, allowing employees to work from almost anywhere, what will even be the role if the physical workplace? And what does that workplace look like, if it even exists at all?
The answer is yes. Quality, physical workplaces still matter, and there are many reasons why it’s more relevant than ever to employee performance and productivity. Designers have the opportunity to create healthy work environments where people can do their best work – through choice-based workplaces that are backed by research and tailored to the culture and people these spaces support.
The Building Blocks of Choice
Choice-based work environments are a relatively new concept in workplace design. For years, most offices offered three opportunities for spaces where people could work: a private office, an open desk, or a conference room. Throw in some soft seating in the lobby or a break area for good measure and what you have is essentially a workplace. The dilemma, however, is that these types of spaces aren’t necessarily conducive to the type of work most companies and their employees perform. To better understand how to create work environments where employees are productive, it’s first helpful to look at the different kinds of tasks being done on a typical workday. Recently, we have been compiling research from behavioral and organizational psychologists, neuroscientists, and other primary sources to create a framework of Work Modalities, which define the types of cognitive and physical tasks we do throughout our workday.
Work Modalities identifies six distinct categories based on task differences that lead to different space needs: Hard Focus, Soft Focus, Collaborate, Socialize, Learn, and Rejuvenate. All of us probably do each of these six things at work every day, or at least try to! Each, however, requires different cognitive processes and physical actions or equipment to perform effectively, and these differences are directly tied to – and impacted by – the surrounding environment. Our research has led to comprehensive criteria for designing spaces that accommodate these work modalities, allowing people to achieve their best work.
Evidence to Choose
Every workplace experiences some blend of these six Work Modalities throughout a typical day or week, but not every workplace experiences that blend in the same proportion or frequency. Evidence-based design allows design teams to overlay applicable research data and inform the design of physical space. This type of research provides a framework for designing spaces intentionally and helping occupants see clearly how the space is intended to support them.
Research on how our brains process all the input from the environments we occupy informs the types of spaces we should be designing for specific cognitive tasks. For example: creating reports or white papers requires Hard Focus skills like math, editing, and synthesizing information. Spaces that support this mode should be visually simple, acoustically private, familiar and predictable, with soft but clear lighting. All these design choices limit the decisions someone must make in order to work in that setting, eliminating distractions and allowing them to direct their attention to the detailed task.
In contrast, Collaborate spaces meant for iterative idea generation and group meetings function better when they utilize larger, expansive-feeling volumes, some unique or engaging visual stimulation, and sociopetal seating angles (sitting at off- or oblique-facing angles to others) to encourage interaction.
Factors beyond the physical workspace can also influence human cognition. A key area of connected research is Indoor Environmental Quality, or IEQ, as nearly all factors making up IEQ have an impact on our ability to focus and think clearly. Setting and programming building systems to create an IEQ that aligns with the purpose of a workspace can create a complete “scene” and more fully support the Work Modes intended for that area. For example, Hard Focus areas are more supportive when they are complemented by cooler lighting temperatures, whereas social areas can fluctuate with changing or circadian lighting and provide warmer light in the evening to encourage relaxation and support melatonin production and, ultimately help improve sleep quality.
Because it has been shown to have one of the largest sets of effects on human cognitive function, one IEQ factor in particular has leaped to the forefront of the conversation: air quality. In the past, HVAC operations and air cycles were kept low to conserve energy costs and minimize maintenance; however, more recent studies of the relationship between HVAC operation, ventilation, and air quality have revealed that this attempt to conserve energy negatively impacts air quality. Even more recent research, including a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, shows that the correlation between healthy air and improved cognitive performance is dramatic.
Investing in workplace environments that respond to the needs of the users and maintain healthy environments, while also using energy efficiently will keep people productive in their workplace. The way we’ll get there is through controlling the building in smarter ways that better align with how we use spaces. As an example, tasks that involve a lot of people, or ones that necessitate some level of physical activity require ventilation and cooler temperatures. In theory, there could be a dedicated room specifically for these kinds of tasks, but if a small group wants to use that for a team meeting, they’d better grab their parkas. A better way to approach this dilemma would be to use work modes to create a smart system where, in addition to just switching on the lights to a space, users could select the mode that best suits their specific task. The system would immediately adapt to that need – fans ramp up, the lights may get brighter, the cooling kicks in – and thus begins a productive meeting.
It’s a simple concept, the idea of designing space that allows users to adapt and move to meet their needs, yet it so often eludes designers or arrives too late in the design process. If physical workplaces want to stay relevant to the tasks employees need to perform, and companies want to create spaces that are more productive than a local coffee shop or “the thinking chair,” then we need to start focusing on how people work. Integrating the research and evidence behind work modalities, we can better design places where people can do their best work and ultimately become the best versions of themselves.