“How can we slow down our brains if the surroundings we relate with relaxation and downtime look exactly like the places where we’re working to solve our hardest challenges?”
We’ve all had that a-ha moment while brushing our teeth, washing the dishes, folding the laundry, or doing any number of mundane activities where we allow our minds to wander. It’s surprising to many of us, and yet it makes complete sense. Our brains need time to unwind; to let that subconscious piece of our mind absorb information and stew it around a bit; to allow the data to mix and mingle up there in our brain matter and churn out more creative ideas. We need time away from our challenges in order to solve them effectively. Essentially, in order to speed up our innovation, we need to slow down our thoughts.
Today’s work culture assumes an expectation of 24/7 connectedness. Our email is accessible by the little computer in our pocket we carry around everywhere, from meeting to meeting in our office, and from room to room in our home. And so, when the spaces holding our meetings look exactly like the spaces we call home, can we truly ever turn all the way off? How can we slow down our brains if the surroundings we relate with relaxation and downtime look exactly like the places where we’re working to solve our hardest challenges? That blurring of spatial lines is becoming more and more visible in the general apathy of our working population. In 2016, Gallup reported a shocking statistic suggesting seven out of 10 employees in the American workforce are disengaged in some fashion. This led us to ponder whether this finding is not just a crisis in engagement and more a critique of the health of our mental cycles. It begs the question: is today’s engagement crisis actually due to the fact that our workforce can no longer truly relax? And how does the design of the workplace fuel or relieve that problem?
You see it in all the magazines and in all the articles published about the latest workplace trends. Everyone wants their office to have that “resimercial” feeling – that blend of residential comfort in a commercial environment. But we should not forget that we are still in a professional office setting, that the mind associates that professional setting with the tasks it needs to complete, and that those associations start to influence our behaviors. Don’t get us wrong, we are big advocates for warm, welcoming palettes in our workplaces. And we absolutely need spaces where we can decompress from a very intense meeting or phone call, or take a quick 15 minute break away from our desks to enjoy a cup of tea. We even, on occasion, search for that super comfortable lounge chair in that precious little corner nook with all that gorgeous natural light to steal a moment of calm in the midst of a busy and hectic work day. We search for spaces that feel like our homes to get us in these mindsets, to allow us that slight break from reality. But these cannot be the norm for all office spaces. In fact, these should be the hidden gems of our workplace, where we seek out the comfortable relaxing vibe of our own living rooms at home to gain a small piece of respite from the intensity of our everyday work. We need to get back to designing offices to support and promote the myriad ways in which we actually work today, and break free from simply following the latest trends in look and feel.
Designing Spaces That Work For Work
Gone are the days of the 9-5 job, where you arrive at the office, put your head down for eight to ten hours, and then leave, turning off that piece of your brain until the next morning. We are in more collaborative fields now, trading in the production and repetitive tasks for more thoughtful exploration and investigation. We’re solving more complex challenges and we’re going beyond our comfort zones more often. We’re not working harder, we’re just working differently. But we’re definitely still working. And working requires a few key behaviors: focused individual work and collective collaboration. Both of these can be fulfilling activities, leading to productive and innovative outcomes. But neither one allows a person to relax their brain, slow their thinking, and let information marinate. Instead, you’re either on, in the case of group collaboration where ideas are tossed up left and right and hypotheses are formulated, or you’re in, in the case of focused work where you are taking in immense amounts of detailed information to derive a solution to, more often than not, a highly complex and difficult problem.
Offices need to support these kinds of pushes. The workplace is a machine for collaboration, investigation, and, in time, innovation, and it should be designed as such. Programs must be organized to instigate interaction. The ability to move between environments as your conversations evolve into collaboration is a critical element in the design of any workplace. Spaces must be crafted to support rigorous collaboration. Writable surfaces, access to technology, ease of reconfiguration of furniture, natural light; all of these things aid in getting ideas out of our heads and into conversations. Likewise, spaces must also be created to support intense focused work. Acoustic control, good lighting, variety and choice of workstyle, ergonomics; these attributes help us dive deeper into those conversations we had with our teams to understand the problems we need to solve.
Of course, these design pieces are not mutually exclusive. Some people may love using writable surfaces to do focused work and others might require phenomenal acoustics to collaborate. Simply put, a workplace must provide access to all kinds of working styles to ensure everyone can find a setting where they can be at peak productivity. But those spaces must be designed. One cannot simply furnish a large open area with a multitude of chairs and tables and call it design. We must be intentional in our construction of these spaces. Hard walls and a ceiling isolate sound better than a felt curtain and baffles. And when a person or a group is not concerned about being loud, they’ll ease their tensions and fall into a more comfortable and collaborative state, freely sharing their ideas without worry of distracting others. Likewise, a door provides more of a sense of privacy than a high back chair. So when it’s time to really dig down deep into that task, a person is going to maximize their attention (and be interrupted less) if they’re in a place specifically designed to support (and display) focus. We understand hard walls cost money, but so do those trendy bookcases decorated with tchotchkes. And a hard wall will always be more productive to employees than a fake bird on a shelf.
Let Employees Relax, Without Expecting Production
Working is hard. It requires an immense amount of brainpower, attention, and creative thinking, regardless of the profession. It can be physically and mentally draining. And when that small window opens, and you have those magical 15 minutes of downtime at the office between tasks or meetings, you want to find a place where you can recharge, surrounded by items that you associate with relaxation and calm. This is precisely the time where a bookcase full of decorations is exactly what you need. And in our own work, we do this in very specific areas – places where we don’t expect people to work, but instead to unwind, to decompress, and to prepare for their next task.
These spaces must allow for that relaxation to happen. We must remember that most people do not relax while on display – they may still feel like they’re being watched, being judged for taking a break. And so these spaces must also be off the beaten path, not wholly inaccessible or hidden, but also not mixed in with the rest of the office space. But be warned, these feelings are fleeting. Once that comfy room with the shelves of nostalgia starts to blur the lines of relaxation and production, and once that environment becomes synonymous with the stress of the challenges of your daily work, that feeling of respite goes away, and your brain starts to associate that spatial ambiance with that stress. And then, when you arrive home after a long work day, and you walk into your own room with your own shelves decorated with your own personal nostalgia, that stress remains because the brain feels like it is still on. If the office starts to feel like home, does home start to feel like work? All at once the buffer of safety that space should offer breaks down.
The Dichotomy of Resimercial
Do not mistake our beliefs, the workspace should not be sterile by any means. Texture, light, and layers are all incredibly important when creating spaces where people can operate at their best. Decoration is a small piece of that texture, light, and layers. But what an office, and, in turn, the workforce, truly needs is good spatial design, not a comfy couch surrounded by knickknacks.
The office is meant to be an instrument for innovation while the home is intended to be a safe and comfortable haven. Bring in the pieces that make you feel safe but do not blur the lines completely. Allow your brain to associate different mindsets with each. Keep the two separate to maintain a true sense of balance. Our brains need different surroundings to operate efficiently. Let the home remain a place for quiet contemplation and design the office to create interaction, promote stimulation, and support focused investigation.