Saving the Workplace by Design: The Hidden Psychology of Safe Space

Donald M. Rattner shares a sampling of the safe space techniques that should be part of every workplace designer’s toolkit in the post-COVID era.

safe space
Offices of Neue Black. Melbourne, Australia. Architecture by B.E. Architecture. Photography by Peter Clarke.

Workplace design and building professionals have responded admirably to the COVID-19 pandemic, advancing a multitude of practical and science-backed ideas for safely re-opening offices where and when government officials allow. Unfortunately, by themselves these prescriptions could fall short in creating enough safe space to convince large swaths of the workforce to feel comfortable with returning. The reason? The recommendations under discussion appeal almost entirely to our rational, conscious selves, and overlook the enormous influence that non-conscious human psychology plays in assessing how secure we feel in our environment.

The good news is that we can do something about it. Researchers have been plumbing the human mind for decades to understand why we react to our physical surroundings as we do. Their findings reveal that certain aspects of built space that appear to have no logical connection to material safety nonetheless can profoundly affect how dangerous we perceive an environment to be. We are generally unaware of the effect these elements have on our mental state because they exert their influence from deep within the human psyche, where they endure as a legacy of our evolutionary past. Rather than dismiss these unseen agents as irrational or irrelevant to modern life, however, we should capitalize on our newfound insights to develop techniques for shaping space that people will intuit as well as know to be safe.

And here’s more good news: according to the data, incorporating these techniques into the workplace can boost creative task performance among occupants as well. In fact, it was in researching my book on creative space in residential settings that I stumbled on the link between idea flow and our drive to feel protected in our environment. On reflection, the notion that creativity and safety are mutually reinforcing from a design psychology standpoint makes sense; after all, a person must feel secure in their surroundings to risk promoting ideas that might upend conventional wisdom.

The strategies for achieving safe space through design cover the gamut from furnishings to finishes, lighting to layout. Here’s a sampling of the techniques that should be part of every workplace designer’s toolkit in the post-COVID era.

safe space
Benchwall seating and partitioning system. Product designed by Stephanie Forsythe + Todd MacAllen for molo. Vancouver, Canada. 2003. Photography by molo.

Favor Curved Over Straight

In 2007 researchers at the Harvard Medical School ran brain scans on subjects while they looked at a series of images of everyday products and abstract shapes. Half of the items pictured were marked by straight edges and pointed corners, the rest by curvilinear contours and rounded edges. None of the recognizable products were intrinsically dangerous (i.e., no guns or knives), and yet the researchers found that the part of our brain that manages fear was consistently activated when images in the rectilinear group flashed onscreen.

Why would the sight of nominally harmless things nonetheless instill fear in people? The answer would seem to lie in Nature. Relatively few elements in the natural world are dominated by sharp edges and pointed ends, but those that do exist have a tendency to inflict pain. Early humans, the thinking goes, discovered this uncomfortable truth through repeated negative experience, until the link between straightness and the ensuing self-harm became etched into their DNA — or at least, the DNA of those who survived long enough to reproduce, thanks to their having grasped this insight before it was too late.

With evolution moving at a glacial pace, however, not enough time has passed for the human brain to catch up to the fact that these days a Knoll-style sofa is unlikely to do us physical harm merely by virtue of its orthogonal composition, crisp corners, and straight legs. That became clear in a 2011 study where subjects were shown pictures of two furniture groupings. Both arrangements contained a sofa, easy chairs, a floor covering, coffee table and lamp, yet one ensemble was dominated by pieces with curved profiles and details, the other by straight. Researchers found that subjects who viewed the first group registered positive feelings at the prospect of inhabiting the pictured setting, whereas those who viewed the second were inclined to avoid it, just as we would any environment that perceived as threatening, however subliminally.

safe space
Offices of UKTV. London, United Kingdom. Architecture by Penson Architects. Photography by Truman Heller.

Let Them Lie

Once upon a time, to be accused of lying down on the job was to be charged with slacking. Nowadays, one of the best ways to make people feel safe at work is to do exactly that.

The change in attitude has to do with a little piece of our neuroanatomy called the locus coeruleus (Latin for “blue place”).  Among its functions is to emit a chemical called norepinephrine, or noradrenaline as it’s also known, when we’re faced with a stressful situation that requires an immediate response — like jumping out of the way of a car hurtling toward us, or evading a hungry predator back in the days we lived in trees. It also boosts alertness and focus, two other cognitive tools that come in handy when we hope to escape a dire predicament.

Reclining, on the other hand, has the opposite effect on the locus coeruleus, lowering the flow of norepinephrine and other neural stimulants emitted along with it. That is a natural reaction to our body signaling to our brain that we don’t foresee the need to spring into defensive action any time soon. Exploit this connection between mental and physiological states by furnishing the workplace with freestanding and built-in pieces that accommodate a laid-back pose. Or consider some of the many products engineered for horizontal work currently or planned to be on the market.

safe space
Offices for Smart Dubai. Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Architecture by DWP Design. Photography by Yasser Ibrahim.

Bring Nature In

In 1991, a team of environmental psychologists led by the noted medical biologist Roger S. Ulrich set out to compare the impact of natural versus urban environment on emotional state. The first thing the researchers did was to ratchet up their subjects’ stress levels, a mission they accomplished by having them watch a brutally graphic documentary about — of all things — work accidents suffered by employees operating in an unsafe woodshop (!).  Subjects were then randomly assigned to watch a second video set in either natural or urban environments, none of which contained anything as horrifying as the first.

After the viewing, researchers measured each participant’s heart period, muscle tension, skin conductance, pulse, and blood pressure. They also had subjects self-report their emotional state both before and after the experience. The results were conclusive. Exposure to natural scenery reduced stress and negative emotions such as fear more quickly and substantially than viewing urban settings.

The 1991 study is just one of many findings affirming the power of Nature-based elements to reduce anxiety. And the benefits don’t stop there. Incorporating biophilic elements into work environments can also boost staff productivity, creativity, job satisfaction, and overall wellbeing.

office like home
LEFT: Study. Chester, Connecticut. Architecture by Donald M. Rattner for Ferguson Shamamian & Rattner, Architects. Interior design by Linda Chase Associates. Photography by Durston Saylor. RIGHT: SAP Innovation Center and HanaHaus. Newport Beach, California. Architecture by H. Hendy Associates. Photography by RMA Architectural Photography and Troy Ament Photography.

Make the Workplace More Like Home

Home has long symbolized the promise of safe harbor, a place of refuge into which one could withdraw from the world in order to find safety. Today, symbol has become fact as millions of people around the globe spend long hours cocooned inside their homes to evade contagion.

Yet, noticeably absent from the proposals being floated for reviving the workplace in the post-COVID era is to continue a trend that was already underway prior to the crisis: resimercial design. A mashup of residential and commercial elements and characteristics, this awkwardly named design approach enjoyed considerable favor among tenants (especially millennials and GenZers) and landlords alike before everything changed. To cast it off as no longer relevant to current circumstances, however, would be a mistake. Home is a powerful agent of psychological safety; the closer we can link the workplace experience to the domestic sphere, the greater our chance of overcoming the reluctance of users to see it once again as a place of community and collaboration.

Conclusion

In 1979, Israeli researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman published a paper that would change our notion of what it means to be human. Among its startling insights was that people are often bafflingly irrational when it comes to processing economic risk. For example, we are so much more afraid of suffering a loss than we are motivated by potential gain that we will forfeit statistically more likely rewards just to avoid a negative outcome. Some scientists trace our propensity for risk aversion to our days as hunter-gatherers on the African savanna. Life in a state of nature was lived so close to the edge, these researchers theorize, that the slightest material loss could spell one’s demise, and therefore was to be avoided at all costs.

The implication of findings like this is that we humans are hardly the rational, logic-driven creatures we sometimes imagine ourselves to be. Instead, we are fueled as much by feeling as by fact, intuition as by information. That is a truth workplace designers cannot afford to disregard in the COVID era. To be sure, we must continue to draw on science to devise ways to protect the health and safety of all who occupy the settings we create. But let’s also apply what we know about the psychology of safe space to remove the invisible hurdles that could be keeping people from wanting to be there as well.

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2 Comments

  • This was a very interesting read. My first reaction to the text reference about the blue place, the locus Coeruleus, was wow! The color blue usually associated with calm, rest and an essential color for biophilia, is also the color fo the spot in the brain that releases chemicals for both stimulus and relaxation. I am going to do more research about this and see where it takes me in the field of design for work and live places and spaces.

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