What is a Sustainable Workplace?

Daniel Perlin of HUSH explores how to create a sustainable workplace, where we help each other and the planet thrive.

workplace - this is fine meme

I know you are probably asking “how can you even ask such an epic question?” I mean, you can already imagine the .gif: a headline that says “Workplace” above the little dog in a room on fire saying “Everything is Fine”. Well, rest easy, I don’t expect to answer it all here, but I do think we can, we must, form a real approach to addressing the fire in the room. 

To begin, I will rephrase this question a bit for my own purposes here. 

How might we create a sustainable workplace, where we help each other and the planet thrive? 

And yes, of course, the additional questions start flowing! What does it mean to sustain? What is a workplace? How has Covid-19 changed everything, from time to space? What can design do?

As with so many challenging questions, they also present many unique opportunities, both for self-reflection, as well as for real, tangible actions. To begin an approach, I do have some hypotheses and a few working ideas.

So in case of TLDR; Here are a few ideas we are testing:

  1. Time: Flow Time
  2. Space: Flexible Space
  3. Design: Planetary Design
“Light Forest” for Instagram’s downtown San Francisco office. Designed by HUSH.

1. FLOW TIME

Hypothesis: Work-time is shifting for many people, from time-oriented to a new kind of task-oriented labor, and is at its best when people operate in a flow state.

First, for many in the Global North, work-time has changed over the last 50 years, due in part to a combined and uneven shift from “industrial time” to “post-industrial” time. Industrial time, as E.P. Thompson reminds us in his seminal work “Time, work, discipline in Industrial Capitalism”, began to be formed around the middle of the 14th century as a series of regulatory acts and laws that transformed labor time from Task-Oriented labor to Time-Oriented labor. Fueled by new technological developments of the mechanical clock, ‘hours worked’ became a key measurement of labor value; for example, the nine-hour work day and the five day work-week. These laws were met by resistance, as work-life forcefully transformed from the completion of task-based goals, from, say, I farmed the wheat and now I will pause a few days, to the strict requirements of time spent, or “I have ‘clocked in, I have clocked out’”. Time-orientation, clocking in and out, continues to be a dominant mode of control of labor; the clock has, in many ways, become our ruler, and continues to be a productive site of contention. 

Now in combined industrial and post-industrial time, while the clock may still dominate the contemporary workplace, I would like to surface that for some, two new distinct task-oriented modes have appeared: the first mode I will call “always-on”, the second mode I will call “flow-time”

The first mode of this new task-oriented time is “Always-on” mode. It can be roughly defined as a blurry line between work and life – a never-ending slew of meetings, weekend emails and deadlines, slack pings after hours, and the sense that ‘work is never done’. In always-on mode, there are few moments of completion, tangible goals to be achieved, and it is filled with constant distraction and task switching. This scattered, multi-tasking work-time condition has flourished recently in part due to the endorphine -fueled speed of push notifications and video calls, and is taking a real toll on our bodies and minds. Always-on has been met with legal resistance by some states and countries, and has been called ‘unsustainable’, contributing to burnout and what is known as ‘the great resignation’. This shift, towards never-ending work hours, has clearly passed its tipping point. 

In parallel, a second new task-oriented mode has developed, a mode I will refer to as “flow-time”. Learning from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, we understand that flow helps create meaningful ideas and work in a focused, pleasurable way, increasing efficiency, helping people to feel empowered and reducing stress. According to a recent McKinsey study, optimal flow can be achieved by three main actions: first, “IQ-Intellectual Quotient” building a “clear understanding of objectives, and access to the knowledge and resources needed to get the job done.” Second, ”EQ-emotional quotient,” creating a “baseline of trust and respect, constructive conflict, a sense of humor, a general feeling that “we’re in this together,” and third, “MQ– meaning quotient” generating “excitement; a challenge; and something that the individual feels matters, will make a difference, and hasn’t been done before and the corresponding ability to collaborate effectively.” While there remain many questions here about the study, for now, I will use this to help us frame out some common goals for flow-time

To have good IQ, EQ and MQ, I would suggest that we need to consciously create and enable Flow-Time –uninterrupted, time-boxed, goal driven, task-oriented work regularly interwoven with real moments of pause, collaboration, reflection and joy– so we can create healthier work-time. 

We know people are valuing their time more than ever and we understand that their attention should be focused on sustaining their lives in healthy ways. These findings have driven us to shift how we work, creating core hours for meetings with ample time for dedicated flow-time. It has helped us in our design work with clients like Barclays and Instagram, where we create experiences that encourage people to collaborate and also reset, pause, take a breath and enjoy their surroundings. We have seen how creating space for this kind of reflection helps to foster connections and presents opportunities to pause and flow. By working together with workplace strategy teams from many organizations, we are learning how the real, tangible impacts of this new system of task-oriented flow-time helps generate and support a sustainable workplace

“The Stream Global Headquarters Experience” at Uber’s Mission Bay Headquarters, San Francisco. Designed by HUSH.

2. FLEXIBLE SPACE

Hypothesis: the workspace should be able to change easily, from fixed office spaces to virtual and ‘offsite’, creating flexible spaces.

A shift from fixed offices to hybrid or remote work has been happening for a number of years and has accelerated due to cost efficiencies, technologies such as broadband, and the conditions required for Covid safety. For some (particularly management), this physical distance has created a gap in assessment for traditional ‘time-oriented’ monitoring (did people do their work?). Hybrid onsite and offsite work has also foregrounded the continued and growing need for real-time, collaborative spaces and tools and has super-charged a longstanding call for a simulacra metaverse, one that will perhaps enable a second type of reality. 

Simulation aside, for many, a real, shared collaborative physical office space is still a critical component of the flexible workplace. A shared office remains a compelling and desired site for collaborative meetings, for casual chance discussions, for increased social well-being or for heads-down flow-time. However, for some, the dedicated physical space is not the only workplace. Rather, it is now part of a rhizomatic network of virtual and ‘off-site’ spaces. Due to its popularity with gen-z and millennials, this condition of on-and-off-site workspaces–the flexible-space model– may become the ‘new normal.’ Workers are expecting organizations to provide opportunities for and a clear position on flexible space, and the organizations need to adapt to this new multi-spatial reality.

Whatever systems are adopted, it is clear that workers and companies are quickly realizing that the sustainable workplace is the three dimensional, living, interactive expression of their mission and vision. We are actively working to enhance these hybrid working models by building experiences that integrate both onsite and offsite digital environments. In a recent project with Meta, we were brought on to implement workplace experiences that share insights, key themes and foster conversation simultaneously onsite at their new Hudson Yards and across the globe. To bring this to life, we developed a unique digital and physical platform that used surveys, interactive displays, light and physical designs to garner user engagement onsite and off in real time. We believe that designs should be purposeful, caring, and real, supporting humans in their pursuit of a sustainable work-life in whichever spaces they choose and we are continuing to work to design the experiences that support that, onsite and off. 

“Unisphere” at United Therapeutics campus in Silver Spring, MD. Designed By HUSH.

3. PLANETARY DESIGN

Hypothesis: Planet-centered, ecologically sustainable practices must be deeply integrated into healthy workplace processes and designs.

As we address the very present climate crisis, I am sure we all feel the urgency to address ecological sustainability. True planetary design practices, including life-cycle analysis, ethical labor, and social practices, must become a critical driver of experience designs. We are working to shift our overall approach to be more aware of our own impacts to create a more sustainable practice. In many of our experiences, we opt for low resolution screen-based experiences and when possible, the use of sustainable materials. We have also had the fortune of working with a number of mission-driven clients that have ecological sustainability as core to their vision. One example of this can be seen in our work for The Plant, a center for climate change on the Hudson River. At The Plant, we helped articulate their strategy and realize their climate goals through holistic, data-driven interactive experiences for the campus and their communications, growing their outreach to both the public and sponsors. Our continued work with the United Therapeutics campus has helped us design low impact, sustainable interactive experiences to drive awareness of the real impacts of buildings themselves for workers, guests and the broader community. There, we have created designs that share the building’s embodied carbon and energy systems, as the buildings move towards a net-zero carbon footprint. We know this is just a start, which is why we are excited to do more to drive awareness and help the workplace generate meaningful, positive ecological impacts through real planetary experience designs. 

Summary of Approach

So what does this all mean? Here you can see all three hypotheses are intertwined, a Venn diagram (As a strategist, I do love my Venn diagrams). Flow Time: the creation of sustainable individual and group time; Flexible Spaces, healthy sustainable workplaces; Planetary Design, sustainable ecological and social practices in each part of what we do. These are interdependent, all three are necessary to create a sustainable workplace, a sustainable work-life, helping humans and the planet to thrive. 

As a human, I always have a long way to go to be more sustainable, to live sustainably, to be a better designer and strategist. Instead of claiming to solve these, I try to use these hypotheses as a guide. By asking “how might we live sustainably” each day, at each opportunity, I strive to listen closely, to pay attention to humans and the planet, their experiences, and the spaces they inhabit. As part of the design process, I work to make impacts measurable, understood, communicated and integrated into the spaces and experiences we make. I do believe that by asking this question, not as an afterthought, but as a core question, we can and will be on the path towards better designs, creating better experiences with and for each other. 

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