A Healthy Return: The Business Case for Well-Being in the Workplace

Haworth hosts a Q&A with an expert panel on designing offices that support today’s workers without driving them to distraction.

The role of the office is shifting dramatically. As the lines between work life and home life blur and employers face steep competition for top talent, management teams are taking a new look at their offices. Forward-thinking management teams are engaging designers, architects, and data scientists to build workspaces that support today’s workers without driving them to distraction.

As designers respond to the needs of their clients, a new employee-focused design is emerging with office spaces that have areas for focused work and collaboration. Susan S. Szenasy, our Director of Design Innovation, sat down with a panel of design experts to talk about these issues. What follows is an edited transcript of a discussion that took place at the Boston offices of Haworth, a workplace furniture manufacturer. The panel included Frederick Towns, co-founder of the real-estate marketing platform Placester, Reetika Vijay, managing principal at Interior Architects, Boston, and Anjell Karibian, a workplace researcher. The conversation was edited for clarity by Bailey McCann.


Susan S. Szenasy (SSS): We are here to talk about making the business case for well-being in the workplace. We stand a chance to put design at the forefront of creating a workplace where the office space improves the bottom line. I’d like to start with Frederick Townes, who is the co-founder and CTO of Placester. Frederick, could you tell us what your vision was for the company, and why you created such a unique office?

Frederick Townes (FT): When we set out to build the new offices what we needed to do is find a new home where we could bring all of our employees together to collaborate and do it in a frictionless way. One of the things we wanted to do is make it easier for people to bump into one another. Another thing we wanted to do, was make technology super easy. We have no remote controls in the whole office, if you can believe that, and there’s no IT team, which I thought was a novel thing.

SSS: There’s that vision there. Let’s talk about what it took to put the office together. Reetika Vijay, is the managing principal at Interior Architects in Boston. You were responsible for the interior design. Let’s talk about what you did there.

Reetika Vijay (RV): Through programming and through meeting with folks, we very quickly assessed their current conditions. When we design workspace, we don’t really design workspace, we design culture, we enhance culture. We want to provide places as choices – to create opportunities where people could interact – and scientifically design them to meet the needs of people who are using them.

SSS: Anjell Karibian, you are a workplace researcher. Can you talk a little about how the approach at Placester fit into the offices you are trying to do now?

Anjell Karibian (AK): There was an article just two days ago in the Wall Street Journal about the way that spaces have kind of gone awry. Open plans can cause havoc in the way that people concentrate, focus, and communicate. We have to look at that as a bigger parameter, if you will. The sheer fact of taking down walls and having an open plan will have repercussions and so we have to understand what those are.

SSS: I want to turn to the idea of community. Frederick, how do you know that design has been successful for the people who work there? How can you ensure that employees remain engaged and feel like they are contributing?

FT: We made sure that folks could collaborate, that technology got out of the way, and that there’s a lot of different types of spaces for different activities. We even have some sensors so we can do some analysis on how people use this space.

SSS: What’s also interesting is that you have a very low-tech approach, people are literally writing on the wall. Reetika, how did that come into the design?

RV: Every workspace is a combination of digital and analog. Digital technology is everywhere. But people love to have other ways to express their ideas. Technology’s amazing, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes there’s so much value to the old school. So, we let people write on the wall.

SSS: Anjell, What does your work say about this idea?

AK: At Haworth, we’re creating an actual board game about understanding legibility in the workplace. But, we intentionally created a game that is very tactile in nature. It’s not about putting it on a screen or communicating with a level of socialization through a screen or digital means, it’s about face to face communication. It’s about actually creating something very raw from your hands. Surprisingly, a lot of the younger generations are intrigued with it. Millennial workers like getting their hands into something that isn’t virtual.

SSS: Reetika, In the interior design area, how do you accommodate the tactile?

RV: When we’re in the discovery phase, sometimes we use what we call rapid prototyping. We bring a bucket to a focus group and it’s full of pipe cleaners and construction materials, and we say, “all right, guys, go nuts. What’s your future workplace like?” We never just do workstations in a row, we never have efficient layouts. We always have these really cool organic layouts of space, and that’s very telling of how people want to work.

SSS: Anjell, what does your research say about this?

AK: Well, we’ve seen this shift through the years of people bringing their persona into the workplace and that’s what some of this is about. For years it was your home life versus your work life. You come into work, the environment is there and you kind of fit into it. What we’re seeing now is that design and architecture are allowing people to create spaces that work best for them.

SSS: Fred, one thing that I saw this afternoon when we toured the office, was that the workers have the freedom to do a lot of things there. They can plug in and unplug. There are different spaces for different types of work.

FT: Everything’s mobile, right? Whether it’s a laptop or your mobile phone or tablet or whatever, so with wifi, you can get the right people in the right space at the right time. Even when someone’s in the Chicago office, you just jump into a Google Hangout and get to work. It’s less about “go here to get this thing,” and more about just get your squad together wherever it’s convenient.

SSS: Reetika, as an interior designer, when you hear words like “meaning”, or this idea that people are looking for meaning at work, how do you help them find meaning?

RV: I wish I had a better answer, but it comes down to listening, really listening. Then there are all the things you see and you put it all together into a big workplace vision.

SSS: Let’s talk about that. Often, professionals have to rethink what they do on the fly, so, the users of your design may require very different things over time. How do you account for that?

RV: Yeah, it’s a constant challenge.  There’s so much out there. There’s so much you can read, there are so many events you can attend, there’s a non-stop barrage of data out there. And I find the more events, the more reading, the more everything that my team infuses ourselves with, the more hollow everything gets. Truly, where I find we grow the most and stay most progressive, is by paying attention to our clients.

SSS: Anjell, your research also goes into the practice of interior design. How do you see the profession developing?

AK: What’s really interesting is the science now that’s supporting design. There’s a lot of information out there, which is refreshing. You just have to be mindful of what you’re gravitating to. Design has always been paramount to aesthetics, beauty, and efficiency. Now science is supporting it from the standpoint of productivity. When we can connect those two and understand that there is a validation with science, that will lead to design that’s more responsive. It elevates the interior design industry so much more.

SSS: Let’s focus on the business case for well-being in the workplace. It feels to me, Fred, like your space really supports your work. What’s your assessment?

FT: That’s good one. I think it’s a spectrum. We start out with the theoretical; to Reetika’s point, what do we imagine? And then we just watch and see what happens. It’s kind of like you’re curating a garden or a backyard for kids to play in and you put stuff in there that’s productive and see what their creative minds might do.

SSS: The idea that a happy worker is a productive worker, is an adage to think about.

AK: Right. I mean, that’s interesting research that we are diving into. We’re seeing a correlation to when people have heightened levels of stress, their level of engagement drops drastically. So when we tie that back to what it means in terms of architecture, or design, how can design support that?

There’s a lot of factors at play from the standpoint of minimizing both visual and acoustical distraction. This has been the paramount issue in all open office environments. We start taking down walls and barriers, there’s an open line of sight, more noise and people often pull themselves out of focus because there is so much distraction around them. We’re also seeing that people’s levels of stress increase because they can’t seem to stay in focus. Levels of frustration start to unfold and it’s a chain reaction.

Infographic from “Designing for Focus Work”: “Interruptions often come in the form of internal and external distractions, which divides attention between tasks. Once an interruption occurs, it takes time to resume a task. One study of workers (information technology and accounting services) found that it took, on average, 25 minutes for workers to get back to their original task once interrupted, and workers focused on at least two other tasks before resuming the original task. Interestingly, it took people longer to resume a task if interruptions occurred from internal distractions, nearly 30 minutes, as opposed to external interruptions, roughly 23 minutes.”

SSS: Reetika, what is the solution there?

RV: Acoustics are the first thing every client comes to us with.  We start looking at dividing workstations into a variety of choice settings. There may be huddle rooms, there may kitchenettes, there may be open collaboration, but it breaks up what seems like a scary acoustic, visual, clutter nightmare into small, intimate neighborhoods.

When we worked with State Street on Channel Center, for example. They went to 95% open office and 5% office from a very legacy, enclosed office environment. Now, Channel Center is their number one favorite place to be, because they can all manage themselves.

SSS: That’s really interesting. Anjell, before we close, let’s talk about how sensors can help people figure out how places work and make improvements.

AK: With the advancement of technology, there are all types of sensors now that are being implemented in workplace studies, to learn how people work and what their interchanges with each other are in the work environment. At Haworth a couple of months ago, we did a pilot program with Hitachi and we wore these lanyards for the entire day. The lanyards tracked how we spoke to each other and calculated our patterns of communication – where we communicate, how often, how long we communicate. From there we could gather patterns and insight.

Now the architecture can become much more successful in supporting the patterns. With sensor development, we’re going to see that a lot more. Clients used to be concerned about privacy, but now they are saying we need the data. More information is helpful in making better investments.

Panelists respond to a question by Susan. S. Szenasy. Photo courtesy Kim Neal Photography
Starting from left: Anjell Karibian, Senior Workplace Design Strategist, Haworth Inc; Reetika Vijay Managing Principal, IA Interior Architects, Boston; Frederick Townes, Co-founder & CTO, Placester; Susan S. Szenasy, Director of Design Innovation, Metropolis; Kurt Vander Schuur, Global Brand Director, Haworth. Photo courtesy Kim Neal Photography







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