Can Good Design Cure Your Headache?

Susan S. Szenasy visits the D.C. offices of IA Interior Architects to discuss designing healthy and productive workplaces.

HubSpot’s Cambridge, MA campus offers a variety of heads-down and collaboration space within work zones.

Photo by Robert Benson

For the past two years Metropolis’s publisher and editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy has been moderating series of discussions with industry leaders on key issues surrounding human-centered design. On June 6, 2016 she talked with architects, a developer, and a building standards certifier on designing workplaces which are healthy and productive. The conversation took place at the offices of IA Interior Architects in Washington D.C. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation. 

Susan S. Szenasy, publisher and editor in chief, Metropolis, (SSS):

It’s a fascinating moment for workplace design. There are so many interesting developments on the right track doing some great things, but so many workplaces are still pulling the wrong levers. Coming out of the 20th century, capitalist society has been trained to create value based on competition and business success. Rationality is celebrated leaving emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects. Architects and designers, basically humanists, now design workplaces for the wellbeing of the individual who is spending most of his or her life in this environment. For the professionals in the panel today, I’d like to start off by asking what is your strategy in this discourse?

Sybil Freedman, director, CBRE, Inc. (SF): I work at a brokerage firm. I’m a project manager, working with clients to assess their needs. Clients are very good at describing exactly what they have right now, but the right firm is able to dig deeper into what needs to happen in order to figure out where the client wants to be. Not every client has the same needs. The right environment is essential in order to work, but it also is a way they identify who they are.

Kelly Funk, senior workplace strategist, IA Interior Architects (KF): It’s important that places like IA Interior Architects do a deep-dive needs assessment for each of our clients. My colleague Grzegorz and I are both working with different management consulting firms in Washington D.C. and New York, respectively, and his client is a little different than mine so we can’t approach them the same. In order to get this understanding of the workplace, we implement focus groups and a lot of shadowing in order to empathize with the workers and understand their needs from the perspective of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

SSS: Maslow is identifying a more complex human being than we are used to dealing with in the workplace. Grzegorz, can you talk about how you are incorporating your findings into his psychological model?

Grzegorz Kosmal, AIA, Design Director, IA Interior Architects (GK): I organize the information I obtain about a company and break it down into Maslow’s layers. The first layer is the physical layer. This is the foundation and is usually easy to define—Is the workplace too cold? Is there not enough daylight? Is it too noisy or lacking privacy? The next layer combines Maslow’s safety and security needs with emotional-comfort needs. That comes from the policies inside the organization. We have limited impact in that realm because IA primarily deals with physical space, but a simple example of what we can do is not design a workspace where employees have to sit with their back to the entry because they’ll be constantly distracted. The next layer is mental. This is where Kelly comes in with her skills to analyze the work styles and how people relate within their teams or within the entire organization. Finally, there’s self-actualization, which constitutes that sense of achieving one’s full potential.

We have been designing a space for a client in the management consulting industry whose employees often only meet once a week. Their workers go where their clients need them to be, and most of them come back on Fridays to connect with each other and participate in these huge lunches. One of the things we were tasked with was creating a hospitality space, which was a distinct space to give the workers an impression of what the culture is about, even though the space may be empty 80% of the time.

SSS: So what you are describing is a very independent distance worker who needs to come to a certain place to recapture the comradery and the culture of the brand. Why even have this weekly reunion in a workplace? Why not a Hilton?

SF: I think there are a few factors. The first is that these people are working in teams that are not always constant in size. I think part of the incentive to meet together in the workplace is to lobby certain partners. If they want to start working with another partner, they will figure out how to interact with that person every Friday until eventually they can cycle that person onto their team.

The other important part of this office is to create a space that makes the employees want to come in. If they don’t want to come in, they don’t feel like they belong and will leave the company. Retention is a big reason for these redesigns.

SSS: Can you describe the kinds of experiential aspects you are designing in these workplaces that makes people want to come back every Friday?

KF: This goes back to Maslow’s sense of belonging, which operates on multiple levels. At the larger level, it’s about being part of an organization with a purpose. Then it goes down to the team level and making people feel like they are part of a team’s identity. We pick up these needs early on in our assessment. I think it goes even further to the actual space, and there has been more emphasis on personalization lately. For many years, offices were designed as these very white, sterile environments that weren’t very comfortable.

GK: For this client, the café was very important. We designed the space to be filled with light. It is acoustically balanced, so it is not too quiet and not too loud, and it has access to a terrace. This goes back to the physical needs. If employees have the option to say, “Hey we aren’t coming in today,” the design of the space and what it has to offer can change that. These Friday lunches are a habit-forming mechanism that the client does consciously in order to get their consultants in the office. Food is a common thing that serves us all, and various clients we’ve worked with have a culture of celebrating and connecting around food.

SSS: I’d like to turn to Whitney now, to tell us about the idea behind the WELL certification for buildings and wellness. Is this idea of a once-a-week gathering really satisfying, or is it emotionally truncating these people?

Whitney Austin Gray, senior vice president, business development at Delos (WAG): Like Kelly was saying, every workplace is different, but there are some common principles we know. For one thing, people are complex, and the more we understand them, the better we are able to design for them. Besides the psychological needs that people have, there are also social-behavioral needs which allow researchers to break down exactly what is happening to you when you eat and why there is this issue around social capital in the workplace. It really comes to this idea of “breaks” and people coming together for social-behavioral support. Workers are ever more isolated which is a serious issue that can lead to patients reporting on chronic disease conditions later on in life. Though our workforce is increasing over the age of 55, Millennials are also struggling with being over-stimulated in environments where they are not as socially and behaviorally connected as they need to be. Baby Boomers and Millennials have really changed how people are thinking about their workplaces in response to increased stress. Today’s workers are much more savvy when it comes to workplace environments, and they are demanding more.

SSS: Everything is shifting in a big way, but what happens after a project is finished? How do you turn the work that you are doing now into a lifelong collaborative relationship with the client?

KF: I don’t think this sort of collaboration is really happening right now. Workplace strategists are typically hired at the beginning of the project and then fall off. It’s a problem because there are constantly new waves of people coming in with different needs, so we need to think about design past the front end. In order for this lifelong collaborative relationship to happen, I think workplace strategists and architects need to build lasting relationships with their clients in order to come back and continue to work on the evolution of the space.

GK: Adaptability really comes in when you recognize that there are shifts beyond just the little adjustments. We should be re-evaluating the space on a regular basis.

SF: But the whole process is intimidating for clients who do this once every 10-to-15 years. It’s less so for designers and consultants as we know each other and run in the same circles, but people are afraid they are going to get fired if they mess this up. They understand what is needed, but they don’t understand everything in between. Designers should be giving them a little help on the language to guide them through the process.

KF: One thing we are seeing more of is the use of technology such as virtual reality to engage employees in the design process and bridge the gap of understanding. When a designer or the CEO of a company hears an employee’s reactions to an existing space or a proposed design through virtual reality, there is an emotional response. I think it’s those types of things that we are trying to push.

SSS: How do designers overcome the difficulties of channeling a common humanity when the work has been fragmented into specialized professions?

WAG: At some level, it means letting go of your professional lingo to try and train across disciplines so that you emerge as the next hybrid professional who can speak across those lines. I’ve seen the design field step up and try to understand health and the people who are going to be interacting in these environments.

I think that architects, developers, planners, and real estate agents may have a greater impact on the future of public health than physicians. That’s a really big statement to make, and it puts a lot of responsibility on people who have never had any formal training in health, but now they have been put in this role of designing places where people will spend the majority of their adult lives, and they need to understand how to convey these issues to their clients. That is where I think we need to start creating language and better education for our disciplines. In a sense we’re talking about storytelling and engagement. It can be pretty complicated, but I see the design profession stepping in and pushing the boundaries because designers are natural innovators who look for those creative angles.

Panelists included: 
Sybil Freedman, director, CBRE, Inc.;
Kelly Funk, senior workplace strategist, IA Interior Architects;
Whitney Austin Gray, senior vice president, business development, Delos;
Grzegorz Kosmal AIA, IIDALEED AP, design director, IA Interior Architects.

Susan S. Szenasy, publisher and editor in chief, 
Metropolis magazine.

The Metropolis Think Tank series is presented in partnership with DuPont Surfaces, Sunbrella, and Teknion.

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