Timeless qualities of workspace design
We can hear a lot of discussions recently about how work is changing and what the workplace of the future might look like, and for good reasons. After decades of building office spaces based on models from the industrial age, both designers and business leaders now realise that it’s time to revolutionise our workspaces, making them more people-centric and also more suited to modern work. However, in the midst of these future-focused conversations it’s easy to lose sight of those fundamental qualities of high-performance work environments that are essentially timeless.
You may wonder which aspects of workspace design can remain unchanged in a world where almost all facets of work and life are changing rapidly. Technologies are evolving, generations are coming and going, and we’re facing an increasing number of choices about where to work, how to work, and who to work with.
What I’m talking about is design qualities that are intended to address our fundamental human needs – those that have been shaped over thousands of years of evolution and history. Human evolution hasn’t stopped, of course, but the shifts in our psychological makeup and in the way our bodies function are significantly slower than the changes in our work and lifestyles.
I realise that reflecting on modern-day trends and aspirations – and how the built environment should support these – is a more exciting discussion for many of us than searching for answers in the distant past. Nevertheless, I’m confident that addressing age-old human needs is one of the most important steps we can take towards future-proofing our workplaces.
What evolution tells us
To find out what environmental characteristics allow people to thrive, researchers looked at the design of zoos. Zoos have dramatically transformed over the past few decades. You may remember visiting some as a child, and seeing sad animals locked in tiny stark cages. Today, more and more zoos make the effort to place their animals in a setting as close as possible to their natural habitat. The enclosures are now also much larger and more diversified, giving the animals a great level of control; they can choose to be within sight or hide, and can forage, play or rest as they please.
What has led to this change in zoo design? It was the realisation that an animal might stay alive in a barren cage, but it won’t flourish. Scientists now know that animals can only thrive in environments that are natural to them, and which allows them to feel well – physically, mentally and socially.
In this regard, we are very similar to animals; we can only realise our potential in spaces that suit our evolutionary needs. As biologists and environmental psychologists have identified, the spaces where we live and work not only need to be habitable, but they also need to help us feel well and fulfilled. They need to:
- Provide opportunities for spontaneous social encounters
- Provide opportunities for us to rest, both physically and mentally
- Allow us to find privacy, and to be alone or mix with others as desired
- Provide opportunities for movement and exercise
- Have sound levels that are neither too high nor too low
- Be aesthetic, interesting and diverse environments, engaging all of our senses
- Provide us with a sense of social equality
- Allow us to stay physically comfortable
- Make it easy for us to find our way around
- Offer connection to nature
No real surprises here, though what’s surprising is how often designers underestimate the importance of these basics while trying to come up with really ‘clever’ design solutions.
What is a natural environment for humans?
According to scientists, our ancestors had a long history of living in the African Savannah, hunting and gathering. Although we now live in very different environments, this time period in prehistory has left a mark on our psyche, and has shaped our perceptions of what sort of environments we find pleasant and safe.
We can best relax and recharge in spaces that capture the essence of our primordial homes – that resemble in some ways the natural features that used to provide shelter and refuge to our ancestors. For example, we like sitting in places that are somewhat similar to sitting under a tree – in rooms with lower ceilings and dimmer lights, adjacent to a brighter area with a higher ceiling.
We tend to feel more secure in spaces where we can see what’s happening around us. This is why in restaurants the seats with their backs to a wall or a partition are the first ones taken. In our workplaces we also prefer this kind of set-up – having clear open views and minimal or no movement behind our backs.
Regardless how far we have evolved with our lifestyles, we still want to feel in touch with the elements of nature: the sun and the sky, the earth, water, plants, and so on. Essentially any design feature that either carries a piece of nature or reminds us of it can help us feel more ‘at home’.
- We enjoy having plants around us, and being surrounded by natural materials like timber, stone and clay. We are often drawn to touch beautiful natural surfaces, while we rarely feel the urge to run our hands over plastic.
- We also respond positively to natural patterns, forms, proportions (any designers still remember the golden section?) and colours. (The world’s most common favourite colour is blue.)
- Natural environments are amazingly diverse, interesting, and rich in detail, and at the same time nature doesn’t overcomplicate things. Subsequently, most of us prefer spaces that strike a good balance between being sterile and overly cluttered.
- In nature there is a sense of smooth movement (e.g. clouds, waves, leaves, birds, lights). While buildings are static in nature, there are various ways to add movement to the interiors, for example having a water feature or a fish tank, providing ample views to the outdoors, and maximising daylight.
- The benefits of natural light on our health, wellbeing and mental functioning are immense. Furthermore, our bodies have evolved to harmonise their function with the movement of the sun. (Remember, our forebears woke up at sunrise and went to sleep when the sun set.) For these reasons, rooms with little or no access to natural light might benefit from a digital skylight or window, or what’s called a ‘biodynamic’ lighting system which imitates the gradual changes of natural light indoors. This system can help our circadian rhythm to stay on track, which means that we can also sleep better at night.
Who we were as children
Finally, let’s look back into our childhood to learn a bit more about our innate needs and desires. We are born to build relationships, to play, and to discover new things. We are born to constantly learn and grow – by observing, touching, trying out and experiencing things. And when we do what we do with joy, our ideas get better, our learnings stick longer, and our relationships grow stronger.
We are grown-up children. And while our workspaces don’t need to look like Disneyland, they need to allow us to socialise, play, learn, express ourselves in our own unique way, and improve who we are both as people and as professionals.
Standing the test of time
To sum up … Trying to understand the future when designing a workspace is important. But we all agree that the future is uncertain, and we can only make educated guesses about how technologies, industries, workplace trends and social trends will change.
However, this doesn’t mean that our workplace strategies need to be guesswork. By creating a work environment that supports fundamental human needs, your workplace will most likely stand the test of time, allowing people to respond to future changes resourcefully and resiliently.