7 Perspectives on How To Design The Human Centred Workplace

7 Perspectives on How To Design The Human Centred Workplace

How can we design a workplace fit for purpose? This was the overall question on the international seminar Human Centric Workplaces held in Stockholm November 30. Seven highly recognised experts all delivered the same conclusion: There is no one fit all answer.

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Photo: Anette Persson

This conclusion is why seminars and conferences like this is so important to the industry. People simply have to get input from different experts and researchers, with different angles and perspectives on how to turn our workplaces to productive, attractive and healing environments.

”It´s a shame we don´t create workspaces where we flourish”, Dr Nigel Oseland noted, as he opened the seminar with a speech on psychoacoustics.

Nigel Oseland is a workplace strategist and researcher. He has conducted a study on psychoacoustics; how sound affects the physical, physiological and psychological parts of humans. Psychoacoustics is not only about how we perceive sound, but how we also interpret and react to it. He pointed out that the sound level is only 25 percent of what we perceive as noise. The rest is psychological factors, dependent on context and attitude.

”We all know the sound of a dripping tap. Most times you don´t even hear it. But if you are in a quiet hotel room trying to sleep at night, a dripping tap is an annoyance. Or my favourite example: a rock festival. The audience in the front row are having their ears almost pressed against the speakers. The sound is so loud we know it can damage them. But they love it. However, the major down the road having his gin and tonic in the back yard of his house think it´s a racket. He hates it!”

You must know the personalities
Nigel Oselands study shows that 65 percent says noise affects them negatively. ”That´s not a good result”, he understated, ”when only a five percent increase in productivity can pay for the entire building.”

The majority of the speakers stressed the importance of knowing the personalities of the employees. Nigel Oseland uses a model called Ocean with five personality characteristics as extremes: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. At the other end of the scale each characteristic has its opposite. Nigel Oseland used extroverts and introverts as example.

”We found differences in attitudes towards noise in their workplace. Extroverts have a low level of arousal. To do simple tasks they want a noisy and stimulating environment. Introverts on the other hand have a natural high level of arousal and seek a calm environment. So we need different environments in order to survive.”

Most people, no matter what personality type, are most satisfied working in their home environment. ”There people have more perceived control over the environment. So we need to learn how we can take the best from our home environments and adapt it to our workplaces.”

Focus on happiness and wellbeing
Anicee Bauer, design researcher from Dutch interior design firm D/Dock, presented the concept of Healing Offices. The offices of the past was designed and fitted out of organisational and efficiency means, from an industrial body of thought. Today we have a lack of privacy and focus connected to problems with the acoustics in open plan offices.

”Work pressure and stress are the most common reasons for sick leave and burn-outs are increasing. So what if we bring back people to their natural balance and use the office environment to do so”, suggested Anicee Bauer. ”We should not focus on effeciency but happiness and wellbeing instead. The cost of staff is 90 percent of businesses operating costs today. But only 13 percent feel engaged. There is a big imbalance here. But how can we design for happiness?”

Like Nigel Oseland, Anicee Bauer referred to our home environments and that we should seek for creating homelike spaces on our workplaces. And she called for a symbiosis between facility management and human resources. To find the right solution, each workplace should use research and surveys to get an evidence based design, linking design and science.

”Start with asking the right questions and you will get the right answer for just your company. A succes for one company don´t mean it will be a success for you”, she said.

Multitasking takes energy
Yvette Tietema, concept developer at Saint-Gobain Ecophon, put the brain into spotlight, as office workers also can be considered brain workers.

”What kind of environment do we need to create to get the best out of our brain capacity?” she asked and moved on to explain how the brain works. When we are multitasking, which everybody actually can´t handle, we are switching back and forth between different tasks. These switches demands in theirselves 30-40 percent of our brain capacity. ”This has a negative effect, not only on the people working, but also on the company”, she noted. To reduce the numbers of switches is thus critical.

In todays international business, the spoken language in offices is often English. To understand a person speaking in a different language, you need a lower level of background sounds. ”So the acoustic environment is getting more and more important. Still, 70 percent of the brain workers is dissatisfied with the acoustic environment.”

And this is not surprising, meant Yvette Tietema, as the acoustics is having such big impact on our well being in the office: ”It affects your heart rate, creates stress and reduces our willingness to collaborate. We get a little bit less friendly in a bad acosutic environment.”

So how does a perfect sound environment look like? It is actually out in the nature, where the sound energy is free to flow in any directions. ”In a room the sound energy is caged, it´s bouncing in all directions. So we need to use absorbtion in the ceiling and use panels and screens to catch this energy bouncing around.”

Respect our personality differences
Yvette Tietema used a golden egg as a metaphor for high productivity. Inside this egg you will find physical, functional and, above all, psychological comfort. Physical factors is, as Dr Nigel Oseland also pointed out, only 25 percent of our perceived comfort. The rest is psychological.

Thus, internal factors as the personality are important for the sense of psychological comfort. ”We must respect our personality differences on our workplaces as we do in our private lifes. We can have the same sound environment and situation, but totally different experiences and with that different productivity.”

Yvette Tietema pointed out zoning as one way to offer different spaces for different tasks and personalities. It´s one of the solutions in the Activity Based Acoustic Design methodology, based on evalutions and experts advices. Other solutions is work settings and acoustic products, spatial office layout and etiquette and behaviour. ”We don´t have to work in cubicals to be productive. But we have to look inside the golden egg and use an evidence-based office design. Our workplaces should not be a question of bore-out or burn-out”, Yvette Tietema summed up.

How light affects us
Karl Ryberg has specialized on the psycho-medical effects of light. He took the audience on an odyssey through the history of light: from the very first exploding stars in cosmos, to our own sun and its importance for all life on earth. Karl Ryberg gave som perspectives on how light affects us on our workplaces.

”The european norm says we should have an illuminance of 500 lux at our offices. When you go outside, you will have 100 000 lux! Sitting indoors, you simply get to small amount of light.”

Light is like a clock for our bodies. It tells us when it is time to sleep and when it is time to work.

The first artificial light the human invented was the fire. Now we could stay awake longer in the evenings. This is why you don´t want orange in the office – it is the colour of the evening and makes us sleepy. Blue, on the other hand, is the colour of the daylight sky and sends a signal it is time to wake.

Today, electric light is everywhere. And it has undergone a huge transformation, from heat generating light bulbs to the very effective Led, Oled and optic fiber techniques of today. Karl Ryberg underlined that light affects our health and thus our producitvity: ”The reptile brain is extremely sensitive to light. And it controls the production of hormons, so light is very connected to our health. Therefore we should feed our eyes with quality light.”

Distributed teams demands better leaders
New ways of working includes telework, agile work, flexible work, mobile work, home work. The terms are quite a few. The meaning of each one may shift, but common for all is that they all include considerable time away from the traditional office, supervisors and colleagues. Dr Laura Hambley, founder of work consultant company Work Evohlution, has gathered all these in an overall term: Distributed teams. Laura Hambley has studied which key attributes and skills are required for distributed team leaders.

”83 percent of organizations offer distributed work of some kind, but only 40 percent of the employees are receiving guidance. So we need better leaders, as leadership is even more challenging when working from a distance. Some of the challenges distributed team leaders experience are building relationships, a lack of non-verbal communication and that you can´t ’lead on the fly’.”

12 key attributes
By interviewing 34 leaders in 2015, Laura Hambley and her team has identified 680 unique behaviours, which makes it the worlds largest database of distributed leaders behaviours. Out of these behaviours 12 key attributes has been identified for succesful distributed leadership. Laura Hambley highlighted three crucial attributes: Adaptability, Empathy and Trust.

”Adaptability is really important due to the constant changes in technology and communication. Empathy contributes as people otherwise may become distant or isolated in an alternative work arrangement. Trust is huge because you truly have to have confidence in people’s ability to self-manage, stay focused, and deliver high-quality work on time.”

6 key skills
When it comes to key skills, six areas has been identified. Laura Hambley picked three for the spotlight: Communication medium match, Meeting management and Time-zone management.

“Communication medium match means for example to know when to mail and when to call a person. Regarding meeting management, it is critical to be able to make these efficient. This skill should be highly prioritized. Time-zone management is much about sharing the pain and trade back and forth.”

One of Laura Hambleys conclusions was that the people aspects of distributed workplaces are often overlooked. “Assessing and developing people should be a key part of any change management and ongoing smarter working program.”

Work personas enable human centred workplaces
Personas, archetypal models of certain groups of people, are widely used in the field of marketing. But in the field of workplace design it´s a quite new method, derived by Dutch workplace consultants WPA Analytics and its co-founder Eelco Voogd.

“Today we see a battle for the employee experience. We are all looking for the same group of people and try to get their attention.”

This has resulted in a kind of interior porn, said Eelco Voogd, with excessive attributes as playground items installed in offices. But the only ones that should be in the front row is the employee, he said.

“The employees are real persons. They want to achieve their goals, contribute and be happy.” The big advantage with work personas, compared to customer personas, is that the real persons behind are known. The work personas can be fueled with real data. “To create an optimal human centred work environment we need to study the employees to understand them from goal to character. How do they use work tools, how do they cooperate, how engaged are they in the organization, what social profiles do they have, in what phase of life are they?”

By using this data it´s possible to identify patterns and create up to a dozen of personas, instead of handling data about hundred or thousands of employees. “When we design offices we can use these personas. Goal directed design is one of the most effective ways to design great user experiences.”

Remember our seven senses
Tania Barney was the last speaker of the conference. After a loaded and intensive program, there were probably a few tired brains in the audience. But Tania Barney knew what to do: playing Abba she got the whole audience on its feet dancing, laughing and shaking their limbs.

”What I just did was to use a sensory strategy to get your attention”, she announced. And just that was her topic: Sensory processing in workplace design, or how the brain processes sensory information and how it is applied on the workplace.

We have all learned in school that we have five senses: see, hear, touch, smell and taste. See and hear are information senses, primary for production. Touch, smell and taste are social senses, important for team work. But neuroscience has added two movement senses, that can be described as regulation senses. These are primary for attention and concentration – thus highly interesting when designing workplaces fit for a purpose. To understand our sensory intelligence we must understand how our brain works.

”It can be divided in two parts: the upper and the lower. The upper part is where we are thinking, learning and performing. The lower part is unconscious, uncontrolled and intuitive. This is the feeling brain, where attention, emotion and behaviour is determined. And 80 percent of the brain activity takes part in the lower, sensory part. So the influence on our feeling of comfort is greater from the bottom up, rather than the other way around.”

The need of sensory profiling
Instead of talking about introverts or extroverts, Tania Barney uses a tree analogy with three different personalities, based on our sensory intelligence: leaves, roots and trunk. Leaves are sensory seekers on the extrovert end of the scale, roots are sensory sensitive and thus more introvert and trunks are inbetween. Based on this knowledge, Tania Barney presented sensory solutions for our workplaces.

”As presented by the Leesman Index and stressed earlier today by Nigel Oseland, noise level, temperature control and air quality are key issues for productivity. All these are sensory factors, so we need to do sensory profiling and then make design considerations.”

”The leaves prefer a variety of activities. They cope best in the middle of an open space and need regular movement breaks. They also need visual reminders and alarms. Roots on the other hand cope much better if they have a fixed desk, especially in a corner. They do much better if they are away from trafficked areas, having their ringer tone tuned down or set to vibrate.”

Tania Barney meant that the roots are a bit overlooked in todays open plan offices.

”We see so often workspaces built for leaves. This doesn´t mean we should go back to cubicles. But we need to design offices that accomodates both ends, so that everyone can benefit of spaces where we can chill and relax. We need to think of both people and place in a symbiotic relationship and consider the neurophysiological aspects and the impact of sensory processes. Then we can have a positive impact on performance, productivity and well being.”

Note: Human Centric Workplaces was held November 30 2016 in Stockholm by Ecophon, IFMA, Workplace Evolutionaries and GoToWork.