As companies are taking note of how workers’ wellness and productivity converge, they’re focusing on the most tangible factor they can control: the office itself.
If you’ve walked into a redesigned office in recent years, you’ve seen the furniture. It has beveled edges. It has high, padded panels to dampen noise. It has one-inch polyurethane cushions under spare woven fabrics. It features movable soft cubes in European blue and the freewheeling whiteboards you might find in a high-tuition university library. The office of the future is trying to fix each of the past decade’s popular health problems at once: distraction, loneliness, digital exhaustion and stress. Especially stress.
“One of the things we know about burnout is that people feel stalled, or they feel that they don’t have enough autonomy,” said Tracy Brower, a principal in applied research and consulting at Steelcase, an office furniture and design company. If workers feel free to work at a desk, a sofa-filled hideaway or a work cafe according to their needs, the thinking goes, they’ll feel more in control and less stressed.
Hence “flexible” workspaces that do two or three things at once. Cafe seats promise to turn “sad desk lunches” into “spontaneous lunch meetings.” Tables tall and short offer stand-ups or sit-downs. Lightweight chairs stand on birdlike steel legs, ready to be swiped from a one-on-one to a conference room.
That trend has followed a tumultuous few years in office design.
For decades, companies built labyrinthine cubicle farms, where executives hogged sunlight and lockable doors along the perimeter. The workplace was for heads-down focus. Then, businesses tried to break down figurative walls by breaking down literal walls. Nudged along by Silicon Valley, offices adopted extreme openness: In 2015, Facebook opened the largest open office in the world, plopping thousands of workers at partitionless desks — identical all the way up to chief executive Mark Zuckerberg — in a 430,000-square-foot cavern. The workplace was for collaboration and speed.
But in recent years, researchers have argued that extreme open workspaces may actually decrease the kind of interaction they were meant to encourage, as people cocoon themselves with headphones to avoid chatty colleagues. Noise and a lack of privacy tugged at already frayed nerves. Now, as employers and designers are staring down both major changes in the workforce and rising burnout, they’re figuring out how to strike a balance between the extremes of the 20th century and the 2010s: an office that enables different kinds of work for different kinds of people. The workplace is work, home and Starbucks.
“In the old model, people would walk into an office anywhere and go, ‘I know how to use this space. I’m going to sit in that cube,’ ” said Michael O’Neill, director of global workplace research at Haworth, an office furniture company. “But now, spaces are kind of looking more and more residential, and they’re not always readable.”
To keep from being a jumble, O’Neill said, newer workspaces need to be “legible” — intuitive enough for people to navigate without an instruction manual. Otherwise, the spaces will just stress people out more, he said. That can be as simple as changing carpet color to signal you’re crossing into a new area, or helping people orient themselves by seeing landmarks outside.
O’Neill is one of several researchers experimenting with ways that workspaces directly affect stress and mental acuity. Designers are taking a few guidelines they already knew about work — more light, more nature, less noise — and fitting them into a new mind-set that sees wellness and productivity as inseparable.
In a typical experiment, a researcher might visit a company, set up a “pilot” floor with new layouts and furniture, and use surveys and biometric sensors to compare workers’ performance in the different spaces. O’Neill is working on a similar experiment with a pharmaceutical company now, he said, with a special focus on measuring physical stress symptoms. The company is worried about burnout among some of its most valuable workers.
That focus has defined much of O’Neill’s recent work, he said, as researchers come to understand stress as a “root cause” of problems with workers’ health and performance.
Most workspaces are based on “a very outdated model of productivity,” focused on speed, efficiency and constant work, said Anton Andrews, director of Microsoft’s office envisioning team.
Andrews tests new workspaces at Microsoft’s Next Space, a 6,000-square-foot facility at the company’s headquarters peppered with screen-filled “meeting pods” and ad hoc collaboration spaces. His current project, like O’Neill’s, is also aimed at guarding mental health and attention, sketching out library-like workstations that could use all sorts of software, lights and sounds to help workers focus.
“We have to be very careful when we’re talking about these things, because it’s not about squeezing the last drop out of the sponge,” Andrews said, “which is the old model of productivity.” The new one understands the alternating needs for mental rest, socialization and focused attention.
This is all the plan, anyway. Researchers and designers who spoke with The Washington Post agree that office design, while important, can only go so far. It is just one of the recent ways businesses, pressured by a tight labor market and alarming statistics about worker health, are trying to figure out how to keep employees healthy (and thus productive). They say employers have to tie all sorts of programs and efforts together.
In other words: If your boss is a nightmare, new chairs won’t help. Gallup’s research on burnout did recommend changes to the workspace, said Gallup researcher Ben Wigert — just after changes to management and jobs. The report found that bad lighting, awkward space and noise all affect burnout, but not nearly as much as unfair treatment, extreme workloads and faulty communication.
Likewise, Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, has argued that work and the modern workplace have gotten worse over time. “Work is killing people,” said Pfeffer, repeating a theme of his book “Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance—and What We Can Do About It.”
Even some of the biggest, most progressive companies are still stuck responding to employee health issues rather than preventing them, Pfeffer said. Better workspace design is a part of that, he said; no one wants an office without sunlight, fresh air or privacy. But it has to be combined with things such as better health insurance, better management and better job security, he said. And perhaps most fundamentally? More meaningful work.