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HOW TO DESIGN OFFICE BUILDINGS FROM 2021

In 2020 most office design projects got on hold due to uncertainties related to COVID-19. COVID-19 displayed working from home is possible resulting for most companies to decide to work half of the time from home permanently. This results into a smaller office building, raising questions about what the office building should facilitate. Office buildings offer essential needs to feel satisfied with work. But how to you make sure office buildings are designed to be complementary to home offices?

Spaces we used during leisure time like cafes,

parks and our homes become working spaces

1960's Media philosopher Marshall McLuhan stated in his book 'Medium Is The Massage' once a new technology becomes mainstream, the old technology becomes art. The cathedral is the most exemplary precedent of his hypothesis. Cathedrals were designed as multi media experiences where illiterate people could immerse themselves in God's bible by looking at stained glass, feeling enlightened with gothic architecture and feeling humble while looking up to sculptures. Paintings, sculptures and perhaps also architecture became an art when a new technology came in: the press. The ability to copy a book made 'reading' mainstream.

This same mechanism happened with radio transforming into a music medium when TV became mainstream. Since we use the internet as a primary source of information, books are now valued as design objects we would like to sit in front of with our video calls, expressing our identity and taste.

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Would Irma Boom have been able to make the book Colour in 2004 if internet was not yet mainstream?

Internet changed the appearance of books and now it will change the design of offices

Since the pandemic, WiFi, cloud services, smartphones and the laptop are mainstream office tools. Will the corona outbreak be the final kick for making working from home mainstream, therefore transforming the office building into a work or art?

WHAT IS THE TRIPLE S - CARE METHOD?

The Triple S - CARE method is a guideline for setting up the right design requirements for office buildings ensuring maximum employee satisfaction. It is based on solving the two mayor problems at work: stress and sitting. It solves these two problems with satisfaction. For feeling satisfied, you need to experience three values: competence, autonomy and relatedness (2018). To provide physical well-being you need to provide enrichment.

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Today, most trend forecasters tell you the office building will become a clubhouse. The post-corona office building will not be a clubhouse. Not if you strive employee satisfaction and want it to be complementary to the co-working spaces and hubs. Meeting others as part of 'relatedness' covers only one-third of feeling satisfied. Relatedness is important and needs to be facilitated, but competence is the only characteristic an office building can facilitate comparing it to home offices and co-working spaces. But designing for competence requires more than just designing for social interaction. It also requires to design for silence, focus, mastery, archiving and exhibiting what is going on inside the company. When you design the office as a clubhouse, you miss the most important element only an office building can provide which is competence.

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Therefore the post-corona office will have a program of requirements which looks more like one of a contemporary art museum instead of a clubhouse. The new function of an office is to embody the core business and run the main infrastructure (archive), to facilitate content-based communication (exhibitions), to educate (auditorium), to bring communities together (workshops and meeting spaces) and to provide spaces to focus (library). This trend is already visible with companies who pioneered with working from home like Google. But actually it is a trend which started before the office was invented. Historical university campuses like the one from Cambridge and Oxford are classic examples of architecture designed for knowledge exchange.

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Designing for competence is making sure people feel competent when they work at the office. For making sure people feel related, they should reply 'I feel related' when they work at the office. The office should be designed in such a way it will function as a place people love to go to for executing work activities and to have interaction they cannot get at home or at a co-working space. The office should be designed as if it is a voluntary zoo: an open enclosure where birds would like to reside.

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New campus of Google designed by BIG and Heatherwick Studios looks more like the design of museums than office buildings

HOW TO DESIGN THE OFFICE BUILDING?

S1: SITTING

 

Together with stress, sitting is the largest problem at work. People who have a sedentary lifestyle are 49% more likely to die an unnatural death. The office as it is designed today is a huge part of that problem. Our bodies are evolved to move and our brains grew large because our bodies are able to execute very refined movements like playing a music instrument and writing by hand. The past decades we are designing our work to be digital, resulting into the ability to do almost everything without using our bodies. Sitting longer than 3 hours a day is already unhealthy, whereas people with a regular office job sit around 11,3 hours a day including time spend off from work (2013). Work (computers, desks and chairs) should be designed to keep people static for a maximum of 3 hours a day and for the majority of time light-active or active.

ACTIVE SITTING TO COMPENSATE LACK OF MOVEMENT AT HOME OFFICES

 

Before corona, the office building was a place that made people sit longer a day compared to sedentary hours at schools and universities. One of the most common complains of starters after working at the office for half a year was they were gaining weight. The office job made people need to be active with their lifestyle to make sure they remained in shape. During corona, we didn't leave the house and worked from home, making us gain even more weight and feeling more unhealthy. Compared to working from home, the office building made you commute, walk to different meeting rooms, have chats at the hallway and feel you changed environments.

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If people work 50% of their time from home and for 50% of their time at the office, they will have half of the days a week a less active and unhealthier working day compared to working from the office 100% of the time. The office building should be designed to be more active and healthier compared to what it used to be, before corona.

Buoy chair from Enrichers designed to keep your body active at work

OFFICE BECOMES A LIVING LAB TO EXPLORE HOW 'WORK' MATCHES EMPLOYEES

 

The more hours a day we use computers as working tools, the larger the design assignment for all office suppliers to match 'work' with our biological needs. The amount of static sitting hours should be brought back from 11,3 to 3 hours a day to make our current digital work environment suit the amount of movement our bodies evolved to be equipped for. It will take at least a decade to redesign desk chairs, desks and computers. Furniture companies design desk chairs to meet demands of facility managers, not end-users. Companies with an HR director and progressive facility manager have the ability to dive into the matter and collaborate with progressive designers and pioneering furniture brands to fill in the gap for understanding office workers best. With the home office, people are further away from professional know-how on whats best for their bodies. This requires responsibility from the company to facilitate living labs at the office to figure out what type of physical designs suit what type of person best.

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S2: STRESS

 

The past year rose the costs of companies on stress related sick leave from 2.9 to 3.1 Billion EUR in the Netherlands (TNO). When you predominantly communicate with digital means, you are twice as likely to get sick from stress compared to jobs you don't need to communicate digitally with. Working from home often includes more video calls, Whatsapp messages and emails making it more likely people get sick from stress. Also, the border between private lives and work blurs, making more difficult for people to stop working during their leisure time. Working from home results into more burnout cases and a longer burnout recovery per case.

There are means today to keep track of your personal stress. A possible mean to prevent people from getting too much stress is to measure stress from the seat. Institute for Applied Motions is working on preventing burnouts with smart cushions. The office building as well as home offices can be supplied with smart seats so employees can get feedback on how to organize their days best in case they are crossing their own borders with feeling too much stress.

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There are groups of people who have a higher risk of getting a burnout. People who are single or separated, people who are in their early careers or who have a high specialization are more likely to get a burnout (2020). It would be good to pay extra attention to these target groups to make them feel at ease when they work at the office. For example: employees from a single household might benefit more with working from the office compared to employees who live with their families.

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People are less likely to suffer burnout when they are emotionally exhausted and depersonalized when they feel they achieved a personal accomplishment compared to when they don't.

The office design might be designed to limit burnouts. A burnout happens when people experience emotional exhaust, depersonalization and lack of personal accomplishment (2008). By designing the office in a way employees can appropriate it to themselves, make it personal and into a place they belong to, it might lower their feeling of alienation; lowering the risk of burnout. Every employee experiences in their career a project they worked their ass off for but which nevertheless got on hold or might even got fully cancelled. People are more likely to get a burnout when there is no reward after having given a lot of workload compared to being emotionally exhausted and getting a personal accomplishment out of it. By exhibiting projects and giving high exposure to the individuals who worked on such projects - even more important for projects which get discontinued - it might contribute to feeling personal accomplishment. Using the office building as an exhibition space might prevent emotionally exhausted employees to burn out from it.

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S3: SATISFACTION

 

There are three psychological values an employee needs to experience to feel satisfied: autonomy, competence and relatedness. Autonomy is naturally facilitated with the home office. Relatedness can be found in private life but also at co-working spaces. Home offices lack professional relatedness making it important for the office building to also focus on facilitating relatedness. The third element: competence, is not facilitated naturally at home nor at a co-working space. If you want employees to be satisfied at the office you must make employees feel competent. You feel competent when your skills, talent and insights are required from your environment. But how do you translate this into architecture?

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C: COMPETENCE

 

Competence is the single psychological component of feeling satisfied which is naturally provided with the office building. Being at work makes you feel competent, especially with office-type of jobs. To make people feel they are experts, it is important the office building expresses the knowledge of teams and individuals to enable people to send out and receive know-how from fellow colleagues. Therefor the post-corona office building will need to become a beacon of communication. Not only a digital beacon with professional broadcasting facilities, video conferencing and representative interiors for social media, but even more important it needs to be designed as a physical beacon of communication. For a knowledge-driven company the office building should do what a flagshipstore does for clients. The office building should communicate the company. And not to convince people to buy, but to extract the competence embodied by the people who are the company. But how do you do that?

Probably your marketing and communication department already knows. Physical communication is already produced by your company for fairs and shops. But these means are designed as one-way traffic communication. The office building is a private place where only workers or invitees come. It is the only place where the company can position itself vulnerable. It is the place where the company is a work-in-progress. Instead of a campaign to convince people, the office building should embody what is being worked on. The company should enable workers to exhibit their work to engage people, workers should be invited to question the status quo and to share their ideas with the interior to inspire its future.

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Test set-up for brainstorming: all surfaces are papers for drawing. Office Spa(ce) Exquisite Corpse room by Next Nature Network with Enrichers for Marineterrein Amsterdam (photo: Sjoerd Pontein 2021)

Hallways and designated project rooms in the office building can become literally a canvas. Workers can inspire each other when they walk past the creations of colleagues. They can make remarks and leave new ideas on the walls. Especially when half of the people work from home it is important people are able to leave traces of their thoughts. With the office as a canvas, the office building becomes a challenging space where people are inspired to use their talent to express themselves, making people feel competent.

A: AUTONOMY

 

To feel autonomy, one must feel the ability to make his or her own decisions. At an office building it is decided what the interior looks like, it is decided where you sit and it is decided how you work. To make people feel they still have their own autonomy in a fully decided environment, it is important there is variation between what people can choose from. This can be achieved by offering of every type of working space at least three flavours: plain, spicy or extra chunky.

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Plain is the low stimulating environment. There is little distraction although things are pleasingly stimulative. A spicy environment is more stimulating and active. An extra chunky environment is one which surprises you. An unexpected environment with surprise and inspiration. It is the task of the employer to figure out the ratio. When all users have an equal ability to use the different type of spaces, data can be gathered on how much of which space is preferred. Fitting the type of variations employees prefer contributes to making people feel antonymous. More inspiration of how to make stimulative spaces will be discussed at the end of this article at paragraph Enrichment.

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One natural way to organize working spaces, is categorizing them on the amount of 'sound'. When a person performs a novel or challenging task, he or she needs silence to concentrate. When a routine task is performed, people like to feel some white noise around them. This explains why people sometimes like to work in a cafe. When people are free to decide what space they work in, you can create variation of working spaces by placing rooms after each other starting with the social space where people enter and at the end the silent working space.

R: RELATEDNESS

 

The biggest loss of working partly from home is the coffee chat. When 100% of the workers share the same space, its a matter of time people 'co-incidental' bump into each other, make a remark, introduce you to a contact or get you out of trouble with an empathetic intervention. When 50% of the time workers are not there, you will lose a significant amount of serendipity. You can create maximum interaction by organizing the activities inside the building (whether it is vertical or horizontal) by sandwiching the occasional functions in between the structural functions. Below the scheme for organizing functions for causing serendipity:

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This sandwich is based on the commercial success of shopping malls. You'll make sure people pass by all the shops by placing what is lowest in the Maslow Pyramid (which is the food court) at end of the mall. At the office building, most people will be using working stations and will go for lunch at the canteen. By placing the occasionally used spaces in between the working stations and the canteen you'll make sure occasional users pass by the desk workers or they will see them in the canteen, increasing the probability people meet.
 

WHAT OFFICE DO YOU NEED WHEN HALF OF YOUR COLLEAGUES ARE NOT THERE?

A chat at the coffee corner can take place in any office. But what are people going to talk about when they don't know what people are working on? The main hallways of the office building become exhibitions where every 3 months teams exhibit visually what they are working on. This makes it more likely people who meet at the coffee corner have a conversation about each others competences instead of a chat you could have also anywhere else outside of the office building.

E: ENRICHMENT

 

The basic principle of environmental enrichment is to make sure a person is able to perceive its environment through 5 information paths: visual, motor, cognition, somatosensory and circadian rhythms. When a space is enriched, it contributes to the creation of neuropaths and activates all the types of brain areas making sure people maintain a healthy condition of the brain.

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Making a good enriched office, means you need to provide spaces with different intensities of these elements. It depends on the person and the activity what type of intensity suits well. The only way to find out how enrichment benefits most to people working for your type of company and their activities is to provide them the ability to choose between the different types of enrichment. When you keep track of their preference, you can understand why a person prefers what type of enrichment for what type of activity. Along the use of the comparable but different types of interiors, you can adjust them and match 'enrichment' to the user's preferences.

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Before talking about how to stimulate the office, we need to talk about decreasing one stimuli: sound. With half of the people working from home, the amount of time we are on the phone will increase. More phone calls from the desk also increases the need to withdraw, isolate yourself and work with deep focus on executing tasks. Therefore the office building should not only facilitate a social office for increasing relatedness but even more so facilitate silent library-type of working stations. By creating double walls, facades and skins as well insulated corridors for phone calls, you can create a win-win situation for both the person who is calling and the others sharing the space with him or her.

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MOTOR

 

One out of the five elements of enrichment is 'motor' or all information processed by our muscles. Earlier, we concluded 'sitting' is a large problem. One natural respond most people experience when they are on the phone, is that they want to walk. Since people at the office move too little, making phone calls is the perfect activity to facilitate people to move. Treadmills for video calls and mobile phoning routes with good acoustics are ways to facilitate it. Real estate firm Edge is even experimenting with facilitating entire meeting rooms on a treadmill.

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At home people most likely have one working station, therefore one type of desk chair. The office building with a flexible floor plan and many different desks, has the ability to provide all type of work stations for different postures. And it is very important people vary their postures. For every type of activity a variety of at least three different types of postures can be provided, ranging from laying, leaning to standing, sitting tand active sitting.

VISUAL

 

Visual stimuli is the ability to orient yourself easily; the ability to create a good mind map. Every floor should look and feel different. When a building is geometric by its floor plan you can place iconic beacons in the interior for people to understand where they are. With multiple floors, a large atrium to organize staircases and elevators provide a great mean for people to know where they are. Make sure the atrium has a clear direction: it looks and feels different when it is seen from different angles. If there is no atrium, make sure people can look directly outside at the moment they get out of the elevator or enter a floor by staircase.

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Mood board for visual enrichment at Heineken office Zoeterwoude, Enrichers 2019

Another visual element is 'non inclusive motion': seeing movements which are repetitive, ever changing and yet predictable. It is the things we naturally like to watch. Examples are camp fires, waves hitting the shore, light reflected by water in the ceiling, leaves of trees moving in the wind, watching people on the streets. This type of stimuli is abundant in nature, but not present in an interior. It is a type of stimulation a person needs to perceive and nowadays people spend more than 90% of their time indoors.

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It is important to understand a person should perceive this type of visual stimulation looking at the computer screen. When the work station is facing an outdoor view on trees or the sky, non-inclusive motion is provided by the outdoor view. When the work station faces a window without having a view on the sky or trees, for example a building facade, there is no non-inclusive motion. The interior should add visual stimuli with (for example) kinetic art and plants moving their leaves with the air flow. These visual stimuli should also be provided when a work station is far from the window.

CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS

Every person has three types of circadian rhythms: light, nutrition and social interaction. When you want to provide an enriched environment, the artificial lighting of a space should have the same warmth as the natural light outside at the time that light is present (except for countries with less than 8 hours of daylight per day). This means at dusk and dawn the work space should have a warm color and in the morning and middle of the day a cold color.

The pitfall of bio lighting, is that people working on the computer still look into a blue screen, making it still possible for their melatonin system to get disturbed when working late. Two hours before going to bed you should not see blue light anymore. When you grab your phone in between, it can already disturb the melatonin production, making you need another 2 hours before it is back on its previous level for making you fall asleep.

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Blue Sky Lamp of Chris Kabel is mimicking the light entry of the sun through the atmosphere

Nutrition is also important for having a good rhythm during the day. When you consume caffeine after 11:00 o'clock, it will have influence on the melatonin system, disturbing your ability to fall asleep. The canteen can communicate to the workers what types of food and drinks suit what hour of the day best. Neuroscientist Alan Watkins mentioned your physiology is the foundation for being able to perform every day. With the Future Prooff report, his model of performance was used to understand how to design office spaces for well-being.

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Alan Watkins' performance model, fragment from the Future Prooff report 2018

Social interaction is also based on our biological clocks. Everyone has a biological clock between 23 and 25 hours a day. If your biological clock is less than 24 hours, you perceive the day to be shorter than it actually is. This makes you want to sleep every day a bit earlier making you a morning person. If your biological clock is longer than 24 hours, you want to stay up longer and wake up later every day, making you an evening person. This also influences the extend you are open for social interaction at certain times of the day or not. At the office space it could be taken into account a part of the workers have no need to socially interact with others in the morning by providing them an anti-social coffee corner;)

SOMATOSENSORY

 

Somatosensory is everything you can experience with your skin. Often, office spaces are not designed for creating an experience based on touch. Since the corona pandemic, touch should be avoided for shared facilities like elevator buttons, door handles, at toilets and at the coffee corner. The essay on Neo Hygiene provides more insight for designing a safe shared working space.

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Basic rule should be to redesign buttons which is likely to be touched by several persons every hour. These handles and buttons are designed to be used by elbows and shoulders or are touch-free. An example of a motion sensor detecting your fingers in the air is Leap Motion. Touch screens and everything you need to type numbers for can be replaced with Leap Motion type of interfaces.

Creatures & Creations by Ziggy Pictures & Govert Flint on working with full body movement to foster happiness (project Bionic Chair)

Nevertheless it is very important people do experience different tactility and materials with the hands during the day. Places people sit for longer than one hour can de designed as true tactile experiences. Desks can be equipped with stimulating materials. Design studio Alissa + Nienke developed the Elephunk table to provide a tactile experience while having a meeting. The wallpaper Mirabillia from Alissa + Nienke is an experience that can be provided in the hallway. Due to the large surface of a wallpaper it is unlikely people touch the surfaces at the exact same spots making it safe to provide such a tactile experience at shared spaces.

COGNITION

The 4th element of enrichment is cognition. Cognition entails everything related to challenge, learning new skills and decision making. Good examples are 'language', playing a music instrument and balancing. Many of what has been said earlier about making the office into an exhibition and a canvas contributes to cognition.

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Test set-up for brainstorming: all surfaces are papers for drawing. Exquisite Corpse Office Spa(ce) by Next Nature Network for Marineterrein Amsterdam (photo: Sjoerd Ponstein 2021)

One can have a lot of cognition within the job. Such jobs require creativity, challenges, problem solving and good communication. But every job also has boring aspects. It can be provided with gamification. A litteral example of gasmification is aosting a brainstorm session in the game Minecraft where you can build your own virtual world.

For the times people do not feel cognitively stimulated by the job, cognition can also be provided by the physical space. A very physical way to start conversations and evoke ice breakers is to place water sofa's at lobbies. These water sofa's make people move when a new person takes a seat, causing surprise and a good moment to star a conversation. Especially at places where people have one thing in common like the reception (both people come for a meeting at your company) are good spots for conversation starters with for example the Bambata water sofa of Enrichers.