The Real Science Behind Innovative Offices

By: Michael Hershfield, Senior Director, Medium Business Segment, WeWork

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Interior design tends to have an effect on how people behave. An innovative and thoughtfully designed workspace can increase employee engagement, productivity, and overall company performance.

Designing and building out a space can be costly and time-consuming; allocating those resources might mean diverting them from other essential business needs. On the other hand, ignoring design completely can result in poor work conditions, low employee engagement and performance, and a negative bottom-line impact for your company.

So, what’s the smartest leadership move? Innovation, after all, isn’t luck—it’s science. And with science comes research, rules, and insights that you can leverage to a business advantage in a tangible way.

Let’s pull back the curtain to understand how science has been propelling the workspace-innovation movement, and how you can adopt a people-first mentality to create an environment that inspires your employees to do their best work.

Thinking through the science of design

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So, how does science influence workspace innovation? It all starts with the study of the human brain.

Essentially, there are three neural networks powering the way we think: the executive control network (dedicated to making decisions), the salience network (the gatekeeper for how those decisions are made), and the default mode network (which generates ideas). This process continues throughout the day, starting with info-gathering (preparation), incubation (cross-checking what you know already with what you don’t), insight (the “ah-ha!” moment), and verification of the information at hand.

The University of Oxford recently studied the process of decision-making in the brain and saw that the ability to slow down responses allows people to avoid making suboptimal choices.

That “slowing down” aspect is important for workspace design. In essence, it’s achieved by providing a variety of spaces that promote relaxing distractions from high-focus work, enabling employees to imagine and discover new ideas. These distractions can range from a micro-break (looking up to enjoy the view from an office window) to a macro-break (when we seek out a new space for some facetime with a colleague, take a few moments to have a cup of coffee, or just want a change of scenery after a morning analytics meeting).

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What better way to encourage those essential breaks than by providing a flexible workspace—and the more choices, the better: quiet spaces for concentration, energetic spaces for connection, places to learn, to play and have fun, and to renew the mind.

Innovative companies such as Pinterest and Facebook are leaning into variety by adding more whimsical features within their offices. The theory is that creativity is boosted by including spaces dedicated to breaktime activities. For example, “the inventors of graphene [a 1-mm-thick material discovered in the U.K. that could transform electronics, energy, health and construction] came across it in their play time,” said Professor Stephen Heppell, flexible work and learning space expert, to the World Economic Forum last year.

So, now that you understand the role science plays in determining how people think, let’s discover the other factor influencing workplace design—the way in which we feel.

The effect of our surroundings on how we feel

A recent study from the American Journal of Health Promotion found that the task of making Americans healthier depends on the creation of healthier environments, rather than relying solely on health care systems.

This trend also helps businesses, the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety states: Eliminating occupational hazards and risks from office design is the most effective way to protect workers. Because workplace stress alone costs American businesses up to $190 billion annually in health care costs, it’s always in a company’s best interest to keep its workforce healthy.

That’s a lot of pressure. But in the context of your physical workspace, do you really have the power to make your employees healthier? The answer is a resounding yes.

Best office lighting for productivity

Lighting has a huge effect on the way employees feel, so it’s important for employers to get it just right. Here are some of the ways our design teams at WeWork use lighting to optimize our spaces:

  • Warm office lighting makes employees feel relaxed and comfortable. We use warm lighting in common spaces and kitchen areas, where members are prone to interact and network.

  • Neutral office lighting is used in environments built for collaboration and productivity. We place this type of lighting in certain conference rooms and in hot desk areas.

  • Cool office lighting naturally makes people more alert and energetic. We use cool lighting in spaces meant for hyper-productivity, such as offices and brainstorm rooms.

Additionally, exposure to natural light is especially beneficial for people working in an office; both morning and evening exposure can improve mood, energy, alertness, and productivity. Researchers in the U.S. even found that 10 percent of employee absences could be attributed to office design that lacked sufficient daylight.

Natural light and standing desks help improve sleep quality

As an employer, did you ever think you could help your employees get a better night’s sleep, just by offering them innovative office design? Well, you absolutely can. Lighting has a lot to do with sleep quality—which is how companies can also help their employees (and the bottom line, as a result). The American Academy of Sleep Medicine studied the effect of natural lighting in the workplace and found it played a role in helping employees sleep better at night. A recent study found that two nights back to back with six hours of sleep or less can be associated with performance decreases lasting for a period of six days (yikes), so it’s certainly in a company’s best interest to improve its workspaces.

Additionally, it’s long been known to scientists that physical activity helps us get more quality shut-eye, which is why forward-thinking companies are incorporating more opportunities for exercise into the office.

Biochemist Jack P. Callaghan, Ph.D.’s study results proved that standing longer than sitting was best for employee health—so any workplace that incorporates movement (standing desks, staircases, etc.) can tap into this positive benefit.

Air-purifying indoor plants improve health and wellness

With old-fashioned workspace design, not only is natural light placed on the back burner, but so are natural elements such as plants or views of nature. Take this classic breakthrough study by design pioneer Roger Ulrich into account: For people recovering from surgery in hospital rooms, those with a view of the outdoors needed fewer doses of pain medication (and less time in the hospital overall) than those patients whose rooms faced a brick wall.

Business leaders take note: Incorporating nature (adding more flowers or other greenery) to an indoor space not only improves health and wellness, but can also increase productivity by 15 percent. Studies also suggest including plants can reduce staff sickness levels by decreasing carbon dioxide levels.

In addition, offering access to outdoor spaces can improve creative thinking, reports CNBC. Apple is a great example of a company that’s prioritizing nature in the workspace: Its newest office, Apple Park, features a green courtyard and nearly 6,000 trees. But you can get the same effect. If your office has a rooftop or balcony, hold community events there, and invest in greenery for your indoor space in the form of palms, potted plants, and other botanicals. Your employees and your company will benefit.

Improve indoor air quality and temperature to enhance employee performance

Studies have shown that temperature is crucial for productivity—and that suboptimal temperatures can cause employees to make mistakes more frequently. A study from Cornell University found that employers could be paying 10 percent more in labor expenses when temperatures are set too high or too low. Studies find the highest productivity levels with temperatures at 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Additionally, the National Center for Biotechnology Information has determined that the quality of indoor air, including temperature, can lead to 6 to 9 percent gains in work performance and productivity.

Humidity, too, can have a big impact on how employees perceive office temperature. For example, if the air is too humid, it can impact people’s ability to sweat—which can lead to heat exhaustion—and humidity that’s too low can cause people to feel colder, or cause skin, throat, and nasal passages to be too dry. Humidity can also be controlled with plants, which shows how connected each of these elements are to a well-rounded workspace. (Check out how innovative offices solve for optimal temperature control.)

Science and innovation at work

It’s true that interior design has a profound effect on how people behave—and with scientific studies, we’ve been able to learn just how to leverage that for businesses. Provide an innovative and thoughtfully designed workspace, and along with it, you’ll see the positive impact on your company’s bottom line.

WeWork is here to help with each and every aspect of this process, so that you can focus on the business outcomes that matter most to you. Contact our team today to learn more.