Space is a powerful tool to foster engagement, inspire innovation, and drive productivity. But what exactly does an optimal space look like? In the Science of Space, we explore how the science of intentional design can turn any work environment into a holistic experience.
We all know the feeling of walking into a workspace with the right vibe. You feel positive and happy. The people around you are interacting with each other and look relaxed. Maybe there’s music playing; perhaps the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee floats in the air. There’s a general buzz that you can’t quite describe.
Wouldn’t it be great to understand how to create a workspace in which your teams could always feel productive, engaged, and energized? It’s more than theoretical. At WeWork, we take a research-based approach to creating conditions for best-in-class workspace energy, allowing your employees to feel happy, relaxed, and productive. Read on to discover how.
The surprising impact of workspace energy on your business
Before we get into the specifics, it’s important to understand why every company needs to be invested in workspace energy. In other words, why should your company consider the vibe of your workspace at all? Is it even worth the time and resources to figure this out?
The answer is a resounding “yes,” and for several reasons.
First, think of any potential employees and customers who may visit your company. What kind of environment are they walking into? Can you guarantee this environment will have the right energy every time? Or is it hit and miss some days?
Many companies offer mobile work environments (or at least the option to work from home occasionally), which can be hugely beneficial for employees. But has your office now become a ghost town? The truth is, if your employees can work from anywhere, they need a reason to show up to your workspace.
Finally, think about the impact your space has on your employees’ wellbeing. At an average enterprise-level company, it’s often one person who ends up making real estate decisions on behalf of thousands. Real estate professionals have the ability to look, listen, and observe—much like an anthropologist would—at how the spatial decisions they make affect the lives of all of their employees. When you see people unhappy in their space, it often means that someone didn’t listen to their employees’ needs. This can have repercussions for employee morale and productivity.
At WeWork, we have the ability to explore workspace energy in ways that most architectural design firms don’t. And, luckily enough, we have some ideas to share.
Creating the conditions for energy: proximity, transparency, and cultural variants
People are naturally drawn to the right balance of calm versus high energy, so it might seem like the right energy balance just “happens.” But it’s more of a science than you might think. In fact, our research shows that three factors create energy: proximity, transparency, and cultural variants.
The staircase theory
When we’re talking proximity, we’re asking questions like: How many people are in the space? Who are those people? What are they doing? How is the space arranged?
When we think about energy, we like to dig deep into a few theories anchored in social science and our own research. Thomas Allen, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of many studies about workspaces, pioneered a theory called the “Allen Curve,” which calculates proximity between employees (specifically, between engineers, in his study).
The Allen Curve revealed that there is a strong negative correlation between physical distance and the frequency of communication between people. The average frequency of interaction drops by half to 15 meters from 5 (49 feet to 16 ), and half again to 50 meters from 15 (164 feet to 49). Beyond 50 meters (164 feet) and you may as well be in another building.
This shows that people are energized just by being around each other. Building on this concept, our WeWork research team began to explore how proximity within our buildings affected workspace energy.
Confirming the Allen Curve, we found that WeWork members feel a stronger connection to those to whom they are physically near; in fact, physical proximity influences the likelihood of people being friends.
We studied the impact of open, internal staircases, and have further invested in the specific design of our stairs. Why? Because the nearness of people increases their likelihood of friendship, and so do open stairways.
Let’s broaden the thinking behind the staircase theory to the overall concept of transparency to improve energy balance—in other words, the ability to see what’s around you, from where you are.
WeWork’s New York headquarters, for example, has a leadership zone adjacent to the building’s central pantry and lounge; clear glass partitions enable transparency between WeWork employees and C-suite leaders. This is intentional—evidence shows that leaders who are visible have more frequent interactions with subordinates, which reduces psychological distance.
Additionally, glass walls (like those we use at WeWork) reinforce social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s concept of “familiar strangers” and its contribution to a sense of community and trust in the workplace. “Individuals with repeated encounters, even those who are not directly linked to one another, can become strongly connected over time,” said Milgram.
Proximity varies cross-culturally
WeWork’s business is global. But no matter where our offices are located, our goal is to create the conditions for optimal energy. That’s why our team also considers cultural diversity and the different ways in which proximity plays a role—otherwise known as cultural proxemics. In our designs, we consider the proximity of coworkers within the workplace, and how it might vary depending on the culture and country.
For example, we’ve noticed that meetings in China tend to be larger and more formal, and typically take place in larger rooms, while meetings in Brazil tend to be unexpectedly large and more impromptu, and are often held in smaller rooms or informal settings. When it comes to lunch breaks, we’ve noticed that members in Mexico and Brazil tend to eat together in larger groups, whereas in Argentina and the Netherlands, members tend to eat in smaller groups or alone.
We’re continuing to understand how our workspace designs can complement the cultures in which they’re operating, which supports the overall energy balance of a space.
Energy and your workspace: putting it all together
When you feel an energy imbalance, there are specific levers, or conditions, you can work with to realign and balance that energy. As we’ve seen, it might not only be a spatial change; it might be a combination of social conditions—such as the language used when communicating design intent, cultural variations, or transparency—that you can examine. When approaching your own workspace, ask yourself:
- Have you created flexibility between your workspace and your people?
Our work environment should evolve with us. The most fluid occupants of a building are people; the building should be able to change to suit people’s needs.
Ask yourself: Are your employees able to set up the space (move chairs, tables, etc.) to suit their needs?
- Does your workspace provide options?
Spaces need to offer a variety of options that suits your employees’ needs. A workplace should anticipate a supply of options, aligned and attuned to every circumstance.
Ask yourself: Do you maximize interactions and design to allow people to retreat from high energy (to restore and refresh) vs. take an active part in high energy (to collaborate and discuss)?
When you see energy as an output of specific conditions, you see that the inputs are also within your control. It’s time to turn that buzz that you can’t quite describe into a tangible, actionable plan—one that will bring about positive changes for everyone in your workspace.
Special thanks to Daniel Davis, Annie Cosgrove, Gillian Lau, Rachel Montana, and Carlo Bailey, who led many of the WeWork studies discussed in this article.
WeWork offers companies of all sizes space solutions that help solve their biggest business challenges.
Claire Rowell is an applied researcher and strategist on the cultureOS team. Using social research, Claire uncovers insights that help WeWork’s member companies and their people transform how and where they work. Before joining WeWork, Claire was a workplace anthropologist at PLASTARC. Claire has a background in cultural anthropology.