The science behind smart office design

Successful office spaces mirror their workers—adaptive, intuitive, and always changing

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.

You work hard in your space, but how hard is your space working for you?

At “The Science of Space,” a recent learning event held at WeWork 12130 Millennium Dr in Los Angeles, Liz Burow, WeWork’s VP of workplace strategy, and Google designer and former MIT Media Lab researcher Chrisoula Kapelonis discussed how the right office design can actually improve memory, boost your mood, and strengthen your brand.

A well-designed workspace is more than just visually appealing—it enables you to get work done, keeps you motivated, and connects you to your team. According to Burow, this gives employees the “freedom to work knowing things are taken care of.” Thinking of a building as an opportunity to amalgamate data provides valuable insight into how people work—how long they spend in certain spaces, where conversation is most lively, or what kind of furniture stimulates creativity.

Burow explained that according to the “Allen curve,” communication decreases with distance, so a variety of spaces—from the pantry and kitchen to a multitude of meeting rooms—are engineered to keep teams close, designed with a variety of tasks, functions, and personality types in mind. When you tune into the space, it’s easy to see how design influences the way you function. For example, narrow hallways foster connectivity and interaction, while logical flow from office units to communal spaces helps improve memory by limiting distraction. (As Burow puts it, this eliminates those dreaded “what did I walk into the room for?” moments).

Humans have always used spaces for the same instinctive tasks, like safety, sleep, and community. Burow relates that designing the modern office takes these themes and translates them into systems where people can either retreat—pods, offices, or phone booths, for example—or bond with their community. (Unlike our ancestors, however, we need a lot of electrical outlets.) Finding a sense of “invisible tactility”—the relationship of the body and its environment—comes down to tenets of autonomy, equity, familiarity, and comfort.

Kapelonis studies how the design of the spaces we use influences how we use them, and forecasts how to integrate technology to build new experiences. Most spaces, she said, are not responsive enough to their users. At MIT, Kapelonis created the Escape Pod, a room in which workers could adjust everything from visibility settings to desk height, facilitating “moments of productivity and relaxation to occur within a single space.”

In designing the “perfect workspace,” Kapelonis explained, the trick is to realize that not all workers (or jobs) are created equal. Combining subjective and objective data is the only way to design spaces in which all kinds of people can feel comfortable. The Escape Pod achieved this delicate balance by offering inhabitants maximum flexibility and agency to augment the space themselves with individual panels that changed the specifics of the space (think about a high-tech version of a Murphy bed, where a simple action transforms a living room into a bedroom). It’s a 21st-century choose-your-own-adventure style of working.

As technology evolves and improves, Kapelonis believes that incorporating “smart” materials—products that can be changed in a controlled fashion by external stimuli, such as light, temperature, or even stress—into workspaces is the wave of the future. And while we aren’t quite there yet, she also said we can use technology to map data about productivity and emotional well-being the way we track our physical health. In her research, Kapelonis has studied wearables that measure happiness and stress based on human interactions (which could lead to better communication and conflict resolution) and individual sonic signatures that alert you to when friends or connections are in a certain location. After all, it’s only reasonable to believe that a space in which you spend so many hours of your life has a significant effect on your mood. Continuing to integrate functionality that positively impacts our inner selves is a big part of designing for the future.

Successful office spaces mirror their workers—adaptive, intuitive, and always changing. Just as our spaces inform our work, the way we work also influences good design. We might not have flying cars, but we do have intuitive offices, and that’s something to believe in.  

Ready to make your space work for you? There are some simple hacks you can do give your environment a boost—right now.

Incorporate color. We’re immensely influenced by color, so getting the right hues in your office is an important building block of a good day, said Kapelonis. Touches of yellow and orange stimulate creativity, while blue and green are calming. If you can’t paint walls, displaying art that contains these colors is a quick and easy way to tap into the power of the rainbow.

Light it up. The right lighting can lead to improved focus, less eye strain, and a better workday. Move your desk as close to natural light as possible, and consider investing in adjustable shades (replicating the customizable light experience of the Escape Pod). Installing a dimmer on your overhead light or getting a lamp with adjustable settings also helps you create different moods during the day depending on whether you’re reading, using your computer, or simply taking a break.

Get moving. It can be tempting to create a one-stop shop at your desk, but never having a reason to get up limits how much you can do in a day, said Burow. Creating strategic communal spots, from coffee to supplies, helps you stay in touch with your team and keeps the communication flowing.

The event concluded with a tour of the space at WeWork 12130 Millennium Dr, which allowed attendees to explore the real ways in which optimal space design are brought to life. Interested in seeing for yourself? Book a tour near you today.

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