Well-Design… at Work

Well-DesignI have been interested that, on several recent occasions, the idea of designing for wellness principles has strongly come forward. For example, I was recently facilitating a change alignment session with 40 people who will move from private offices into a shared workplace. This level of change is abrupt for this group, and they have many concerns. One concern that came forward was a fear of germs, and the sharing of sickness because of more open settings and shared surfaces. The fear, though not completely logical, gained additional momentum after the session as a symbol that, “open space lessens wellness.”

I had been seeing a waning of interest in design specifically for wellness; particularly for programs like LEED, Well-building, Green Globes, etc. Upon deeper thought, I wonder what the gap is between what these standards promote, and what people need to be well in their work and workplace.

Wellness is a part of well-being, but being well is more than simply reducing exposure to germs to protect the health of the body. I recall a few years ago the phrase, “sitting is the new smoking”, which ignited a sit-to-stand desk revolution that is continuing today. While physical health has remained a core of well-design, physical health alone is incomplete. Even Well Building Standards seem short of a complete picture of what well-design could/should/would be.

Here are four well-ways to consider the value of design toward being a “well” person:

1. Physical wellness: Fitness, exercise, and aerobic health; The Body.

A few years back we designed an interior project for the new calls center with, what I would consider, an above standard fitness center for a corporate site of 1,200 people. Also, to promote stair use over elevator use, the developer of the build-to-suit core and shell built the stair towers outboard of the building core, expand the stair widths and landings, and glass enclosing the full height corners of the landings. A year later we measured the perception of people working to determine an increased drive to choose the stair over the elevator. We also built an interior strategy for design to include a “walking path” around the full outer edge of the floor plate and passed out pedometers on day one. A year later we observed people walking the path during their 15 minutes breaks from the phones.

2. Social well-being: Positive human interaction; Relationships.

It seems our design profession has centered on this reality with a design focus on collaborative environments. The idea has been sound in driving people together to share ideas and build culture. Yet, we know that ‘open’ does not equal ‘social’, and the backlash of the past few years has been resounding. Social interaction tends to happen in small social dynamics, while open expanses natural heighten the senses, causing eventual social exhaustion. There is much work for us to do in this area of designing for relationship well-being.

3. Psychologically well: Mental fortitude and reasoning ability; The Mind.

This is an area of great fascination involving workplace design. How do we, in what we design for people working, affect the nature of psychological fortitude? To be a well-minded person may best refer to feelings of emotional control and positivism. People that are generally perceived to be psychologically well tend to show themselves as secure, generally focused, and usually positive. In the workplace these individually well people seem to ‘belong’ and produce results for the benefit of others. Psychological wellness may represent alignment between the individual and the organizational culture into which they belong, generating an above average ability to think and reason in the face of complex work. Belonging comes about from shared vision, strengths-based alignment, and equitable exchanges of value within the work being created. Belonging reduces physical and social stresses so that thinking may come forward from psychological clarity. For design to add value to be psychologically well, we as designers must cross back and forth with business vision, aligning design to a branded experience in the workplace that creates mindfulness. I suggest, therefore, when we create graphic messages and images inside the workplace, the mindful actions and attitudes of the work may create psychologically well people. More work is needed on this.

4. Creatively and Intuitively well: Inspiration, aspiration, and the experience of life; The Spirit.

Of the four qualities of being well, becoming creatively and intuitively well is the most complex and difficult to conceptualize. This is spiritual in nature. Creative and intuitive well principles in work seem to connect with our inherent drive to produce results, based on our intrinsic desires, inherent strengths, and volatile passions. Every child is an artist without fear of criticism for their scribbles that tell their stories. The combination of maturing along with self-awareness and extrinsic criticism build rationalism that erodes these childhood creative and intuitive drives. Most work environments have, through trial and error, managed out creative systems in lieu of efficiency and effectiveness drivers. Teams are organized in hierarchies, and status symbols are assigned to space types. The results are an implied suppression of the intuitive nature of ideation. I believe this aspect of well-centered design remains vastly unexplored and full of potential as a design philosophy that would enhance the value of well-design.

These four key well-design criteria, to me, seem to play well in terms of space promoting a whole person experience. These four principles, in themselves complex, are an attempt to simplify and categorize the idea of abundance thinking over deficit thinking as defined by positive psychology.

Kim Cameron teaches from his research in organizational culture that, “Evolutionary theory suggests: If people ignore negative information, it could cost them their lives. If they ignore positive feedback, it only causes regret.”. He teaches that only through conscious effort can we overcome our learned deficit attitudes. Building on this, I wonder about the positive value of investigating the potential of well-design principles.

A focus on any one aspect, such as a fear in germ sharing, has too much potential to create an imbalance in well-design strategy. As we worked with the group of 40, we introduced the relationship, the thinking, and the creative value of the design. At the outset, the negative fears outweigh the positive imagination, but the business value was seen in the purpose of creating a well-design workplace for people. The team did decide to distribute disinfecting wipes on day one.