No place like home: why domesticity counts in offices
Scientific research suggests that when returning to the workplace our performance will be improved by providing a home-like state of environmental control and privacy.
Sending a message
Residential-type furniture is really about the most superficial way that a workplace can be designed to feel like home. Homes are spaces where we feel comfortable and relaxed, where we feel we have control of our world, where we have privacy when we want it and the ability to mingle with others when that’s preferred, where we feel that we can accomplish what we want to get done and are able to refresh after we do whatever we’ve planned.
Homes also send positive messages to us about who we are as a person – you get the idea, you probably have a home and know why you relish being there (at least when you don’t have to be there all the time). In 2016, after reviewing the work of neuroscientists and sociologists, IKEA reported that homes are spaces that ‘inspire feelings of comfort, safety and belonging’.
All of this control, which equates with homey-ness, puts us in a good mood. This good mood, as Veitch of the National Research Council of Canada reports, has significant and desirable consequences for how well we get along with other people and how effectively we do our jobs – for example, resolving issues, thinking creatively (2012).
Veitch specifically states that working conditions can make it more likely that we’ll be in a good mood and that ‘state of positive affect [mood] . . . in turn leads to benefits in the form of increased cooperation, reduced competition, improved intellectual performance, and increased creativity. . . The benefits of conditions that create positive affect can be used to justify investments in specific design features known to be generally preferred, and particularly to support the implementation of individual environmental controls in offices.’
The property of a home that will, arguably, be the most important driver of home-like feelings in future workplaces is a comfortable level of environmental control.
A comfortable number of choices, according to Iyengar and Lepper, enhances both our mood and our performance. So, for example, create a carefully curated set of work zones, each supporting a different sort of activity, and when options are available for temperature, for example, or the position of automated window screens, make sure there are four or so pre-set alternatives, not an infinite number of choices from which to choose.
Wohlers and Hertel (2017), writing about activity-based workplaces, report that ‘Negative effects of openness of work environments, such as noise and interruptions, may be buffered by employees’ experiences of personal control on deciding where to work, choosing from several (enclosed or open) activity-related working locations.
However, as employees have non-assigned workstations, they have limited abilities to demonstrate psychological ownership within the office, negatively affecting wellbeing and job satisfaction at the individual level. At the team level, low levels of territoriality may negatively affect team identification, information sharing and trust within teams, resulting in low team satisfaction and performance.’
Having privacy, in other words being able to choose to be alone or with a select group of other people when we want, is a form of environmental control (Gifford, 2014). When we can’t get privacy, either as an individual or as a group or work team, as needed, we become stressed at a core, debilitating level. This state is as bad for our mood as it is for our professional performance (Gifford, 2014).
Having privacy is different from being free of distractions, because when we have privacy we can control our world acoustically and visually; if we’re distraction free at a particular moment, unless we can prevent others from entering our visual or acoustic zones, we don’t have privacy. At work, privacy is found in a space where we can spend time feeling secure that no-one will see or hear us, or that we’ll see or hear nobody else.
A private space might be, for instance, at a distance from others or come complete with a door that closes, for example; it is not found at a high-backed chair tucked in next to a window beside another high-backed chair.
Symbolic meaning of design
Just as it is important that a home-like workplace provide users with a comfortable level of control over their experiences, it is also very important that it silently communicates that the users are valued by the organisation that employs them (Veitch, 2012). Veitch shares that ‘organisations implicitly communicate the value of the employees in the office environments provided’ as well as their respect for worker judgment and other messages.
One of the ways that a space can communicate that users are valued is by supporting the tasks in hand, for example, fostering concentration when users are trying to focus.
Without opportunities for mental refreshment, our professional performance declines and we become irritable (Gifford, 2014). Research data indicates that looking at nature images helps reduce stress and is mentally refreshing, for example. It is also cognitively revitalising to look at water, even water in a fountain, to see green leafy indoor plants, and to hear nature sounds, for instance.
Offices that provide us with comfortable amounts of control over our at-work experiences, send us positive non-verbal signals, and genuinely support us as we try to accomplish whatever we’ve been asked to do, will seem like home. They will make it more likely that we feel comfortable, and encourage us to perform to our full potential and mingle pleasantly with others.
Home-like workplaces create a ‘home at work’ with all the benefits at a fundamental level of our psyche that a Chesterfield sofa alone can never really reach.
This article is based on a research piece 'No place like home: why domesticity counts in offices', authored by Sally Augustin, for WORKTECH Academy. Workplace Futures Group is a Corporate Member of the Academy, which is a global online platform and membership organisation for the future of work and workplace design.
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