There are a lot of assumptions about “the workplace of the future” and “the future of work, post-COVID-19.” Many of them involve plexiglass dividers, open floor plan modifications, and antiviral surfaces. However, the future is—without question—uncertain. What can we learn about the present to design a stronger culture of work? How can we lean on cognitive and behavioral science to help shape workplace policy and design?
Nearly six out of ten employees report suffering from at least one chronic disease; environment, lack of exercise, and persistent stress being proven contributors to chronic illness. As designers, we should leverage advances in cognitive and behavioral science to understand how workplace design contributes to unwellness. Lost productivity directly linked to illness is substantial—US employers lose $530 billion per year. However, the cost of employee disease and distress extends beyond sick days taken and hours lost.
Workplace Stress, Workplace Effect
Human homeostasis, our internal biological balance, is disrupted when we experience stress and anxiety. Anxiety from isolation in a cubicle all day or a cramped meeting room triggers cortisol and stress responses in the brain. Cortisol is a hormone released into the blood stream when our brain perceives danger. Stress shuts down our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for complex thought. That means creativity, critical thinking, and thoughtful problem solving are physiologically suppressed while stressed. Stress also affects the immune system, making people more prone to respiratory illnesses and even cancer.
Heightened cubicle walls, a proposed short-term solution limiting the spread of COVID-19, will lead to isolation and eventually higher cortisol levels. In order to adhere to physical distancing protocol while supporting wellness, spaces need less cubes and more frequent, spacious collaboration spaces. These spaces create an atmosphere that boosts creative thinking and cleanses cortisol from employees’ system, strengthening the feelings of connection and culture within the workplace—supporting human homeostasis and internal biological balance.
Home, Office, and the Third Space
Flexible schedules and WFH policies are obviously necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19. These shifts present an opportunity—not a hinderance. According to the philosophies of Universal Design, a one-size-fits-all model doesn’t support creativity and performance.
Gallup reports that 25–30% of the workforce will opt to work remotely multiple days a week by 2021. Our current clients are looking at numbers ranging from 50–80% working part-time from home. These statistics point to what we inherently know: each employee has their own working methodology. Some employees thrive in open, social spaces and others need privacy and quiet. Some work well in the morning and others at night. Rather than fight it—embrace the workplace variability.
We’re at a critical point. Design strategies that support homeostasis and cognitive wellness will be crucial to driving innovation and sustaining productivity throughout these stressful and unprecedented times. In order to be resilient, we have to start prioritizing people over policies, collaboration over silos, and flexibility over stringency—not only in the future workplace, but in the present one.
Over the next several weeks we’ll be investigating how to rework workplace—and we’ll present additional integrated design strategies to support people and successful practices in a COVID-19 world.