For a Better Workplace, Put People First

Research shows that human-centered design benefits both employees and business.

by Lois Wellwood

At a financial services company’s offices in Brooklyn, an employee lounge provides a place to relax. Photo © Jeff Goldberg | Esto

Why should an organization invest in design?

This is perhaps the single most important question for architecture firms and their clients alike — and one that each side may see differently. When it comes to the workplace, many organizations perceive design as a luxury, rather than a necessity. They may doubt even the most compelling data about the impact of design.

The Hudson’s Bay Company headquarters in Manhattan accommodates diverse working styles. Photo © Magda Biernat

While design may be among the considerations in the early stages of a project, it can quickly become a distant thought as the discussion shifts to concerns about cost and disruption to the company’s workflow.

However, when we remember that workplace design is really about people — creating a satisfying, engaging work environment — we change the conversation.

What is design?

The nonprofit organization Design Management Institute defines design in terms of its practical value: “Simply put, design is a method of problem solving. Whether it is an architectural blueprint, a brochure, the signage system at an airport, a chair, or a better way to streamline production on the factory floor — design helps solve a problem.”

On a fundamental level, design can help solve many problems in the workplace. Often, one of a client’s foremost concerns is achieving an efficient use of space. Designers can maximize the square footage per person through creative planning, with concepts such as “hot-desking” and mobile working. But, in solving one problem, do we create another problem that is larger and more complex?

Integrating social amenities can give employees more options for where to work. Photo © Jeff Goldberg | Esto

Instead of placing the primary focus on real estate efficiency, workplace design must first meet the needs of the people who use it. The true value of design lies in how the spaces we create make people feel. In the best case, design of a workplace should reduce stress and connect people to the organization and to their colleagues around them. This fosters a more positive day-to-day experience, better employee performance, and in turn, better business results.

Instead of placing the primary focus on real estate efficiency, workplace design must first meet the needs of the people who use it.

How can we evaluate workplace design?

Leesman, a UK-based consultancy, conducts surveys to determine how workplaces support employee and organizational performance. Its publication, the Leesman Index, assigns a straightforward score for workplace functionality and effectiveness.

Many people experience the workplace as a highly prescribed environment, consisting of distinct spaces with pre-determined functions: offices, meeting rooms, workstations, collaborative spaces, and communal areas. As Leesman’s findings indicate, it takes much more than this to deliver a truly satisfying, engaging, and relevant work environment.

When employees are frustrated by a workplace that doesn’t support their work, productivity decreases; in the worst case, they stop using some spaces all together. Forcing an employee to complete tasks at his or her desk can undermine natural interactions and team collaboration. These drawbacks can be compounded by introducing “kit of parts” standards replete with “one size fits all” strategies. Research shows that one size fits very few.

Office interiors at Torre BBVA Bancomer in Mexico City. Photos © Rafael Gamo

John Medina, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington, points to current research on the malleability of the brain—a concept known as plasticity. “Since everyone experiences a slightly different environment and very different experiences over a lifetime […] every employee’s brain is wired differently,” he writes. As a result, each person may have different needs for the workplace that allows them to reach their fullest potential.

When we develop workplaces that focus on human needs — offering choice and control, and supporting interpersonal connection, interaction, and rejuvenation — we can truly improve people’s lives.

Supporting people, strengthening the business

We are connected by the environments we occupy each day. As we consider the value of workplace design and its impact on people, we must remember that it is not simply an aesthetic improvement or cost consideration. It is also an opportunity to improve quality of life, to foster collaboration and innovation, and to enhance the organization’s growth and development.

SOM’s “communicating stair” at The New School’s University Center promotes interaction among students and faculty.
Photos © James Ewing | OTTO

Research is emerging that supports this approach. Judith Heerwagen, an environmental psychologist, shows that workplaces that encourage human interaction tend to have employees who are more engaged in their work, and who also report decreased levels of stress. “Interactions result largely from movement patterns and spatial visibility, rather than planned conversations,” she writes in the research paper “Collaborative Knowledge Work Environments.” She identifies a direct correlation between “an individual’s line of sight and visibility and the extent to which they engage in unplanned interactions.” These interactions can also promote contact between different business units, disciplines, and the multiple generations in today’s workforce — leading to a greater sense of unity within a company.

People want to connect with their organization and their colleagues, and workplace design is perhaps the most powerful tool to achieve this.

Case study: JTI Headquarters

A deep-dive client engagement process can reveal shared challenges and common connections across multiple stakeholders. The design that emerges from this process may defy conventional thinking and views. It encourages creative problem solving that can lead to improved workplace strategies and more efficient ways of working.

A “continuous landscape” concept weaves a path through six levels of the JTI Headquarters building. Photo © Hufton + Crow

For example, in our design for JTI Headquarters, we sought to express the company’s brand values: “enterprising, open, and challenging.” From the open-plan offices and meeting rooms to shared amenity spaces and roof terraces, the architecture of the 400,000-square-foot office building provides opportunities for people to come together. JTI’s workspace embodies openness and flexibility, while fostering collaboration — and in this way, it supports not only the company’s business goals, but also employees’ quality of life.

The central courtyard at JTI Headquarters is one of several outdoor amenity spaces. Photo: Adrien Barakat © JTI

What’s next?

Workplace design is complex; rarely is there a single solution or “rubber stamp” approach that’s effective and enduring. By approaching workplace design in a holistic sense — to strengthen the company’s culture, express its brand, and also support the human experience — the organization will see benefits for both its business and its employees. People want to connect with their organization and their colleagues, and workplace design is perhaps the most powerful tool to achieve this.

The way we work is constantly changing, and we can’t foresee what the future may hold. But it is certain that investing in flexible, human-centered work environments will pay dividends in employee satisfaction — and in turn, productivity and positive business results.


Lois Wellwood is a leader of SOM’s interior design practice in New York.

For more ideas on what’s shaping the future of the workplace, read this interview: