Interview with Daniel Markwig
Today we’ll talk about the “Psychology of Space”. Can I save the money I spend on a psychologist after this interview?
The power our surroundings have on our mood and behaviors is often underestimated. Imagine being in a room that has been designed with materials that enhance sounds, such as glass and metal furniture or marble floors. You will automatically lower your voice and depending on your personality even become shy, as this is an environment that can make speaking up very uncomfortable. I remember a case in which the facility team of an office was very proud of the fact that they managed to lower the noise level of the air-conditioning to almost being unnoticeable. It turned out that from that moment on, people talked notably less. Only a few days after installing the sound dampeners the team decided to remove them, as the slight background noise turned out to encourage people to collaborate.
So the acoustic conditions and the level of background noise influence our behavior at work. What about the physical environment?
A study conducted by the University of BC Vancouver and the University of Minnesota evidenced that even the height of a room can influence our way of working. Their research revealed that people got more creative in a room with a ceiling height taller than 10ft (3m), while their concentration and attention to detail improved in a room with a lower than 8ft (2,40m) ceiling. The participants in the experiment could not tell what had changed in the room but they still reported an alteration in their mood. This proves that we can stimulate desired behaviors through the set-up of a space. This makes sense if you think for example of the way people’s appearance unconsciously makes us draw conclusions about them. A smaller person is often perceived as less powerful and when someone constantly crosses their arms we feel rejected by that person.
What kinds of room set-ups inspire which behaviors?
In our AppHaus in Heidelberg, SAP’s customer co-innovation space, we got to redesign the entire office space from scratch, and we decided to base the set-up plan on the working styles we wanted to encourage the teams to apply. We induced different personalities into the meeting rooms, which we achieved by using a storytelling approach to interior design. The first meeting room is Sherlock Holmes’ living room, where teams are inspired to look at innovation from a fact-based perspective, applying an inquisitive attitude, which is necessary when trying to understand the client’s needs like a detective. We also have a room inspired by Arabian Nights, which is of course all about storytelling. When working in the playroom, a room designed with infantile decoration and toys, thoughts are channeled in a more playful direction, encouraging teams to use a gamification approach. Those rooms help inspire our clients to follow the important steps of innovation: identifying their needs, simplifying the solution by converting it into a comprehensive story and creating an user-friendly and attractive framework.
Those are drastic changes that might not be feasible in all offices. What are more subtle steps to transform a workspace that still have an impact?
Small changes can have a huge impact. Even only tilting the rows of desks by 20 degrees, so that they are not in a rectangular angle to the walls, gives the spaces a totally different atmosphere: a bit untidy, but more natural, which makes people feel at home. It’s important to have different areas in an office, which facilitate diverse ways of working. The first step should be to define, together with the whole team, the needs a workspace should satisfy. As a second step, after the general set-up has been agreed on, every individual should have the possibility to personalize their space to a certain extent, as people are proven to be more engaged at work if they are given ownership. If you come to your desk in the morning and it reflects your personality in some way, this usually has a comforting and motivating effect. Generally speaking, a workspace for teams that are supposed to collaborate should be welcoming and open in order to facilitate an agile way of working, while also providing breakout possibilities. Flexible furniture and walls to write on and stick notes to provide perfect conditions for brainstorming sessions and a design thinking approach. When people feel at ease they can let their thoughts flow and be creative. This implies, for example, that they should be able to choose among different seating options and be given the possibility to work in a standing position.
It sounds like you have the perfect recipe for a workspace that inspires people to be collaborative and innovative.
As Simon Sinek puts it: “This is an infinite game”. There is no one-size-fits-all model and there isn’t even one perfect solution for every office — the workspace needs to stay flexible to adapt to changing needs. I think that you can motivate people to collaborate with open spaces when you do it correctly, but there are also drawbacks to this set-up. Some people might feel distracted or even an obligation to be quiet in order not to disturb others, which is counterproductive for collaboration. Some studies have shown that women have a harder time being respected in open spaces. So, to put it in a nutshell, an open space has many advantages, but it needs to serve a purpose and shouldn’t just be the cheapest option.
So where to start when redesigning an office space?
First, you need to define a clear goal of the set-up. MOSAIC - a tool that we developed in the AppHaus - facilitates a discussion among the members of a team to discover what they really need. It guides them through a discussion from “where we are today” to “where we want to go” in terms of workspace design. The tool then helps them find the right set-up to meet their needs. It’s important to remember that if you try to create a workspace that is an eierlegende Wollmilchsau (German for: does it all), it won’t serve the right purpose.
After everything you’ve told us, why do most of the big, successful companies have offices with fancy designs that are not exactly comfortable and inviting?
It’s a very common, but outdated approach. The design of a workspace sends a clear message to everyone. Showing off your wealth and the fact that your company is doing well through a shiny interior design belittles visitors and creates distance. However, the objective of companies is to build partnerships, so it makes much more sense to create a welcoming atmosphere that evokes a feeling of trust. Exhibiting that your company is making a profit is one way of making people trust you, as this can convey the impression of professionalism and quality. But in the end we are humans and what counts the most are personal relationships. You need to balance your message and take it as a stage approach: for example, your entrance hall might be elegant and professional — without being too intimidating — but when inviting customers, partners or employees in, you should let down the guard, because otherwise the message of superiority will get in the way of doing business.