As companies ramp up the push to bring workers back to the office, many employees are now heading back into workplaces that look significantly different from the ones they left, with new layouts, new amenities, and new expectations for how, when, and why the space will be used.
For employers, the return is a chance to craft new norms not only around how work is done, but around how the built environment can support worker health and wellbeing. We asked Dr. Cristina Banks, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at the University of California, Berkeley, about the design features that make offices healthier places for their occupants. Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation:
How do you define a healthy workplace?
There are two major aspects to a healthy workplace. The first is to reduce the factors that cause job strain and stress, because those are the factors that cause poor health and wellbeing. And the other piece is to promote factors that increase basic need satisfaction, because health and wellbeing are a function of the satisfaction of these basic needs. So a healthy workplace has both components. It's both physical and psychological.
What are the physical components? And which ones should organizations be prioritizing as more employees come back?
This is a system. It's the physical baked-in features of the built environment, and then all the operations and activities that happen within it. They all have to work together. It has everything to do with how the physical environment reduces the amount of frustration, disengagement aspects of work, interruption that makes the day longer and causes people to respond in a fight-or-flight manner or causes some bad things happening with your physiology.
So you need to design the physical environment in ways that actually promote health and wellbeing. And the key to that is having design qualities that provide for that satisfaction, and to make sure that you aren't throwing things into the built environment like noise and interruptions and a lack of privacy and inability to find workspace. On the psychological side, it's really about the organizational processes, practices, and programs that you put in place that promote people's ability to accomplish their work and do their work well, to have a positive work experience, and to feel like they belong in the organization and that there's meaning to their work. They're well rewarded for their work and they feel a part of it.
So that's how the whole thing needs to fit together. You' e got people in HR that are chopping away at some of the bits, and you've got people in real estate and workplace strategies chopping away at some of those bits, but they don't talk together. They don't work together. So one of the things that is hurting organizations today and has been for the last three years is a disconnect with leadership and management in terms of what workers need and the kind of support they need to provide. And we're still stuck there.
How do we solve that disconnect?
Before, we were building workplaces that concentrated on how to create the greatest density, and that led to open offices and cubicles and a lot of noise. That is something that people don't want to come back to: noise interruptions, lack of privacy. These are problems that have existed before the pandemic, and the way they're being solved now is that companies are creating more meeting spaces, more social spaces, and thinking more about collaboration and segregating those spaces. They’re building more and being more tuned into noise. But that may not solve what really causes the interruptions, the noise, and so on.
So we still have the factors that drive people crazy in the workplace on the physical side. And on the operational side or organizational side, we have a real management problem. There's much less communication with managers, much less coaching, much less professional development, much less face-to-face time with your boss. We have some real problems with getting back to understanding that managers manage people and not things. We have to get back to people feeling like there is management of their performance, there is an opportunity for recognition and personal development, there is an opportunity to excel and to be acknowledged for their contributions.
Some leadership wants people back in the office to create the buzz that they yearn for, to create this culture of meaningful work. ‘We're on a mission, we're doing important work, and we need everything from you.’ It gets back to the recent articles on quiet quitting. Leadership wants people to come back and work with the same intensity and fervor that they had before. People aren't there anymore.
So quiet quitting is really demonstrating that, ‘You know what? I was highly productive working remotely. I'm not going back to the sweatshop. My life is not wrapped around work anymore, my life is wrapped around friends and family.’ Instead of their social relationships at work, maintaining that culture and camaraderie, they have their friends and their family substituting for that. So how are you going to put the genie back in the bottle? It just won't happen.
What features of the workplace would be most effective in making people want to come back?
The issue here is that the physical environment has to have the comforts of home, but better than being home. Which means it has to have these qualities of being flexible, comfortable, predictable, equitable, more social—because they want to connect with their bosses and their coworkers—and safer. There's a lot of signals now that we're not there. The news is reporting a lot of companies spending time on social events and parties and things like that, but that does not make a home or something better. It doesn't make it comfortable. We still need to remove those things that cause the stress and the job strain that were there before, like giving people all the resources in order to get their work done efficiently, because long work hours will turn people away. Frustration will turn people away.
And so a concrete thing that they can do is curate who comes back when. Make sure that when people come back to work, they come back when the people they want to see are there. So you're curating who's there when, so that the people they want to be with and reconnect with can be there with them at the same time together. That takes a scheduling and logistics application. The next thing is to create neighborhoods in the physical space so that it's not by team necessarily, unless they really like each other, but by friend groups or affiliations or identity that they elect.
It also means that people own a desk. There has to be places they can go that are private, so they can do high-concentration work. That means more space where people can be quiet and segregated from everyone else. There has to be that balance between social space, where they can do their work and be noisy, and quiet space.
Some of the workplace strategists I've been talking to have started to think about creating neighborhoods that are different from team neighborhoods. Teams can always get out of their seats and go someplace and meet. They don't necessarily have to be there to turn around and say something to someone else with respect to their work. What we're trying to do is create an environment where people have a sense of belonging to their coworkers and to the organization. How do we create those connections?
What’s the best way to curate those neighborhoods and schedules? How can organizations know who wants to connect with who?
Some combination of HR and logistics has to figure out how to query people in the organization. Who would you want to work with? Who would you want to see at work? They're all going to say their boss, number one. But if they're given permission to create their own neighborhoods, they will. Then it's a matter of determining which days they'll be sitting together and which days they'll be working from home. So it's permission and support from the organization, and then the workers determining how to populate the algorithm, if you will.
When you talk about giving people the resources they need to do their jobs, are social relationships part of those resources?
They definitely are. One cannot work at a high pace indefinitely without breaks. We have a lot of research that said that when you get cognitive breaks, physical breaks, you can get back to work and be more effective. So how do social relationships fit into that? They can be on a break basis. They can be time outside of work or during work, but they're very important to reinforce and support.
What leadership doesn't recognize is that the pathway to high performance is through health and wellbeing. It's been demonstrated over and over. When you don't allow people to have their health and wellbeing, then you get productivity problems. For people coming back to work, will it burn them out? Will it cause disengagement? Will it cause wellbeing issues for people? Because that all works against what the company wants.
It sounds like that’s the social element. What do the other traits such as flexibility and predictability that you mentioned look like in practice?
Flexibility: You can go to a place where you can get the resources, supplies, meet the people and do your work in the setting that's really going to support that work. Companies think they've solved that through online reservation systems, but what they don't track is how many times people ask for a room and can't get it. So we need to solve that, like building more meeting rooms, getting a real feel for what the need is. Or suggesting alternatives to people, instead of saying, ‘Nope, you can't get it,’ but suggesting ways that they can do it either at an alternate time or an alternate place. Flexibility also means work hours, how many work hours they're at work. When are the work hours coordinated with their neighborhood groups and so on?
Predictable is another one. Predictable means that when you come to work, you have a place that's yours. It's not hoteling, because people like to nest. So you have a place, you know who's going to be there, you know when they're available, you know when you can get a room. You can get the resources you need for the day. You can get food and beverages. Because when people come downtown, a lot of the restaurants aren't open anymore. And also that there is a predictable time that they can socialize with their friends. Reliable wifi. Technology that works. So predictability means that you remove uncertainty to the greatest degree.
Comfortable means that you have ergonomic desk furniture that is comfortable, and when you have social settings, you have comfy furniture just like home couches. But the comfort is also a feeling of protection from harassment and being excluded. So this gets into the diversity and inclusion issue. When they go to work, they're comfortable being a part of that organization and they feel like they belong and they can go anywhere. There is equal access to windows. So comfortable is physical and psychological.
Equitable is about messaging from the organization that everybody counts and that everybody is an important contributor. So you could have messaging on the walls, you could have messaging coming through the internet for the company. But most of it is, do people have equal access to views and windows? Do people get equal access to high-value activities? You have to feel like it's fair and people who come to work have to feel like it is worth it for them coming in, because they will be recognized as an important contributor and that it doesn't matter who you are. But physically it's about access to resources, benefits. Everybody has healthcare. Everybody has sick leave.
Safer has to do with both physical safety and psychological safety. Let me tackle physical safety: I'm reading now that companies are not asking for testing or masks, no proof of vaccination. It's just like the Covid doesn't exist anymore. And not everybody has a situation where they're comfortable with getting Covid. That's what they're asking people to do, is come to work and get Covid at some point and you'll be okay. So physical safety is one issue. The other is psychological safety. If you were harassed or excluded or in an uncomfortable position before Covid, coming back, will you feel like those issues will be resolved?
As organizations shrink their office footprints, what should they be focused on preserving to make sure the workplace is most conducive to wellbeing?
I'm going to take a left-field answer to this. Why do they want to shrink their footprint? Because the productivity is already being done on employees’ real estate, so there's no net loss. It's all about, ‘Let's lower our costs,’ but what you're doing is you're creating a problem with your workforce in terms of them feeling like they belong. Because as soon as you shrink, there are only two ways to go. One is hotel, find an empty desk, which is really off-putting.
So they either hotel or you have to figure out schedules, so people share desks on different days. Double up people on desks, but in the same neighborhood, so that they still feel like they own a place, but those desks aren't going be occupied by those people all five days of the week. You can stagger schedules so that people can share desks. But the important thing is that they have a home. The home can be a desk, or it can be a neighborhood.
Could you unpack that a little bit more? What is the psychological connection between having ownership over a place and wellbeing?
Belonging is one of the key basic needs we have, and we want to design offices and operations in a way that really underscores that. And so one physical connection to belonging is having a home. That's why nesting becomes so important, is that it is the most basic way that we feel like we have a home. We have a human nature to nest. We want to have our own place. And when we don't have our own place, we don't feel like we belong. Belonging is the most important thing for people to want to come back to the office.
The same for comfy furniture. What we're trying to do with comfy furniture is to provide a feeling of physical and psychological comfort that creates a sense of ease, and a sense of positive emotions that then drive wellbeing. We have to swamp the advantage of their home environment. At work, we have to simulate what they have at home, but give them more. Because if we don't, the preference will always be at home. So what's different about being home versus being at the office? Well, the belonging component is what's missing from home, and that’s why it’s got to be really strong at work.
Flexibility in time is what's really strong at home—picking up your kids, exercising, eating, whatever. We can only create that flexibility and time at work if we give people permission to decide when they work and where, and how long. That's got to be coordinated with a team. And then safety is another thing that people have working from home. How do we create that safety at work?
What are some of the more common mistakes you’re seeing?
Number one in dealing with a hybrid environment is not curating who comes to work when, so there's no pull back to the office. There's no certainty of who's going to be there. Number two is reducing the footprints, so it's a different environment and your home is gone. The third is trying to establish the same culture of high pace, high productivity, high strain environments that was there before, because that's what leadership knows. They're building out workspaces in ways that create more social environments and more meeting in meeting rooms and things like that, and throwing parties. They're trying to re-recruit their employees. But they haven't changed the work fundamentally—how people work, the resources they need to work, working with their manager. They haven't fixed the management problem.
Are there any other design features that are considered best practices?
The work experience that you want to engender in your workforce is that the company cares about you. And if they care about you, it can't just be about, ‘How much can you produce for me?’ It has to be, ‘I want you to have a great experience. I want you to be here for the long term.’ It means that they have to not only look at the employee as a worker and what they can produce, but also, what are their personal issues or needs that have to be fulfilled?
We do that by recognizing that people have these basic human needs, and with the built environment, we demonstrate caring by providing the circumstances to satisfy those needs. How many ways can you physically lay out the office and the whole building so it looks like we care about connecting? This is just a silly example, but a central stairway. Make the stairs a central feature, but put pads on the stairs so people will sit on them, maybe have their lunch or their coffee, and it becomes like the Spanish steps. Another way to care is, ‘We know you have big childcare issues. What if we built an extension or used some of our space to hold a childcare center?’
Another thing is, ‘We know that noise really bothers you. We need to create private soundproof space so that when you have private conversations, they're kept private and it's quiet.’ Caring comes in the form of understanding that what you build really changes behavior and people's work experience. So how can you build it? Bathrooms that are gender-neutral and single-stall. Not having people walk behind your desk, because pathways where people walk create a lot of noise. So making the walkways far away from where people are trying to concentrate. There are so many ways to express this, and we're just not creative. We just keep stamping out the same offices because someone said, ‘Oh, this works.’
I'm working on a project with the University of Houston, a new building that's going up there. We are starting with the planners with a blank sheet and saying, ‘Okay, what does this building need to look like? How should it operate?’ The leadership of the school has given us free reign to help them understand how to create a great experience for the occupants in the building and to achieve their objectives. So heavy on understanding, what are the work activities that people need to do? What are the work supports physically and operationally to help them do that? And then how do we build in the health and wellbeing design qualities that will promote a healthy environment ?
On the planning side, this is unusual that we got a seat at the table. When you build a new building, bringing in the people who really understand the occupants and the work that they have to do and how they need to do it, things like privacy, quiet, being close to resources—that isn't done in normal programming. So we need to change that process so that the occupant experience comes first and everything is backfilled to promote that.
How should workplaces be designing around Covid right now?
First of all, they need to make sure that their ventilation system can handle the destruction of pathogens. And lots of fresh air. The second is, they should be totally open and supportive of people who want to wear masks. If there's a norm of, ‘What are you doing? You know, you're a party pooper’—it needs to be reinforced by leadership that this is a personal choice and this is about freedom to be safe. And then, when you get sick, you stay home. Don't don't come to work. Paid sick leave is very important. We're living with this thing still.