Dr. Michael O’Neill, Ph.D. Ph.D. Architecture and Behavioral Science CEO, HumanSpace; Ms. Priya Manoharan MBA, Coventry University, West Midlands, England Haworth, Inc.

Office interiors are equally available to every employee that enters and works in the space, while wellness programs and training impact a select few. Trauma from the pandemic experience suggests that many workers will interpret a greater number of work events and social interactions as threats, potentially prompting stress responses. Our ongoing applied research is focused on an intervention using office design features, interior architecture, furnishings, and technology to nudge workers to reinforce behaviors, decisions, and activities that can moderate stress or reduce the quantity of threats that become stress, and contribute to well-being (Miller, Williams and O’Neill, 2018).

Since knowledge workers spend 40-60 hours per week working, and many are returning to the office, we have an opportunity to intentionally design the work environment to lessen stress, especially for impacted groups such as veterans, Black people, the neurodiverse, and the youngest generations at work. We are doing this with two global companies using locations in Stuttgart, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The workplace setting and experience it provides can be used to more equitably promote well-being (along with wellness programs and other interventions), improving the quality of life for millions of people and reducing costly healthcare expenses (Cohen, Evans, Stokols, and Krantz, 2013).

Research shows well-being is directly and indirectly affected by many features of the physical office environment (O’Neill, 1995; 2007; 2010). This research also suggests that work stress is an obstacle to well-being. Work stress-related disease is the fifth leading cause of death in the US (Pfeffer, 2018). Stress triggers the release of cortisol. Elevated levels of cortisol over time can have beneficial effects in terms of enhanced performance but can also lead to increased risk of cardiovascular disease (Vogelzangs, Beekman, Milaneschi, Bandinelli, Ferrucci, & Penninx, 2010). Cortisol has been described as “the gateway to disease” in the body, potentially related to an expanding array of chronic mental and physical health issues. Research identifies two broad capabilities in the furnishing and design of office space – environmental control and legibility – that can “nudge” people towards work behaviors, activities, and decisions that can lower stress and improve health, performance, meaningful work, sense of well-being, and even happiness (Evans, 1982; Miller, Williams, and O’Neill, 2018; O’Neill and Johnson, 2017).

Environmental control is the capability to manage work experiences to better support work needs by acting on workplace features and choosing location, time, and type of workspace (Lee and Brand, 2005; O’Neill, 2010; 2015). It includes policies that support choice of where and when to work alongside a variety of workspaces designed for differing ways of working, technologies that enhance choice and control over those features, and knowledge through training of how to act on them (Robertson, Huang, O’Neill, and Schleifer, 2008).

Studies suggest that the benefits of environmental control as related to psychological stress transcend age, generational affiliation, gender, and other demographic characteristics (Lee and Brand, 2005; O’Neill and Carayon, 1993; O’Neill, 1995; 2007; 2010). It is provided through architectural, interior, and furniture design features and workspace offerings. Architecturally, control can be providing by offering a wide choice of meeting room types, sizes and locations, movable partition walls, unassigned workspaces and lounge areas, and movable storage units. Control can be offered through adjustable furnishings such as ergonomic seating, height-adjustable worksurfaces, adjustable shelving, task lighting, monitor arms, etc. Technology allows employees to tailor a unique work experience. For example, sensors can gather environmental and occupancy data to shape spaces to users’ needs, and an online reservation application can enable choice by supporting selection of desired workspace.

With choice and control over ways to work, comes the need to make a greater number of decisions. Legible space – space that is easy to understand and use (Weisman, 1981) – can facilitate the decision-making process. Legibility is an “inclusive” design language, it makes a space, its people, and resources accessible to all, regardless of personal ability or background. It has six distinct characteristics (Figure 1). It offers a clearly organized floorplan, visual access to interior and exterior landmarks for orientation, identifiable zones for additional orientation that reinforce group identity, concise, informative signage about location of resources and accepted use of a space, and design, selection, and arrangement of furnishing that signal intended activities.

Together, legibility and environmental control can be used to develop a healthier work setting.

Intervention 1: We are currently implementing changes to improve two legible design features (carpet patterns that guide people, simplified interior space layout) at a 5,000 sq ft. pilot office location in Los Angeles. We are gathering baseline (pre-intervention) ratings of workspace features, frequency of self-reported frequency of stress symptoms and anxiety (Caplan, et al., 1975) through a survey given to the 80 occupants accessed through QR codes placed at each workpoint. We will have this benchmark data fully collected and analyzed by October 15, 2021.

A second intervention to be implemented in October 2021 will be an electronic room reservation system intended to improve occupant control over their work experience.

In October 2021, we are adding custom developed room sensors to track indoor air quality (IAQ), lighting and noise levels to add metrics for ambient environmental factors along with the design interventions. We will use TensorFlow technology to detect patterns in both environmental and survey ratings of space as predictors of stress and anxiety outcomes. At the time of this writing, we are completing the gathering of the first round of survey data that form the pre-change benchmark.

Tags: Applicable to all occupations/industries, Applied research, Case studies; single study; informal field studies; or similar reports and findings, Comprehensive Approaches to Healthy Work Design and Well-Being, COVID-19, Intervention, Interventions in the Workplace, Research-to-practice, Workplace Stress; Outcomes; and Recovery