That space, and how we design it, has an impact on our psychological health has perhaps never been more important to consider than it is today with COVID-19 concerns. But the rulebooks have changed.
Neurodivergent thinkers, for example, often have a heightened response to how a space is designed, be it the temperature, lighting, air quality, noise, overall sense of security, or a combination. But in the era of COVID-19, we all have a heightened sensitivity, specifically to touch and proximity.
For some people, working from home has created a sense of isolation while others find it comforting. Some workers are eager to get back to the office while others may feel “exposed” in open environments and will feel at risk. We need to embrace the notion that people will respond differently to the new reality we are living in, and giving them options, choice, and control is more important now than ever. For many, that may include a protracted return to shared space or opting for remote work for an extended period.
Today’s successful spaces will need to account for the new office psyche. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
, a motivational theory in psychology, suggests that until a person’s physiological and safety needs are met, they would be incapable of thinking about the kinds of things we now know to be prerequisite to employee engagement and well-being.
To create spaces that meet our psychological needs, we should start with the basics. We need to ensure that spaces provide optimal ranges for temperature, lighting, air quality, and noise, and that they are a safe haven for workers. Beyond the basics, we need to meet ergonomic, privacy, and safety ideals for wellness. But to go beyond that basic need and achieve wellbeing, we need to create spaces that enable individuals to find the right level of engagement, interaction, and connections, as well as reinforce the values and culture of the organization.
Some things won’t change. When we first arrive in a space, our natural instincts kick in. This is known as the “savanna effect.” Humans, like animals on the savanna, seek shelter, safety, and the basics for survival.
Our first instinct is the get the lay of the land. We want to understand our surroundings and make mental maps of the space. Then we instinctively seek comfort and refuge. Be it a preference to sit so you can always see the door or avoid having your back to a corridor, we naturally seek a place where we feel protected. This is why many people like to sit with their backs to the wall in a restaurant, have line of sight to the doors, or want to face the entry of their workspace rather than have their back to it. It is also why we feel at ease when we have a clear sense of direction and orientation.
As we rethink office design around COVID-19, we need to carry forward guiding principles to provide clear lines of sight and create a sense of wayfinding via architectural elements supplemented by signage when necessary to ensure ease of orientation and accessible. We also need to provide a variety of settings so individuals can find a location that meets their needs, both functionally and from an orientation point of view — and allows them to feel comfortable being back in the office.