Defining the Future Workplace

Our evolutionary past holds the key

Corporate real estate has, for some time, been preoccupied with the future of work and how it will manifest in the coming months, years, or decades. This is not new. But it’s definitely top-of-mind right now.

Fueled by the exponential rise of technology and other factors, including generational diversity and an increasingly global economy, ours is a continually evolving, somewhat ephemeral industry. It seems as if everyone’s searching for the silver bullet that will re-imagine the workplace as a place that supports and maximizes our most essential resources—space and the people in it.

I should preface this “thought piece” by confessing I'm neither a cognitive scientist nor a behavioral expert. I’m simply an industry professional who’s equally passionate about design and history, and specifically human history. I'm reminded that we need to understand where we've been to truly know where we're going.

“The farther back you can look, the farther forward you can see," Winston Churchill once said. I believe this statement holds true in every aspect of life, and not least, the world of work.

A Tale of Two Evolutions
The modern office—and commercial real estate—is a relatively new concept and industry. The office originated in the early 1700s, around the time the East India Company was engaging in long-distance trade with Asia. Managing an empire on the other side of the world wasn’t easy, so the company devised a systematic way for people to gather, record, and inventory a tremendous amount of goods and related documentation within a purpose-built space.

Enter the office space.

Fast-forward 100+ years, the inventions of the elevator, telephone, and typewriter in the late 1800s delivered crucial stages in the evolution of the modern office. By the 20th century, we were defining how to optimize our work potential—while being confined indoors and connected by mechanisms that streamlined both our movement and interactions with each other. Early office spaces emerged from a desire to replicate the efficiency of systematic production—an administrative production line, if you will.

There was just one problem with this approach. Our brains and physiology have evolved over that last two millennia (or thereabouts) to optimally function in conditions starkly opposite to those that emerged post-Industrial Revolution.

The bottom line? The way we work is fundamentally, irrevocably in conflict with how we’ve been designed to think.

If Thinking Made It So
According to developmental molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules, Dr John J. Medina, humans have lived in wild, untamed nature for 99.987% of our time on this planet. While we’re still learning about the human brain, Medina claims we do understand what conditions allow it to process information most efficiently and accurately. According to his research, the brain “appears to have been designed to solve problems related to surviving in an outdoor setting in unstable meteorological conditions, and to do so in near-constant motion."

In other words, our brains have been forged and refined in a hostile outdoor environment for millennia. As a result, it’s the world's most sophisticated survival organ, designed to operate best when fully immersed in the natural world.

In 1975, British geographer Jay Appleton advanced the “Prospect-Refuge Theory,” which claims we feel more secure in specific environments than others because they meet the basic psychological needs that help us function more efficiently.

Having evolved on the Serengeti’s open plains means humans naturally gravitate to “places that allow us to see, but without being seen,” Appleton says. Our built-in survival mechanism makes us prefer places of refuge that let us quickly survey the surrounding landscape (spot prey and predators, or “prospect”) and retreat and hide if necessary (from predators and other threats; that is, find “refuge”). Appleton argues refuge spaces deliver both a pleasurable human experience and psychological safety.

Creating Spaces That Work
So, what does this have to do with the corporate real estate industry?

For 200+ years, we’ve confined ourselves to do our best work in largely unnatural, enclosed environments, breathing recycled air and working under artificial light with limited access to the outdoors. But recently architects, designers, manufacturers, and companies like Haworth have begun to look to our biological predilections for clues to creating more effective workspaces.

What cognitive scientists and theorists such as Medina, Appleton, and others have postulated is that it’s not sufficient to have only one type of space—our brains perform best when they have a choice of spaces that support their cognitive needs. Furthermore, providing “big-sky” strategic thinking spaces (prospect) as well as focus spaces (refuge) for safety or detailed planning, naturally creates a third space. This acts as an interstitial space of movement between prospect and refuge areas, or the "transit space"—and this space, in particular, provides designers with an interesting opportunity.

Productivity in Transit
Evolutionarily-speaking, humans have learned to solve problems on-the-go while moving between prospect and refuge spaces. And Dr Medina concludes we’ve also learned to do our most creative and innovative thinking within such interstitial spaces.

It makes sense—on the Serengeti and beyond, if we’d stopped moving and stayed put for a while, we’d likely end up as something’s lunch. As the human brain evolved under transitional conditions (i.e., moving between environments), one might predict the optimal environment for processing information or problem-solving would include motion. At the very least, we’ve evolved to seek the right setting for the right task.

Unfortunately, today’s work environments have replaced the irregular terrain, uncertain conditions, and sudden dangers of the outdoors for a consistent, controlled environment that reduces movement. Desks, couches, and cubicles all require us to remain sedentary for large parts of our waking day—and these are antithetical to promoting innovative thinking.

We struggle with this dilemma in the corporate real estate industry. How do we take our “modern” sedentary conditions—the conditions we’ve purposefully created and perpetuated—and incorporate those elements of our primordial past that will optimize our deeply programmed predilections?

At Haworth, examining this workplace conundrum has taken us on a journey of discovery. We’re breaking apart, redefining, and reshaping workplace archetypes to find that tenuous balance between prospect, refuge, and transit spaces that lets our brains to do their best work.

And, as cognitive scientists learn more about how our brains and biology function, and how to capitalize on our pre-programmed cognitive preferences, I hope we can make more calculated decisions about how to design performance environments that enhance feelings of safety, comfort, and inspiration. When behavioral scientists, architects and designers, and those in the corporate real estate industry consider, decipher, and learn from our evolutionary history, the future of how we work will look very promising indeed. 

Get more insights on the future workplace from Professor Jeff DeGraff of the University of Michigan.

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