Office architecture and design have incorporated various popular influences in recent years: smart office tools, the open-ceiling industrial-chic aesthetic, and the “experiential office” trend, to name a few. The field has been slower, however, to adopt findings from positive psychology into office form and function.
Positive psychology, the scientific study of the condition and strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive, provides tools that can be used to enhance worker’s well-being, said architect Charles First, AIA, CCM, CFM. In his recently published book, “A Place to be Happy: Linking Architecture & Positive Psychology,” First drew from his more than 30 years as a registered architect with experience in architecture, project management and owner-side office culture. The book incorporates results from his own workplace studies, and along with findings from researchers across the U.S., establishes criteria for shaping spaces for the benefit of the people who work there.
Historically, the training for those who design and deliver office buildings has emphasized the creation and development of space to suit the organization, said First. However, expectations have evolved to a point where the space itself is not enough; many architects and designers now seek to design a space that provides an eye-popping experience.
“That [approach] may be appropriate for a one-off experience like a museum or theatre, but it’s short-term and the experience doesn’t last long,” First said. “People who work in offices can be there for years so it’s more of a life experience rather than a wow experience that is needed.”
Office designs try to communicate a company’s values to those who see the building or office space from the outside, whether that’s being forward-looking, impressive, or so on. However, it’s equally important to work on communicating the company values through how the design treats those on the inside: the individual employees, said First, citing business writer Thomas Peters.
“Based on my research – and having worked in a corporate environment – even if an organization says they want to be productive and make money, they also have as part of their missions and values the elements identified in the book,” First said, including having a sense of purpose, feeling empowered and having fun. “These elements are of value to the organization and of value to the subjective well-being of the people who work there. The challenge is manifesting them in the design.”
A workplace that lacks these critical components of positive psychology can be stressful, with serious ramifications. Numerous worldwide studies show that high or continuing levels of workplace stress contributes to health problems like cardiovascular issues and back pain.
A typical workplace today may best be classified as neutral: neither a negative work environment nor one that will enhance employee well-being. The average office provides a safe, comfortable space with some light, is neither too hot nor too cold, and offers space to work – but that’s all.
“One of the reasons that positive psychology developed is that so much of psychology over the decades has focused on the negative – problems to be fixed – and this area focuses on the average person and what brings them to a higher level of well-being,” First said.
The ultimate goal of incorporating positive psychology into office architecture and design: workplaces that reflect not only the values of the culture and company, but that do so for the benefit of the people who work in them.
This is part one of a two-part series exploring the impact of positive psychology on office architecture and design. The second part explores how an ideal office space would reflect elements of positive psychology.