By Lucia Shorr - 23rd July, 2021
PLASTARC Founder and Executive Director Melissa Marsh moderated the recent webinar “Wellness and Spatial Choice”. The event was conducted with client Hushoffice, a spatial innovation company with a range of products specifically relevant to the power of choice in the workplace. Panelists included Jennifer Carpenter, principal at Verona Carpenter architects; Dr. Anna Obrazsova, a self-proclaimed neuroscience geek and head of the data solutions team at Delos, a company at the intersection of wellness and real estate; and Evan Benway, managing director at MoodSonic, which focuses on soundscapes for productivity.
Marsh began by emphasizing that we've all been exploring new places to have fresh ideas, especially due to the constraints of COVID. The past year has put each of us in the position of designing the spaces that we enjoy. The elements of desirable office experiences—whether those be physical or virtual—as well as how they are impacted by choice and control, were the subject of exploration. Putting the changes in context, Marsh highlighted that 13% of survey respondents desire to be fully remote going forward, while only 6% anticipate being in the office full time. The vast majority will be somewhere in the middle, practicing hybrid work.
In the wake of COVID-19, expectations have changed in terms of choice and control. At our home offices, even with dogs barking and kids shouting, we’ve still had a relatively large amount of control over the environment and experience. Returning to our previous office spaces may be unacceptable—people expect an experience that is better, more empowering and more vital than before. Marsh stated, “We need more spatial diversity, by design, to continue this autonomy that we've offered people in their home working environment, to offer them choice and to provide sensory diversity”.
Carpenter centered the importance of the allegiance between culture and container. The different ways of working over the past year—and the distributed nature of the “container”—has presented both unprecedented difficulties and opportunities. She believes that, “spaces become more inclusive when they provide choice and control for occupants”. In a neurodiverse world, and with varying access to resources and spaces based on numerous factors, the ways we experience space is wildly diverse. So how do we keep everyone healthy and happy? Carpenter believes the answer is choice. “Whether it's an office, a school, even a restaurant, really any project type that you're working on, we're trying to create places where people can find the zone. Where they are comfortable, and where they’re able to thrive. And you do that by thinking in a sensory manner. So all of the senses—what you see, what you hear, what you smell, taste, feel—these are all critical.”
Obrazsova emphasized in response that “there's such an under-appreciation of the physiological capacity that we all must be kind of manifesting in, in doing the things that we do, there's something very fundamental about being able to process the stimuli that surround us.” Our anxiety, distractibility, and other internal experiences make our spatial experiences entirely unique regardless of if we are existing in identical spaces. She cited the Optimal Arousal Theory, which says that performing at an optimal level requires a matching optimal level of physiological arousal. In spatial terms, this means being able to find the right spot for the right thing that you're doing for the right person. This is a delicate balance that can be easily destroyed. This may be why people feel more (or less) comfortable in their homes with the ability to establish their own ideal environments, or with the choice to go to a coffee shop or other space that works best for them rather than be in an office that could be too loud and distracting or too quiet and constrained. The ability to personalize or access personalized space, however, is intrinsically influenced by privilege. The future of workplace trends can be understood as seeking additional ability to personalize space in the office.
Benway remembers when about a year ago, “everyone seemed to be convinced the office was over, you know, dead and buried.” But now, that's clearly not the case. Benway specifically jokes about how in the quietest place on Earth, which is an anechoic chamber at a Microsoft facility, he could only last about 10 minutes before being there was too utterly painful. He moves to discuss how it wasn’t until 2011 that studies began to show that people perform best in biophilic soundscapes, and that even a noisy space is better than a silent one. A babbling brook, for example—a relatively static and dynamic sound—can support focused work very well. It can also become fatiguing given time. In another example, birdsong improves creativity and can cue circadian rhythms.
Carpenter then discussed architectural implementation. If a client is unable to fully renovate a floor, she suggests the introduction of choice and different sensory environments by changing the types and arrangements of furniture. Changing environmental sounds can also make a big difference. In practice, this was manifested in the project Benway conducted with Chevron in Western Australia, where the office sound takes you on a hike throughout the day across the island sonically. The system evolves from early in the day—when people tend to do more focused work—to more gentle sounds like the beach soundscape in the afternoon. This leans into the circadian impact of sound on energy levels.
Obrazsova further discussed creating restorative, activating and energizing scenes through a digital environment. Her team at Delos has created an app called MindBreaks and a room that supports it from a multi-sensory perspective, granting control over air ventilation, air purification, temperature, soundscapes and circadian lighting.
Hushoffice mobile office pods available both for individuals and groups offer additional spaces to exhibit and implement this kind of environment and sonic control. Potential sensory break spaces, or ideal for private meetings. Carpenter, who has one in her office claims “Having a place close by that you can get into another environment quickly has been really great, and honestly transformative to the office experience”.