The Connection Between Workspace and Emotional Wellbeing: Q&A With Beatriz Arantes

Cornerstone Editors

The physical space in which people do their work can greatly affect the quality of work they produce, how they view their work and their interactions with their colleagues. Yet many companies don’t consider the importance of work environment to an employee’s wellbeing. Here, Beatriz Arantes, psychologist and senior researcher at workplace furniture company Steelcase, argues that companies should pay closer attention to employees’ emotions and create spaces that accommodate differing needs and moods.

How does workspace affect how people work and their emotional wellbeing?

The workspace is another tool at work, so when we need to accomplish certain activities we have certain spatial configurations that help us do that. If we’re doing work by ourselves, being able to focus and concentrate in a quiet space with the right ergonomic settings to stay comfortable is important versus when we need to collaborate with other people, having the right tools to share information and the right disposition of the room to help keep conversation flowing.

While companies think about space from a functional perspective, they have not always been very attentive to it as it relates to emotional wellbeing. What we’re asking now is that companies start to pay more attention to emotions. They need to identify how the design of the workplace can help promote positive emotions. This is becoming more important and we’re asking workers to be more creative and collaborative, and being creative means accessing your emotions. Instead of having cold and formal spaces where people tend to police themselves and follow a code about what they say and do, we need to create new spaces that encourage people to express themselves.

What are some emotions that people should be showing in the workspace?

When we experience positive emotions, our minds are able to enter a more open-minded and defocused state, allowing us to access more ideas, make more connections and think in the long-term. But the workplace can also cause negative emotions when people feel stressed or under threat to take on more and feel pressured by hierarchy. That raises the tension in their body as they prepare for fight-or-flight, and their mind becomes very narrowly focused on getting over that threat. These things are not conducive to creative thinking and collaboration because we’re much more preoccupied with our own survival than with what other people might be needing.

We contrast that with experiencing positive emotions when people are feeling safe and like they can trust people around them. When people feel like that, they switch to more of a rest-and-digest state in which their minds are more open, and we have the physical and mental availability to take risks, listen to others, help others and build long-term projects.

How can companies use open offices to foster positive emotions?

When people complain about open space, it’s because there’s only one space to do everything, creating social tension that originates from poorly designed space. To make open space work for more people, ditch the one-to-one ratio of assigned desks and rethink the entire space to provide a diversity of options. By providing a wide range of spaces, we allow people to choose the space that makes sense for them moment to moment, whether it’s going to be a very quiet, phone-free zone or a space where there’s an ambient buzz.

How can the workspace tie back to the company’s core mission?

It’s important for people to have a sense of shared purpose presented in the space as a reminder of the objectives of their work. A good example of this was a pharmaceutical company that put up photos of families struggling with the illness they were developing a new drug to treat. It helped the employees remember their bigger mission and goal. How can you bring imagery and stories together to connect with people emotionally? What impact are you making in the world?

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