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Issue 40

The Mindful Offices

Oliver Heath
Founder @ Heath Design Ltd
OTHERS

How can we design the mindful office? What would a mindful office look and feel like?

We live and work in a world full of distracting pollution.

With increased digital connectivity through access to emails, social media, and all the other distractions that are commonplace in office environments - other people's conversations, phones ringing, and the sound of passing traffic - we are increasingly finding it impossible to focus on the task at hand.

Professor Gloria Mark, from University of California, who researches "interruption", conducted a study of information workers in high-tech companies. She found that the people they observed over 3.5 days switched activities every three minutes and five seconds on average (half of these switches were caused by self-interruptions). In the study, she found that relevant interruptions can be beneficial and provided they are short and fairly automatic, they won't cause too much disruption; however, if they require a switch in cognitive functioning, they can make it difficult to regain focus.

From what she observed, 82% of interrupted work was resumed on the same day; however, it took the workers an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to what they were doing. Surprisingly, those who were interrupted worked faster, without any significant difference in the number of errors in the work. However, these interruptions have more serious implications as they increase stress levels.

Excessive or prolonged stress can lead to illness, physical and emotional exhaustion and depression. It can affect the behaviors and factors that increase the risk of heart disease (high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, smoking, physical inactivity and overeating). In fact, the World Health Organization believes that the stress related illnesses of heart disease and depression are projected to become the prime causes of illness by 2020.

Considering that 90% of a typical business operating costs are related to staff (salaries and benefits), as opposed to 10% spent on the physical environment, it is worth considering how the office environment can be designed to help workers focus on the task at hand and reduce the risk of increasing prolonged stress levels, which in the long term will affect both the individuals' health, their ability to work and the costs for the company.

So, how do we create working environments that encourage mindfulness and help employees stay focused on the task at hand? Biophilic Design offers opportunities to encourage sensory awareness required for mindful states by appealing to a range of senses:

Sight - through increasing the amount of natural light & creating views out to nature, it's possible for employees to have greater awareness of the present moment, whether that is the time of day or year. Partitions can help in open plan offices, not only do they block visual distraction, but if planted or natural material partitions (ex. timber boards) are used, they can also dampen sound and have positive effects on health and wellbeing.

Smell - Introducing plants can improve air quality and increase oxygen level, but also emits a subtle scent by putting pot plants & green planted walls. Other natural aromas can be introduced to help.

Touch - Range of natural surface textures e.g. Timber furniture grain provides haptic stimulation. Interface's Human Nature and Urban Retreat collections of flooring mimic the varying textures in natural environments and the undulating surface to walk across.

Hearing - Sound masking - can be introduced where it is impossible to block out extraneous noise, as a method of stress reduction. Recorded sounds, like water flowing, can effectively mask disruptive noises like passing traffic or others' conversations. Sound insulation - wall panels made from natural materials like wool felt or green walls can absorb excessive sound whilst introducing natural elements and textures.

Temperature - Thus optimizing ventilation and thermal control - to ensure workers can control the temperature and air flow according to their needs (ie windows and vents that can be opened when needed and accessibly localized thermostats).

With this in mind, the slick shiny surfaces used in minimalist office interiors of the past, which were meant to reflect and encourage efficiency, actually prove to be less efficient. This is because a lack of sensory stimulation in the workspace can lead us to seek or be susceptible to distractions and to interrupt our work flow.

Have you been distracted in the course of reading this article? Could your surroundings need to become more "mindful"?

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