Credit: Brooks Kraft/Getty Images

As companies ramp up the push to bring workers back to the office, many employees are now heading back into workplaces that look significantly different from the ones they left, with new layouts, new amenities, and new expectations for how, when, and why the space will be used.

For employers, the return is a chance to craft new norms not only around how work is done, but around how the built environment can support worker health and wellbeing. We asked Dr. Cristina Banks, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at the University of California, Berkeley, about the design features that make offices healthier places for their occupants. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:

What are the physical components of a healthy workplace? What should organizations be prioritizing there as more employees come back?

It has everything to do with how the physical environment reduces the amount of frustration, disengagement, interruption that makes the day longer and causes people to respond in a fight-or-flight manner or causes some bad things happening with your physiology. The physical environment has to have the comforts of home, which means it has to have these qualities of being flexible, comfortable, predictable, equitable, social—because they want to connect with their bosses and their coworkers—and safe. There’s a lot of signals now that we’re not there.

A concrete thing that employers can do is curate who comes back when. Make sure that when people come back to work, the people they want to be with and reconnect with can be there with them at the same time together. That takes a scheduling and logistics application.

The next thing is to create neighborhoods in the physical space by friend groups or affiliations or identity that they elect. Some of the workplace strategists I’ve been talking to have started to think about creating neighborhoods that are different from team neighborhoods. Teams can always get out of their seats and go someplace and meet. They don’t necessarily have to be there to turn around and say something to someone else with respect to their work.

What we’re trying to do is create an environment where people have a sense of belonging to their coworkers and to the organization. Some combination of HR and logistics has to figure out how to query people about, who would you want to work with? Who would you want to see at work? They’re all going to say their boss, number one. But if they’re given permission to create their own neighborhoods, they will. Then it’s a matter of determining which days they’ll be sitting together and which days they’ll be working from home. So it’s permission and support from the organization, and then the workers determining how to populate the algorithm, if you will.

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It sounds like that’s the social element. What do the other traits such as flexibility and predictability that you mentioned look like in practice?

Flexibility: You can go to a place where you can get the resources, supplies, meet the people and do your work in the setting that’s really going to support that work. Companies think they’ve solved that through online reservation systems, but what they don’t track is how many times people ask for a room and can’t get it. So we need to solve that, like building more meeting rooms, getting a real feel for what the need is.

Predictable means that you remove uncertainty to the greatest degree. When you come to work, you have a place that’s yours. It’s not hoteling. So you have a place, you know who’s going to be there, you know when they’re available, you know when you can get a room. You can get the resources you need for the day. You can get food and beverages. Because when people come downtown, a lot of the restaurants aren’t open anymore. And also that there is a predictable time that they can socialize with their friends. Reliable wifi. Technology that works.

Comfortable means that you have ergonomic desk furniture that is comfortable, and when you have social settings, you have comfy furniture just like home couches. What we’re trying to do with comfy furniture is provide a feeling of physical and psychological comfort, and that creates a sense of ease and positive emotions that then drive wellbeing. But the comfort is also a feeling of protection from harassment and being excluded. When people go to work, they’re comfortable being a part of that organization and they feel like they belong.

Equitable is about messaging from the organization that everybody counts and that everybody is an important contributor. Do people have equal access to views and windows? Do people get equal access to high-value activities? People who come to work have to feel like it is worth it for them coming in, because they will be recognized as an important contributor no matter who you are.

Safer has to do with both physical safety and psychological safety. Let me tackle physical safety: I’m reading now that companies are not asking for testing or masks, no proof of vaccination. It’s just like the Covid doesn’t exist anymore. And not everybody has a situation where they’re comfortable with getting Covid. The other is psychological safety. If you were harassed or excluded or in an uncomfortable position before Covid, coming back, will you feel like those issues will be resolved?

Why is hotel desking a negative?

Belonging is one of the key basic needs we have, and one physical connection to belonging is having a home. We have a human nature to nest. We want to have our own place. And when we don’t, we don’t feel like we belong. Maybe you figure out schedules so people share desks on different days. Then they still feel like they own a place, even though those desks aren’t going to be occupied by those people all five days of the week. The important thing is that they have a home, whether it’s a desk or a neighborhood.

Are there any other design features that are considered best practices?

The work experience that you want to engender in your workforce is that the company cares about you. And if they care about you, it can’t just be about, ‘How much can you produce for me?’ It has to be, ‘I want you to have a great experience. I want you to be here for the long term.’ It means that they have to not only look at the employee as a worker and what they can produce, but also, what are their personal issues or needs that have to be fulfilled? We do that by recognizing that people have these basic human needs, and with the built environment, we demonstrate caring by providing the circumstances to satisfy those needs. Caring comes in the form of understanding that what you build really changes behavior and people’s work experience.

So how can you build it? This is just a silly example, but a central stairway. Make the stairs a central feature, but put pads on the stairs so people will sit on them, maybe have their lunch or their coffee, and it becomes like the Spanish steps. Another way to care is, ‘We know you have big childcare issues. What if we built an extension or used some of our space to hold a childcare center?’ Or, ‘We know that noise really bothers you. We need to create private soundproof space so that when you have private conversations, they’re kept private and it’s quiet.’ Bathrooms that are gender-neutral and single-stall. Not having people walk behind your desk, because pathways where people walk create a lot of noise. So making the walkways far away from where people are trying to concentrate.

I’m working on a project with the University of Houston right now for a new building that’s going up there, to help them understand how to create a great experience for the occupants in the building. So helping them understand, what are the work activities that people need to do? What are the work supports, physically and operationally, to help them do that? And then how do we build in the health and wellbeing design qualities that will promote a healthy environment? It’s unusual, when you build a new building, to bring in the people who really understand the occupants and the work that they have to do and what they need to do it, like privacy, quiet, close proximity to resources. We need to change that process so that the occupant experience comes first, and everything is backfilled to promote that.

Read a transcript of our conversation, including what to preserve as office footprints shrink and how workplaces should be designing for Covid right now.

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