Can We Design Our Way Into Better Mental Health?

06.03.196 min read

Recently, we collaborated with architecture firm Spacon & X to redesign our headquarters in Copenhagen. By both repurposing old materials and completely overhauling our previous set-up, we’ve ended up with a space that we hope does a better job at cultivating community and encouraging material sustainability. But beneath our new panels of EchoJazz and flexible working stations lies an altogether different purpose—one that leverages design to prioritise better mental health amongst the SPACE10 team.

Upon first glance, physical office design has a minimal relationship to mental health at work. After all, the American Psychological Association found that a healthy workplace prioritises work-life balance, health and safety, and employee growth, recognition and involvement—all in that order. And it makes sense: a huge part of mental health comes down to how you feel emotionally, not necessarily how sound-proofed your working area is. But overlooking the role your surroundings play in how you feel at work would be a mistake: although the research is still sparse, it’s been found that physical design really does affect our mental health. If we take that statement seriously, we can also put a critical eye to what’s long been touted as the solution to creativity and happiness at work: the open office plan.

Prior to our physical redesign, we were one of the 33 percent of companies worldwide with an open office. And considering how office culture has evolved over the past few decades, this is no surprise. When employees had had enough of cubicle culture in the 90s, the open office space became perceived as an antidote against isolation and the stuffy corporate culture perpetuated by cubicle walls. Open offices became all the rage—believed to foster collaboration, a flat hierarchy and more social connection between employees. But in recent years, substantial research has only increasingly debunked the key selling points of the open office. In fact, the opposite is often true with an open plan.

SPACE10 – First Floor – Workspaces – EchoJazz and Polycarbonate – Web – Photo by Nana Hagel
Soundproof EchoJazz panels and semi-open cubicles ensure that everyone can find more privacy throughout the work day.

Instead of encouraging employee collaboration, open offices create employees who talk to each other 70 percent less and send about 50 percent more emails or Slack messages. Instead of flattening hierarchy, open office spaces make people feel exposed or watched, and often exacerbate the power dynamics already in play at work. (This is especially true for women.) Instead of cultivating creativity, open offices tend to stifle it: 65 percent of creative people need quiet to do their best work—something that’s almost impossible in open offices, where overhearing conversations is the biggest frustration.

All of this amounts to a concerning statistic: research conducted in 2014 found that a whopping 85 percent of people are dissatisfied with their working environment, primarily because they can’t concentrate. In the same study—of 10,000 workers, by the way—over a third of respondents said they’d have to leave the office if they wanted to get their work done. To make matters worse, a Canadian study found that people working in open plan offices took 70 percent more sick days than those who worked from home.

At SPACE10, we definitely weren’t immune to some of these negative side effects of the open plan. It was normal to walk into the office in the morning and find that almost half of our co-workers had chosen to work from home, for example. Or to overhear impromptu meetings in the middle of a workflow. Or to be visually distracted by visitors getting a tour of our office. It was stressful, to say the least, and probably impacted how much quality work we were able to get done in the office. So it was time for an overhaul: not a complete dismissal of the open plan, per se, but a middle ground that enables what our Talent Director and in-house psychologist Jed Shamel has found is crucial for creativity at work. ‘Based on my professional experience, I know that boundaried space drives creativity,’ he says. ‘It drives deeper thinking, for starters. But it also creates clarity around the relationships you are entering.’

There’s a duality to the type of space Shamel is talking about. On the one hand, the physical aspect of boundaried space is crucial. The semi-open cubicles we’ve installed, for example, help us feel like our work spaces are more private. Our new Skype booths—sound-proofed with EchoJazz panelling—enable us to hold meetings out of earshot, escape for a few hours of quiet, or take care of sensitive personal matters without worrying our co-workers can hear us setting up a doctor’s appointment. And on the ground floor, flexible panelling—also made out of soundproof EchoJazz—lets us switch up the space to fit our needs, whether we’re having a Friday bar, putting up an exhibition of our work or running a speaker series. These types of changes, however minutely, help us feel more in control over our surroundings—which ultimately makes us feel more psychologically secure, too. ‘If we create psychologically safe spaces physically and interpersonally, we will drive radical candour, which will drive innovation,’ Shamel adds. ‘Psychologically and physically safe spaces facilitate creativity and enhance our abilities to bounce and critique ideas quickly.’

SPACE10 – First Floor – Pods – Web – Photo by Nana Hagel
Detail of the new pod—the yellow EchoJazz panels above and on the side enable a more private space for important phone calls or uninterrupted workflows.

Perhaps more important than the physical boundaries themselves, though, is the choice to take them if we wish. Rather than having to make do with an open office plan, we now have the ability to work in an open meeting room, or semi-closed cubicle, or pods—all whenever we like. Why is this important? Well, a key aspect of mental health at work is treating people fairly rather than the same. Fairly means accommodating both extroverts and introverts; catering to people who thrive from chatting to passing colleagues as well as those who need peace and quiet; providing space for creatives who prefer a neat desk as well as people who need to spread out sketches all around them to do their best work. Considering that 72 percent of employees want their workspaces to prioritise mental health and well-being—even more so than equality or sustainability—redesigning our space to accommodate subjective preferences was a necessity, not a luxury.

So, we scrapped the open office plan. How else could we enable better mental health among our team? Three words: plants, light and desks.

Don’t roll your eyes just yet at the idea of a feel-good fern: research demonstrates that people are about 15 percent more productive when they work surrounded by plants, as well as up to 60 percent less stressed. Plus, plants come with the added benefit of reducing indoor air pollution, which promotes better cardiovascular health and helps us think clearer. And it’s not all about what plants do, either: how they look could potentially play a role in our happiness, too. Although there’s still a lack of data around the effects of beauty in our environment on mental health, we can turn to an app called Mappiness for a substantial hint. The app works by asking people to describe how they feel when they’re in particular environments, as well as to send in photos to specify what that environment looks like during that moment. As a result of this crowdsourced data, Mappiness has found that people are substantially happier in green and natural environments than urban landscapes.

And then there’s the question of light. Since we’re based in Copenhagen—a city that experiences very little sunlight during its long winter—soaking our office in natural light isn’t always the easiest. But it’s important for our mental health: studies have found that exposure to natural light at work promotes better sleep and more physical activity, and correlates positively with job satisfaction. Windows help, of course, and our office has always prioritised them. With the redesign, however, we’ve also installed lights in our basement which mimic the effects of natural light. It’s a seemingly small change, but it could potentially reap huge rewards for the mental health of our residents and fabrication specialists who typically spend their days down there.

Finally, we’ve tweaked our desks to enable flexibility, too. The physical effects of sitting all day are detrimental to our health, and now we don’t necessarily have to: our desks can be swivelled up and down as we wish. We can work standing up, if we like, or adjust our desk to a level that helps us sit straighter. Apart from making us healthier, this small change could actually help us do our jobs better: it’s been found that the highest performing organisations provide healthy food, quiet working spots—and workstations that promote healthy posture.

We’ve tweaked our desks to enable flexibility, too. The physical effects of sitting all day are detrimental to our health, and now we don’t necessarily have to.

Of course, we aren’t about to claim that thoughtful physical design is the key to mental health at work. Sure, our physical redesign will promote our well-being—but we also need to internally transform how we approach mental health amongst our team. According to Shamel, that means ensuring we learn from our failures. Receiving professional coaching that helps us define and actualise our values. And increasing accountability, but also teamwork. To come closer to integrating these changes into our working culture, we’re about to roll out talent development practices at SPACE10. The goal is to foster better mental health but also enable our team to play to their strengths and flourish as humans rather than just as employees.

These aren’t easy tasks and are definitely a work in progress. But Shamel says we’re lucky to already have something quite powerful in our wellbeing toolbox: meaning. ‘What I mean by that is serving something bigger than yourself. When you do that, a whole bunch of things happen psychologically,’ he says. ‘Your frame of reference grows, and your propensity for selfishness dissipates. I think that this is something that SPACE10 is inherently tapping into: since we have such a strong mission built on the idea that we are serving something bigger than ourselves, we bring out people’s best versions of themselves. From a mental health perspective, that ticks all the boxes.’