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These 6 Basic Human Needs Should Drive Your Office Design

Plus: 3 Considerations to Ensure Workspaces Support Everyone

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

What do you need from your physical space to be most productive at work?

That’s the question Kristin Cerutti, design leader at architecture firm Nelson, and Jill Pable, professor and chair of the Interior Architecture & Design Department at Florida State University, asked last month during a presentation at the NeoCon 2021 design conference in Chicago.

While their answers varied from “sunlight” and “quiet places to focus” to “comfortable seating with a good place to put a necessary cup of coffee” (or for many of us, several throughout the day), the recurrent theme was that workplaces need to “support each individual's specific needs while still maintaining continuity,” as Cerutti said during the session.

“Places are not just physical settings, and people are not just bodies that occupy those settings,” added Pable. “People are affected by their environments, which in turn affects how they view themselves, other people and their jobs. We, as designers, should see places as situational environments, and we can’t underestimate the potential of physical space to operate in tandem with other organizational things like trainings, collaboration, learning and workplace interactions. The right setting encourages productivity and well-being.”

But while a small company may be able to solicit input from each employee and curate individual spaces to their liking, larger companies don’t have that luxury. Below, Cerutti and Pable offer a framework for how to design spaces that appeal to the average worker, while still giving them control over how they use them to suit their distinct needs.

Designing for Our 6 Basic Human Needs

Everyone is different, but Pable posited that what we need boils down to six fundamental human needs that must be fulfilled for people to feel at their best: dignity and self-esteem; security, privacy and personal space; empowerment and personal control; beauty and meaning; stress management; and a sense of community. If workspaces can target and incorporate these principles, then employees will be able to operate in an environment that is optimally conducive to their work approach.

  1. Dignity and Self-esteem: Pable said self-esteem is a “bedrock idea for people to feel well and happy.” So, providing spaces for them to experience a positive sense of self is crucial to fostering a positive work setting. Something as easy and cost-effective to install as bathroom lighting, Pable said — which can be chosen and arranged to compliment skin tones or placements of shadows — can reinforce someone’s sense of self, make them feel confident going into a meeting or presentation and empower them to meet goals at work.
  2. Security, privacy and personal space: Humans have retained primordial links to our hunter/gatherer history, which means that we need to feel secure and are naturally protective of ourselves and our belongings, said Pable. We like to make sure we have a personal, secure space for personal items, so giving employees such a space in the office is essential, especially if your design doesn’t incorporate a lot of dedicated desks. People also like to feel safe in their environment and can feel uneasy having their back to open areas where someone could sneak up on them. Designers should take this into consideration when they are devising seating layouts or making furniture choices, so that employees have some control over how others approach them.
  3. Empowerment and personal control: People are diverse, and therefore like options. That can mean they might want control over what type of chair they sit in due to having a different body type, or what types of workspaces and sensory experiences they prefer. Giving employees a variety of options will make them feel empowered to be their best self at the job. “A setting that provides choices is one that honors us and our needs,” explained Pable.
  4. Beauty and meaning: While this need can sometimes be discounted or seen as less important compared to requirements that focus more on stability and security, people do actually need the presence and expression of beauty in their environment to make their experiences more meaningful. Pable likened a space without aesthetic elements to a dish without salt — you don’t want there to be so much that it’s distracting, but if it’s absent or applied too sparingly, the space will fall flat.
  5. Stress management: Long-term stress has been proven to not just have a negative impact on our health, but can actually shorten our lives. An estimated 120,000 deaths per year in the U.S. are associated with stress in the workplace, said the presenters. Offices should include areas for stress reduction — whether that’s somewhere to unwind after a long day or draining meeting, or a quite space to retreat to after getting bad personal news. Positive distractions are another way to combat workplace stress — like incorporating soft music or having a great view that helps us gain a new sense of perspective.
  6. Sense of community: Human beings are social creatures, but each of us enjoys a different level or degree of sociality. “Companies have long sought to build a sense of shared identity amongst employees because it reduces attrition and supports productivity. Built into the sense of community is a person's innate desire to be acknowledged and have a role to play in a larger assembly of people,” said Pable. There are many ways to facilitate this in the workplace, she said, from messaging boards to physical settings that provide interaction and culture building.

However, One Size Fits None

While designers can use these general principals as a base to build customized office designs upon, Cerutti warned that “one size fits none.” Physical workspaces need to celebrate, support, and enhance employees’ unique experiences and needs, she said. In order to accomplish that, the basic human need principles need to be paired with concepts that allow each person to utilize spaces in a way that is conducive to their strengths and methods of working.

“In the past, with office space, we would often provide the exact same workstation and office layout for each employee, and assumed that if we were all given an equal type of space then we would be able to produce an equal quality of work,” said Cerutti. “But we really need to meet people where they are, and build spaces that support and encourage people be their best selves. And that cannot be done by assuming that everyone works in the same capacity.”

For a long time, designers were told that if they design for the majority, then that would be good enough, she continued.

“You remember the Field of Dreams quote, ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Well I don't think that's true in design. Spaces need to be just as unique and special as those who occupy them.”

Kristin Cerutti, design leader, Nelson

“We really want to challenge that way of thinking and encourage designers to focus on designing space for those that use and need it most, and utilize it to better support and encourage [employees] to be their best selves,” Cerutti said. “When you do that, it in turn improves the experience for everyone in the space.”

According to Cerutti, workspaces also need to incorporate and provide adaptability, empowerment, honesty and transparency to those who use the space.

Adaptability. This is a concept that Cerutti often sees discussed only in terms of how it can save employers money, whether on furniture or by giving them flexibility in a long-term lease. “That’s completely valid, but it shouldn’t be the only driver,” she said. As every person will need something a bit different, designers can’t always predict how every single occupant will interact with a particular space.

So, how do you design to support everyone’s needs? Ideally, a workspace should offer the ability for users to change it as needed, making it more comfortable, so they can be more productive. This can mean giving occupants control over elements such as lighting, temperature or acoustics, as well as providing them different furniture options and even distinctive types of spaces for particular uses.

“Each and every one of our brains is functioning in a different capacity than those around us at any given point in time. So we need to look past the idea that we will operate the same way if we are given the exact same type of spaces.”

Kristin Cerutti, design leader, Nelson

Cerutti gave the example of phone booths for calls, which have become a common installation in today’s offices. But architects often install a handful of identical phone booths without thinking about the different ways someone might use those spaces during the workday. She suggested that maybe different phonebooths could include varying components based on how someone might use them and allow users to adjust the furniture, lighting, acoustics and perhaps even the aesthetic of the room to make it more useful in various contexts.

“We should take the idea of adaptability a step further beyond just the variety of spaces and think about the contents of each of those areas as well, allowing flexibility of the physical space. In addition to flexibility in choosing where and how to work, it allows people to adjust space given the task that they've been asked to complete or how they're feeling in that moment of the day,” said Cerutti.

Empowerment. Just creating a workspace doesn’t mean your work is done, or that employees will use it the way it was intended. Cerutti said that employees should be part of the design process, which eases their concerns about how a space will work for them, and be shown how each space can be used to best support them during the workday.

“I recommend having executive-level representatives of the organization utilizing the space as it was intended to show employees that it's created for them. Telling employees that they have the ability to use this space is one thing, but showing them how and giving them the empowerment to be able to utilize those spaces goes a step further,” said Cerutti. “It becomes part of the office culture that it's acceptable to utilize the space in the way they need, and this allows employees to do what's best for them without judgement.”

Honesty and transparency. Employers need to be willing to make reasonable accommodations for employees to be able to support them in the workplace, but employees don’t always feel comfortable stepping up to voice their needs. Organizations should be the ones to take the first step to have open conversations with workers to discover what they need to be their best selves.

“Over time, these open conversations will eventually create a more transparent and honest culture within your organization. In turn, that's going to make your employees and teammates, and people who interact with your space, more comfortable asking for assistance when they actually need it,” said Cerutti.

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