In this article, we will discuss the importance of the alignment between the “work” we do and the “environment” in which we do that work for individual and business well-being. Achieving this alignment requires detailed analysis and planning. For this reason, we believe that workplace design needs to be considered as an important business function similar to strategic planning or budgeting.

Yoko’s Snapshot: I started my day today by sketching out ideas for my current design project at my desk. After two hours, I took a walk to refresh myself and organize my thoughts. I then had an internal meeting, in which I presented my design ideas and developed them further, with my partner. 

What is an “Environment”? What is “Work”?

People tend to think that there is a single general state of environment that is good for our well-being. However, there is a wide range of combinations of elements that can go into making an environment beneficial. Perceiving the environment from the human-centric viewpoint, through our five senses as explained in previous articles, allows us to comprehend this fact.

Desirable conditions of light (color, lumens, distance, direction, time of the day) vary depending on who you are (age, personality trait, gender, cultural and societal backgrounds) as well as what activities you are engaged in, at any particular moment. The same can be said about other environmental elements (air, water, natural and artificial objects). The desirable environment for our well-being varies even before we take any work into consideration.

To understand exactly what the work is the first key to align it with the environment.

How can we align the desirable elements of the environment with work to create well-being and positive value for both individuals and businesses? We believe that it is key to first understand exactly what the work is. When we work, our bodies and minds perform a series of tasks to create a range of outputs. It is not just one activity and one goal.  Any work includes more than one task (activities), each of which often has more than one objective.

In designing work environments, the importance of understanding that there is a distinction, and the process of clarifying what the work is in each case has been either ignored completely or not considered as an integral part of the design process. Without comprehending this we believe that any environment, even the ones generally considered to be beneficial, does not sufficiently support individual and organizational well-being.

Steps to Understand “Work”

These steps can be used to more accurately define the nature of work in your business in order to truly be in alignment with the environment.

1. Break down the work into individual essential tasks.

2. Clarify the objectives of each task.

  • The performance (well-being) of a task is measured by its objectives including speed, quality, flexibility, and dependability 1Slack, N., Chambers, S. and Johnson, R. (2001) Operational Management, Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, as appeared in Tangen, Stefan (2005) Demystifying productivity and performance. International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management. 54, ½, pp.34-46.

In Yoko’s snapshot, the main objective for one of her tasks, the discussion of her design, is quality (of design), followed by flexibility (of a scheme) and speed at which it can be accomplished.

3. Elucidate non-environmental conditions needed to accomplish the objectives.

  • Make a list of binary scales. 
    • Is the task to be done by a single person or multiple people?
    •  Is it automatic or creative?
    • Does it require heavy communication or none at all?
    • Is the task an input or an output?

In Yoko’s snapshot, the internal discussion is a task done by two persons, is creative and requires heavy communication, and is a combination of both input and output.

Aligning "work" with "environment" i

Aligning “Work” and “Environment”

Once we have clarified the objectives and requirements of the tasks, we can start aligning them with environmental elements. Yet how do we start when there are multiple environmental elements involved? This makes the alignment process more complex and we advise seeking assistance from professionals such as architects, interior designers, and environmental engineers who are more experienced in this process.

However, an easy starting point would be to place each task on a scale of quietness-activeness. This is an umbrella term that includes not only sound itself (or lack of it) but also busy-ness or movement of visible elements, or the energy of elements (heat, brightness).

In the case of the internal discussion in Yoko’s snapshot, it is an active task that requires two people but is not necessarily noisy. For creativity, (the objective identified in number 3), they need to focus which requires a certain level of quietness (limited stimulation of their five senses). On the scale of quietness-activeness, it is slightly closer to activeness. The positioning on the scale is an easy guideline when choosing the level of each environmental element (temperature) and its combination (temperature and lighting).

We believe that workplace design needs to be considered as an important business function similar to strategic planning or budgeting.

Y. Kawai and Y. Burton

Needs for New Design Process

As stated earlier, when designing workspaces, work and its alignment with the environment has not always been a focal part of the design process. This is largely due to the common misperception of a workspace as an empty but rigid and inflexible box, to which businesses and workers mold their work. People are not aware of how this forced construction harms the well-being of workers and businesses.

However, with more data available on the relationship between humans and the environment, we can now customize workspace zones that specifically cater to the task being performed and the needs of the individuals doing the task. Measuring and monitoring both the space and humans within the space with technology can make these customizations more fine-tuned and flexible. Even common physical elements in the workplace (i.e. furniture, lighting fixture, partitions) are being redesigned to better suit changing needs.

For this customization to become standard practice, understanding “work” is crucial for businesses and for designers. Although it is fairly new to the common design process it is critical for businesses to recognize its importance and consider it an essential component of their business plan.

Mirai Work Space aligned "work" and "environment" in this NY project they designed.
Mirai Work Space aligned “work” and “environment” in this NY project that they designed.

An integral part of Mirai Work Space’s (co-founded by Yoko) services is to help companies align “work” with “environment.” Mirai’s consultants work closely with business owners/managers to gain a deep understanding of their business goals and facilitate workshops with employees to clarify their diverse works and needs. Mirai takes these findings and aligns them with various supportive environmental elements to create a design for the workspace(s) that is beneficial for the individual employees, the business owner, and the overall business organization.

The importance of having alignment between the “work” we do and the “environment” in which we do that work has not been recognized enough. This alignment needs to become an integral part of the workplace design process in order for businesses to truly create a healthy work environment that fosters the work, the well-being of the people doing the work, and furthers the business goals.

In our next article, we will extend this discussion to include alignment when dealing with remote and virtual environments.

(Written n by Yoko Kawai and Yvonne Burton)

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