Mindfulness and the Workspace

A Tori gate at a Japanese shrine is a great example of a "spatial nudges".

In this article, we are discussing why and how workplace design can and should contribute to people’s mindfulness beyond the walls of a meditation studio.

Merits of Mindfulness

The benefits of mindfulness have been abundantly discussed and many, if not all, have been scientifically proven. Being mindful is to be aware at the present moment. It releases stress, calms anxiety, and increases focus, which altogether improve our lives and work productivity.

However, current workplaces are not designed to take full advantage of these tremendous benefits. One of the major reasons is that businesses and workers tend to think that mindfulness is acquired ONLY through meditation practices.

Limits of Individual Meditation

Meditation practice is certainly beneficial to the practitioner but it is also useful to the people surrounding them to some extent. We touched briefly on the merits of meditation in previous articles including Vision and Air. However, to consider that it is the only path to being mindful greatly underestimates the power of mindfulness in the workplace in a few important ways.

The narrow focus on individual meditation does not make mindfulness available to everyone at anytime and in any place.

Collective Mindfulness

The first way is that by considering that mindfulness belongs only to the individual who meditates, we overlook and fail to benefit from the positive effects of collective (also called organizational) mindfulness. Collective Mindfulness refers to organizational processes or practices that help organizations detect, categorize, and respond to unexpected events and errors1Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K., & Obstfeld, D. (1999). Organizing for high reliability: Processes of collective mindfulness. Research in Organizational Behavior, 21(3), 81–123. In other words, it means that an organization is reliable, resilient and agile at all times. Various studies prove that collective mindfulness improves safety climates, attention, creativity, innovation, learning, adaptation, and performance, all at an organizational level2Pirson, Michael. 2014. Mindfulness at Work. In The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness Volume I. eds Amanda Ie, Christelle T. Ngnoumen and Ellen J. Langer, 458-470. If we continue to only focus on individual mindfulness, we are missing the opportunity to experience larger benefits in the workplace.

Inclusive Design Process

How can workplace design help create and foster collective mindfulness?  By having a more collaborative and inclusive design process. As we suggested in previous articles, this means involving employees early and throughout the process and incorporating their input into the design. (Hearing-Part.1, Light-Part.2, and Air)

Each of us has different sensitivity to and reactions to certain states of the environment. For example, your eyes might have higher sensitivity to brightness and not be able to stand the luminosity of the proposed lighting fixture. Or, some of your colleagues prefer to wear short sleeves in winter so that they can move more easily in their particular tasks, which would require higher temperature settings than standard.

By being included in the discussion on these matters, each employee is invested and will be more aware of his/her surroundings, which, in turn, makes any design intervention for well-being more effective. They will be able to detect potentially harmful changes in the environment sooner and immediately take action if any of the changes to the work/business require adjustment to the environment.

Therefore, an inclusive design process will make the intended ties between the environment and health of individuals and the business intact and reliable in the long term.

Beyond the Studio Walls: Being Mindful Everywhere at Work

The second limit of the current workplace design approach that places too much reliance on meditation practices is that the effort to be mindful is often confined to a designated space, such as a Yoga studio or meditation zone.

However, not all the people have access to meditation techniques, or the time or space for it. The type of work you do, your socio-cultural and economic backgrounds, or being at a particular stage of your life may prevent you from practicing meditation. In addition, even if you have an access to it, it can be a challenge to find time to meditate while you work.

In order to be more inclusive and to take full advantage of mindfulness at work for everybody, the whole workplace should be better designed to foster mindfulness. The space needs to kindly “nudge” people to be mindful when and where required, even without a mediation practice or dedicated space.

The Opposite of Mindful is Not Mindless

What does it mean to be mindful when you are not meditating? It means that you are not mindless (like being on auto-pilot). You do not want to be mindless for many or most of your tasks. “When in a mindless state, an individual operates much like a robot; thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are determined by ‘programmed’ routines based on distinctions and associations learned in the past”3Bodner, T., & Langer, E. (2001) Individual differences in mindfulness: the mindfulness/mindlessness scale. Paper presented at the 13th APA Annual Meeting, Toronto., This automatic state is useful for certain tasks (see our Work-Environment Alignment article). But at this time when businesses are seeking innovation by leaving such tasks to AI, mindlessness should be avoided during the performance of most tasks in the workplace.

“Spatial Nudging”

How can spatial elements nudge people back from a mindless to a mindful state? Imagine that you are walking in the office corridor mulling over an issue you have trouble solving. Something, a spatial event (nudge), needs to happen to stop this mindless state. If the space gives you a strong “push” all of a sudden such as a loud noise or extremely bright light, then your mind might snap you out of its automatic loop but immediately it goes in a different direction (a different mind loop).  You go from mindless to mindless, and not coming back to mindful awareness to the present moment.

Instead, the spatial nudge should “pull” you back and slow you down, so that you become aware of how your five senses are receiving and responding to the environmental elements. Such “nudging” needs to make you conscious of what you are seeing, whatsubtle/remotesounds are present, and your breathing. This is being mindful. Your body and mind are connected to and participating in the space you are in, but you get there through spatial nudging not meditation.

A Tori gate at a Japanese shrine is a great example of a "spatial nudges".
A Tori gate at a Japanese shrine is a great example of a “spatial nudges”.

Japanese Concept for Contemporary Workplaces

When you are mindful, the boundary between your mind/body and the surrounding space is blurred. This is part of Buddhism’s definition of mindfulness, and it is further clarified by modern philosophers, and supported by Neuroscience. I (Yoko) expounded on this in one of my previous research papers4Kawai, Duffany, and Garrison (2018) Blurring the Self/Space Boundary to Increase Mindfulness: Perspectives from Japanese Architectural Philosophy, Neuroscience, and Psychology. Paper presented at the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, September 2018.

This blurred state can be illustrated in the following everyday occurrence. When a raindrop falls on the back of your hand and you feel cold, can you tell at that very moment if it is your hand or the raindrop (a part of the space) that is cold?

What conditions of space can work as spatial nudging that pull you back? In that same research paper, I illustrated some conditions found in Japanese traditional gardens and architecture in which people are pulled back by spatial nudges. 

Examples of Spatial Nudges

A great example is when the boundary between different spaces is blurred or open, such as when you walk through a Tori gate at a shrine. You notice the subtle difference, but since there is no physical door to stop you, you make a mental note instead, that you are crossing through a kind of boundary. Noticing this slows you down just a little and places you in a more mindful state. The gate pulls you back without touching you.

Another example is the contrast of shadow and light that you often see in Japanese gardens. This contrast focuses your attention, because you cannot see well. You stare just a moment longer to better understand what is there. The shadow/light contrast nudges you into being more aware at the moment. Scientific studies, such as the one done by Sayuri Taniguchi in 20035Taniguchi, Sayuri, Kakui Cho, Akira Aida, and Makoto Suzuki. 2003. Study on the sense of healing perceived from gardenscape. Journal of Agricultural Science 48 (3): 115-27., proves that such contrast can make you feel restored, healed or peaceful.

In Summary,

The merits of mindfulness in workplaces are extensive and scientifically proven. Currently, the narrow focus on individual meditation is the core issue and it has two major flaws:

  1. It does not consider the benefit of collective mindfulness which improves the business performance and reliance.
  2. It does not make mindfulness available to everyone at anytime and in any place.

We need to implement an inclusive design process that supports collective mindfulness at work and incorporate and employ various “spatial nudges”, such as the ones learned from Japanese spatial concepts, in the workplace. This will address the wellbeing of both the individual and the organization at all times.

In the next article, we discuss the movement and procession of our bodies in the workspace.

(Written by Yoko Kawai and Yvonne Burton)