We're living in a golden era of workplace design. As we shift away from having to design for heavy machinery and computers and toward being able to design for people, we have the opportunity to enrich the human experience of the built environment greatly. One of the primary ways to accomplish this is by imbuing our environments with diverse sensory elements that appeal to everybody. Welcome to the multisensory office.
While design has increasingly come to be synonymous with how something looks, we do well not to forget that all of our five senses—sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch—are connected and constantly informing each other. Such is very much the case with visual touch: the idea that when we see something, we automatically imagine what it would feel like to touch it. (The same notion can be extrapolated to include what it would sound like, taste like, and smell like.) The impact of this rich sensorial experience on our brains, bodies, and creativity should not be underestimated as a force for good in the workplace.
When we see a wrought iron stair railing, we might imagine the process of the welder who crafted it. When we see a brick next to a cinder block, we’ll likely feel more drawn to the one that was made by hand (the hand-sized brick) than the one made by a machine (the clunkier cinder block). In the digital age, these innate reactions are feeding an appetite for the “real” aesthetics of former industrial and warehouse spaces, whose earthy qualities speak to a hands-on heritage. To balance tech-connected lives, consumers are gravitating away from impersonal “corporate” interiors and toward warm residential touches—even when away from home. The rising popularity of siting office spaces in historic buildings instead of slick Class A ones and the current consumer predilection for “authenticity” further illustrate the value we see (and can almost feel) in human-crafted things.
From a cognitive psychology perspective, none of this comes as a surprise. The pleasing visual and physical tactility of natural materials like cotton and marble, and the presence of elements like rough-hewn structural beams that emulate trees, can trigger positive associations with the earth and our fellow humans, creating a sense of comfort and belonging that makes it easier to relax, concentrate, and feel inspired. By the same token, residential influences can trigger good memories and feelings of familiarity, which also help set the stage for comfort and creativity.
PBS’s Antiques Roadshow has been on the air for 20 years. The enduring appeal of a series that centers on the authenticity of objects shows that provenance is important to people.
Similarly, in a recent study with eBay1 , researchers found that items for sale on the site accompanied by a story sold for substantially more than those without. Clearly, whether it’s a hot-rolled steel table base that recalls a blacksmith’s handiwork or a welcoming sectional that recalls a family’s sitting room, we place more value on objects and environments we perceive as holding some link to the past—a history, a context, a story to tell.
Importantly, these stories do not have to be others’ to be valuable to us: they can (and often are) our own. According to a study in Environment and Behavior, “Almost all (98%) of employees personalize their workplaces and people who are more committed to their employer personalize more than those who are less committed. This behavior is linked to coping with stress, making a workplace seem more pleasant, providing control over the environment, supporting social interaction, and helping people adjust and bond to new employers, as well as team creativity, and higher levels of job satisfaction and psychological/physical well-being2 ." The Journal of Environmental Psychology puts it more succinctly: “There is a positive correlation between perceived personal control over the physical environment and self-reported job satisfaction3 ."
Just as objects in a home can tell the story of a family, objects in an office can tell the story of a company. By making our workplaces human-scale, embellishing them with hand-wrought objects made from natural materials, accenting them with pleasing sensory touches from scents to sounds to tastes, and encouraging employees to add their own personal touches, we create an environment where people feel cared for, engaged, and comfortable. In other words, where they feel at home.
- Montague, Ty. “If You Want to Raise Prices, Tell a Better Story.” Harvard Business Review, 21 July 2013. hbr.org/2013/07/want-to-raise-prices-tell-a-be.
Meredith Wells, Luke Thelen, and Jennifer Ruark. 2007. “Workplace Personalization and Organizational Culture: Does Your Workspace Reflect You or Your Company?” Environment and Behavior, vol. 30, no. 5, pp. 616–634.
Lee, S.Y., Brand, J.L. (2005) “Effects of control over office workspace on perceptions of the work environment and work outcomes.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 323–333.