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Did you know that being joyful boosts productivity, that round rooms are happier places and that nature helps you concentrate? Steelcases’ Katie Pace speaks to designer and author Ingrid Fetell Lee, to find out how to inject more joy into the workplace and other great office design tips. This is an edited transcript. Please click on the link below for the audio interview.
Host Katie Pace: Today, we are going to hear my conversation with author Ingrid Fetell Lee who wrote Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. Ingrid is a former design director for IDEO – she founded the website The Aesthetics of Joy and her TED Talk on Joy has been viewed 17 million times. We caught up with her at home to find out more about how to find our Joy in life and at work….I don’t mean to say that all workplaces don’t have joy but talk to our listeners a little bit about why joy matters at work. Why should workplaces think about joy?
Ingrid Fetell Lee: It’s such a misconception that joy and work are separate because the reality is that little moments of joy can radically improve our performance at work.
In an office context, research shows that managers who exhibit more joy had teams complete their work with less effort and do so in a more coordinated way. There’s research that shows that joy influences our working memory in a positive way. Working memory being the function that enables us to complete work and tasks, which is why some studies show that we are 12% more productive in a state of joy. So, if you can get 12% more productivity without having to invest in a lot of the sorts of initiatives that you would have to think about another way to get that amount of productivity, I mean I think that’s pretty radical just by making some changes to the environment.
Katie Pace: That’s really incredible when we hear the statistics in those studies. It makes me wonder how do we get there? How do you think we can bring more joy to the physical environment?
Ingrid Fetell Lee: I think it starts with thinking about the people who are working in that space and recognizing that they want to both complete their work, but they want to experience joy while they’re doing it.
One of the questions I always start by asking is, “What’s the energy like in the space?” That intangible feeling when you walk into a space and you’re like, “What’s the vibe here?”
Another really good one is, do you hear laughter in the halls? When you walk through the halls of your office, do you ever hear laughter?
I think energy is a really big one because energy is the currency of work, and when we’re energetic we feel engaged and ready to work. When we don’t feel energetic, it’s hard. We’re dragging ourselves through our work. So, energy is the first of the 10 aesthetics of joy that I talk about, but I also think it’s really foundational at work. I think a lot of companies think of energy as the employee’s domain. Right? What you feed yourself, how hydrated you are, whether you exercise. All those things are the ways that we modulate our energy.
But there are a lot of spatial factors that influence energy and one of the biggest ones, I mean colour is definitely one of them and there are studies that show that people working in brighter, more colourful environments are more alert so that is one way to do it, but I think lighting is another big piece of it. So, there’s research that shows that when workers have sunnier desks, when they’re near a window, they sleep 46 minutes more per night, and they’re more active during the day.
Katie Pace: So, if we know that maybe a painting on the wall helps, or natural lights helps or colourful furniture, if that makes people more joyful, productive, helps them sleep better, gives them energy, why are so many offices drab – looking the same? And how did we get here?
Ingrid Fetell Lee: I think we’ve lived in a world for a very long time that has been very separate between mind and body, so the workplace was designed for the mind. It was designed to be a rational place with no distractions where you came, and you got your work done and that was the space.
Now we understand that actually a lot of our thinking is embodied, and that a lot of our productivity has to do with how we feel physically and our emotions. All of those things are connected.
Katie Pace: It makes me wonder about the impact physical things in the workplace can have on the organizational culture, or maybe you would describe it like the energy of a space?
Ingrid Fetell Lee: I mean culture is vital and I think that the two things interact. I think one thing that I often look for is whether a space reflects the brand or whether it reflects a company’s values, because I think that sometimes those are different. Ideally, they’ll be aligned, but if they’re not aligned, you can see when a company has branded their interior office environment and used a lot of the brand colours, and put a lot of logos in places, and things like that, but the space doesn’t actually reflect their values, and a space that doesn’t reflect the values is not a great prop for culture.
So, the way that I think about setting, it’s really like the setting of a book. My undergraduate degree was in creative writing, and I remember way back when I was learning how to write fiction and my professor said, “Whenever you’re stuck, write the setting first, because the setting gives the characters something to do.”
And it’s the same way with culture. Right? What we do, the way we interact in a space, will often be dictated by what you put into that space, so yeah, so I think shaping a space that makes the values tangible.
I think a lot about this with the Kickstarter space, for example. Just to describe it for people who may not be familiar with it, Kickstarter is a business that’s all about empowering people to create and crowdfund their dreams, so it’s very much about independence and freedom. And when you go into that space, they converted an old factory in Greenpoint which could have been quite dense and heavy, but they filled it with nature. There’s a central courtyard that is all glassed in that you can actually walk out to. Many companies have glass courtyards with plants, but you can’t actually touch them or go out and be with them. But actually, there are doors that open and windows that open that let the nature in. There are gardens on every level. There’s a roof garden where employees can actually put their hands in the dirt and actually grow things, and the spaces are very flexible, so you’ll find all sorts of little spaces tucked in.
So first of all, everyone gets access to that nature. It’s not a perk. Everyone has views of the outside, so it’s not just something that the people in the corner office get. It’s egalitarian. Everyone gets it, and there’s a sense of freedom because you have the outside brought in in this way. So, the values of company are reflected in that space and it’s a space that I think feels really good for that reason.
Katie Pace: That sounds awesome. So, you talk at some point about some of these organizations that put in slides, or we’ve seen ball pits, or we’ve seen sort of just silly stuff, and it feels really forced. At the end of the day, you still have to work. Right? You go to work to work
Ingrid Fetell Lee: Totally. Exactly. Some organizations, that is the right space for them to be in, right, is that silly space, and that works really well. But understanding that … My hope with the idea that having 10 aesthetics of joy is that it’s a palette and you don’t have to paint with every colour at once. Right? So, understanding that you can tune into the type of joy that feels right for you and bring that into your space, it broadens out the ways we’re able to think about joy, that it doesn’t have to be entirely silly or playful.
And I’ve actually seen that aesthetic of play, the roundness and these softer forms and curves, I’ve seen that done in actually really adult ways. It doesn’t have to mean just putting a slide in. The Wing, which is a co-working space for women which was started in New York and has been popping up in many cities around the country, is a space where I work and it’s a very light-hearted space, actually. There’s a lot of curvy furniture, and colours, and it doesn’t feel like your typical office, and there is a sense of warmth, and play, and joy, but it’s not a ball pit or a slide.
Katie Pace: And that reminds me when I told one of colleagues, I was going to have a chance to speak to you she said ‘ooh ask her about squares’ and you know she’s right because you talk about how round things and arches bring us joy but at work we are surrounded by so many rectangles in our conference rooms and floor plans?
Ingrid Fetell Lee: I think I had to cut some of this from the book actually because this chapter on play and roundness got so long that my editor just said, “Enough is enough.” But I think it’s interesting to understand how we got to a place where rectangles are the default method of building and not circles, because if you look at a lot of ancient architecture, one room dwellings are often round. As houses moved from small one room dwellings, they became less round and more rectilinear because it’s easier to append rooms and build on to a structure when it is rectilinear. The same with levels, right? If a building has a domed top, it’s very hard to put a second story on it.
So over time we ended up in this world that’s rectilinear. And then as mass production came into play, it’s much easier to create rectilinear beams and things like that than it is to create round dwellings.
Katie Pace: If you were to give some quick advice like very simply how do we add more joy to our home or to our workplace?
Ingrid Fetell Lee: So, colour is a big one. I talked about light, also very important for the home.
And then again, this is something for both home and work. Nature. Bringing the outside in. So, there’s tons of research that shows that nature helps restore our concentration and attention, and while that sounds primarily like something you’d want at work, that faculty of attention and concentration is the same faculty that allows us to make decisions, and it’s the same faculty that prevents us from being overloaded during social interactions. So when we get irritable, when we get short with the people who are around us, often it’s because that ability to focus, that sort of reserve of attention is being depleted, so having a plant in your space. If you have green views out your window, making sure that those are visible. Don’t cover them up with heavy window treatments. Right?
But I think what the environment can do is it can take some of the pressure off because a lot of the ways that these interventions work is they work on our unconscious minds, so they set us at ease. It’s hard to have good social interactions with people if we don’t feel safe, for example. A lot of the environments that we create in offices have subtle unconscious things that make us feel less safe.
A big one is the sense of prospect and refuge. So very open plan offices where people feel very exposed can trigger a sense of a lack of safety. We like to have views. So, there’s things about an open plan office that are really joyful because we get that freedom. Our eyes can focus on the distance, which if you’re stuck in one small view, you don’t actually have that. You have no distance view. So, we love that feeling of being able to see and get a sense of everything that’s going on, but we also need refuge. We need to feel protected. We need to feel that we have a sense of safety. If we don’t feel that and we just feel like we’re an animal on an open field, then that’s going to affect our interactions with other people.
So making sure that you have the fundamental sense of safety, of comfort, and a sense of vibrancy, energy, positive energy in a space, those things can take some of the edges off those dynamics, or give you a context to begin solving some of those deeper problems.