Melissa Marsh of PLASTARC: “Wellness requires having flexibility”

Wellness requires having flexibility; in this way, even if you don’t reach all of your goals, you’re still going to be okay. In order to maintain mental health, you have to be suitably driven to accomplish what you want to have happen even if the journey you find yourself on veers off from the path […]

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Wellness requires having flexibility; in this way, even if you don’t reach all of your goals, you’re still going to be okay. In order to maintain mental health, you have to be suitably driven to accomplish what you want to have happen even if the journey you find yourself on veers off from the path you had envisioned. In this case, I would suggest figuring out how to use what you’ve acquired along the way to successfully go in a different direction. The habit in that situation, then, relates to developing a reframing or reapplication of prior learnings. For example, in my life, I draw on my undergraduate education in political science as much as or more than my architectural education.

As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewingMelissa Marsh.

Melissa Marsh is Founder and Executive Director of PLASTARC, a social research, workplace innovation, and real estate strategy consultancy. Her work leverages the tools of social science and business strategy to help organizations make more data-driven and people-centric architecture, design and real estate decisions.

Melissa combines quantitative and qualitative social science research with architectural expertise and is dedicated to shifting the metrics associated with workplace from “square feet and inches” to “occupant satisfaction and performance.” This holistic approach enables PLASTARC to recommend evidence-based interventions that make the built environment more people-centric and responsive, promoting both individual wellness and business success.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

There are two pieces: One is that my mom is an artist, and my dad is an engineer. In many ways, that combination seems quite naturally to generate an architect. However, it took me a while to get to Architecture and building design. In fact, my first career aspiration was politics, particularly the presidency of the United States.

The work that I do now — with a human factors and social research approach to design — was inspired by my involvement with the famously-wobbly Millennium Bridge in London and figuring out why it swayed. Years had gone into planning and construction, and yet it had to be closed within just two days of opening to the public. The issue was that once the bridge was in use, a sway caused by pedestrians walking across it resulted in an excessive horizontal dynamic.

This experience served as an “aha moment” because we realized that people were impacting the bridge through a combination of crowd behavior and human body mechanics. Arriving at this conclusion required taking an engineering and data-driven approach to human factors issues, characteristics which are often thought of as “soft” or unknowable. Prior to this project, I had not yet had the experience of measuring people in an urban-scale architectural environment. It showed me that we can measure people relative to space, and vice versa. From this realization, I have shaped a career built around the science behind how people experience and interact with structures, buildings, and space.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My husband is definitely a key part. He advocated for my entrepreneurship long before I got my own head around doing business for myself. My maternal grandmother was another foundational piece: No matter what I did, she thought I was perfect and communicated that perspective to me, which is a powerful message to receive as a child — and even through early adulthood.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

By many accounts, the Millennium Bridge (described above) could have been considered a failure. However, if an innovative design was not attempted in the first place, we would not have had the opportunity to explore and investigate how to “fix” it. We never would have had that chance to contribute had everything gone to plan. So, in a way, this project that was a pivotal career moment for me was “an interesting mistake.”

Consequently, I am a huge advocate for the discovery that can come from learning from failure. My advice is to fail fast, especially when it comes to production and getting things done from an architecture and design perspective. You never know how long something is going to take or what will actually be required until you get started.

That being said, architecture is somewhat unique in the sense that it can’t truly be allowed to fail or else people will die. So, it’s early in the process that we should push for experimentation and trying new things.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

When it comes to following in my footsteps, I would say it takes a combination of being super driven, slightly impatient, and working really hard while also being (relatively) open to where that effort takes you. While architecture can have a constrained viewpoint or way of looking at things, I have tried to develop PLASTARC to operate outside of that. I have aspired to shape a place for merging together different approaches and testing buildings based on how they serve people. This stems from a combination of my personal values and the technical expertise of my education.

It’s been about the journey of chasing matters diligently but always keeping an eye to what new paths might reveal themselves in the course of doing so.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The first book that comes to mind is Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, which basically breaks down everything that is architectural experience into a set of ingredients needed to create a recipe. For example, a park, a pathway, and a patio could all be ingredients, but each is impacted by whatever it is mixed with, yielding different results. So, a garden combined with a patio has a totally different outcome than when paired with a superhighway. This is somewhat similar to how words mean different things based on sequence, where they appear in a sentence, or even intonation. (It’s proof that I’m a nerd since this book is much closer to a dictionary than a story…on that note, I’m also a huge fan of the thesaurus.)

Richard Scarry’s children’s books were also influential to me. In the illustrations, there were so many things going on that you could keep looking at it forever. Animals play the role of industrious town and city dwellers: you’d notice pig engineers, then cats that were teaching school. I was fascinated by all of the layers of the activities happening in these scenes, and of course by the architectural details.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

I love Alice In Wonderland, for saying, “I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.” I use it as a reminder to follow my own advice, but also to forgive myself when I don’t!

Next is Winston Churchill’s line, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” This may be obvious for an architect turned social scientist.

I’m also a huge Audre Lorde fan. “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” ranks among her many incisive quotes. It has relevance from the perspectives of both politics and innovation, with the idea being that we can’t fix what’s currently wrong using the same tools that got us into a state of brokenness in the first place.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Since 2018, PLASTARC has been contributing environmental psychology and workplace design expertise to inform the development of lululemon’s new headquarters in Vancouver, Canada. This project is significant in at least two ways: The first relates to how it will positively influence and support employees once they relocate to the completed building. The second has to do with lululemon’s status as an aspirational brand, meaning it is able to set a standard for well-being and sustainability that other organizations can look to achieve as well.

We are also among the strategy teams leading the General Services Administration (GSA)’s exploration of what the future of work will look like in 2030. There is an opportunity for that vision to be more hybrid, flexible, and multilocational than ever before due to the impact of Covid-19.

It is an exciting moment in how we are serving clients. Now more than ever there is awareness of how powerful our buildings are in shaping our health and habits. Furthermore, addressing the spread of Covid is as much about behavior and choice as the physical environment. So, our blend of spatial and behavioral design is urgently needed.

Finally, in addition to client projects, we are always pursuing research to advance our understanding of the workplace and how to create more people-centric environments. Simply, no one yet knows all of what is dynamic between people and our spaces, from the home or office to the urban environment and transportation.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

To some extent, a habit is easy, right? When something becomes habitual, then it’s no longer hard to do it. You don’t have to motivate yourself or get all psyched up. It becomes almost invisible in that regard, which is why bad habits are insidious and why good habits can be really powerful. They operate more on a subconscious level than on a conscious level.

People can take as an example anything they do regularly that they don’t have to think about. It could be brushing your teeth or looking both ways before crossing the road or going to bed early on a school night. Many of these come from childhood and are things that parents or teachers taught you. The point is that just by repetition, you can make anything into a habit — good or bad.

When doing something for so long, we forget what it was like not to have these steps be a part of our day to day. I think there is going to be a big wakeup call at the end of Covid lockdowns when people are forced back into less desirable routines. For example, long commutes that really weren’t sustainable to begin with. Pre-lockdown, this was on autopilot: People got up at a certain time, they got in the car, they drove, they sat in traffic, and they got to work 1.5 hours later. That whole time, all of those steps were habitual, and so those individuals didn’t even realize how much a feature of their day, like commuting, was impacting their lives. Now, months later, without this commute, it will come as a surprise — if not a shock — because we are no longer in the habit.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

Getting up early. Granted some of that is biological and some is habit, but I’m so much more optimistic in the morning. I feel like anything is possible. I want to have more hours of my day be guided by that “I can do anything today” optimism, so getting up early gives me that superpower. Recognizing that is when I have the most mental energy and wanting to capture as much of that time as I can has been instrumental to my success.

I’m also a (slightly) compulsive list maker. I do this whenever there is too much in my head, and I need to take thoughts out and commit to revisiting them at another point in time. I would say most of my habits are responsive — so it’s not that I carry out specific actions at a certain time each day but instead do so based on feelings or contingencies (i.e., “if this, then that”). To further illustrate, you don’t brush your teeth at 9 pm every night. You do it before going to bed. So, I would say most of my habits are not rote but rather tied to context and other things going on.

As another example, giving appreciation and being thankful is a habit. We are almost reflexive in how we express these responses across contexts. Common exchanges like “thanks” and “you’re welcome,” or “Hi, how are you?,” and “Fine, and you?” are yet another variation on this theme.

Starbucks stands out as a company that has tapped into the power of building habits, as described in Charles Duhigg’s excellent book on the topic. Several years back, they developed a training program based on the premise that employees needed support developing and practicing routines they could draw on when faced with specific stressful situations. They got employees to roleplay across many common scenarios — such as a screaming customer or a long line — responding positively over and over again until those responses became second nature. The idea was to build automated responses to events everyone knew were going to happen, thereby ensuring employee reactions were purposeful and reflective of willpower and self-confidence.

By being in the habit of something, you can rely on internal acknowledgement, and that can be a source of positive energy to carry forward. It’s not unlike training animals when you use a little clicker as reward reinforcement. Relatedly, NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast produced an episode covering the topic of using clicker responses to train doctors. In order to prepare for successfully operating in stressful situations, they must know by heart how to complete highly technical tasks with their hands. The mechanical nature of the clicker approach conditions them to learn at a muscle memory-level, as is required in medical settings. In essence, I think habits can be thought of as the equivalent of establishing muscle memory.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

I think developing good habits includes doing versions of things you like and rewarding yourself accordingly. For example, when you’re in yoga class and everyone is folding into a posture you don’t like, you can choose an alternative that you do like if that is what will keep you wanting to come back to the practice on the whole.

Obviously, sometimes you have to teach yourself to do things you don’t want to, but part of the learning should build upon what you already like to do in some capacity. It’s the logic of self-reward. I would advise starting easy and working up because you will still be building a habit.

The biggest strategy of all: Tell other people — especially those that matter to you and to whom you matter — which habits you are committed to forming or breaking so that you aren’t just letting yourself down if you don’t follow through.

Imagining yourself doing things is also remarkably powerful. Even if you aren’t able to physically engage in a task at a particular moment, at least imagine yourself doing it, or cycling through the steps, so that it continues the logic of muscle memory building. Thereby you have stayed in the habit, or mindset.

Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.

Focus is absolutely the ability to put everything else in a separate bucket — whether that’s through list making or tackling an important task first thing in the morning before progress can get sidelined. It really is about prioritizing and doing whatever you have to do to get distractions out of the way, even temporarily. If you can’t focus, you can’t do any of the things you want to.

Performance is about setting targets and committing to them, either socially by telling friends and family what you’re looking to accomplish or externalizing them by writing them down (or drawing them, putting them onto a ball, etc. — whatever is motivating). It’s about the imagination that’s going to get you there and put you in the strived-for position. The more and better you articulate your targets, the more likely you are to accomplish them.

Like many, I have followed the coverage of the Breonna Taylor case since it broke. Her story once again came to mind as I reflected on the profundity of manifesting goals through daily actions that become habits. In a New York Times article I read, it was revealed that Breonna had motivational post-it notes displayed on walls throughout her home, as well as a collection of envelopes with her dreams scrawled across them. Together, these captured many of the things she planned to do, such as buy a car, get her EMT license, and start nursing school. While her life was tragically cut short, her plans are immortalized through her written intentions — a detail that has resonated with so many following her story. When I think about it, I imagine her having accomplished these things.

Wellness requires having flexibility; in this way, even if you don’t reach all of your goals, you’re still going to be okay. In order to maintain mental health, you have to be suitably driven to accomplish what you want to have happen even if the journey you find yourself on veers off from the path you had envisioned. In this case, I would suggest figuring out how to use what you’ve acquired along the way to successfully go in a different direction. The habit in that situation, then, relates to developing a reframing or reapplication of prior learnings. For example, in my life, I draw on my undergraduate education in political science as much or more than my architectural education.

I also believe that emotional well-being is the foundation of all other forms of well-being (physical, financial, etc.). To me, wellness is about listening to your own body and mind and then being responsive. It requires doing things and taking action based on self-understanding. For example, by recognizing when you’re stressed and knowing that physical exercise can relieve that stress, you can then prioritize finding that break needed to work out. The same goes for noticing the impact that different foods have on you and then adjusting your diet accordingly. Across categories, it comes down to paying attention, to being dialed into what feels good for you.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

This connects back to the idea of building muscle memory discussed in Question #10. From this perspective, practice — meaning you do something over and over again — is the way that you create a habit. There’s an important contrast between temporal and contextual means of doing things. For instance, it doesn’t always work to set an alarm for something because the moment it goes off may not feel like the right time to take action on it. An “If this, then that” approach has proven more effective for me. It’s about setting a practice around doing one thing in relation to another (i.e., tackle xyz as soon as you wake up, not at 7 am every day).

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.

Get there — wherever there is — early. I once read that you should show up for an interview with time to go to the restroom and to check out the place so that you are comfortable and have something to talk about once the conversations get underway. Similarly, if we get to meetings early, whether they are virtual or physical, we have time to chat or make a personal connection before the content starts. The idea is to get there ahead of schedule not to impress someone else but for the purpose of preparing your mind and being more connected and focused before diving into the activity at hand.

If we think of this as a sequence, the next habit worth cultivating is to be present and engaged and ready to participate with your whole self. Presuming you’re enjoying what you’re doing — and in order to make a career out of it, you do need to enjoy what you do — being present will make the work more fulfilling for you. If you’re not present in your work, then you’re not getting the full benefit out of it from an intellectual or emotional perspective.

Lastly, follow up! Do what you say you’ll do afterwards. It is sometimes the thing that is hardest to do, especially for those striving to remain in the present moment. It’s easy to get involved in the next thing and forget to follow through on a previous commitment. Personally, I remind myself how much it means to me when someone follows up in a not-automated kind of way but instead with details from the conversation we had or plans we laid out.

These three steps taken together add up to optimal performance in both work and sport (though my expertise centers on the workplace now, one of my past careers was both as a camp counselor and a swimming instructor).

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.

My recommended habits for optimal focus overlap with the advice for personal success outlined in Question #10: 1) list making can allow you to get less pressing matters off your mind in order to have a renewed capacity to focus on urgent priorities; 2) from a longer-term viewpoint, having sustained focus on achieving goals requires articulating them 3) when it comes to focusing at a specific point in time, I would recommend learning your body’s energy rhythm and mood and being tapped into that so you know what you’re good at accomplishing and when from a mood and energy perspective (i.e., “I prefer heads down work in the morning and being sociable in the afternoon and try to schedule commitments accordingly”).

As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

When you’re a junior employee, it can be hard to get into flow because maybe you get interrupted or are really task-driven. Similarly, when you’re senior in an organization, it’s also a challenge because you want to remain available and keep your (metaphorical) door open, but it can be challenging to get into that zone because you have layers of responsibilities for other people or you might be stretched from a schedule perspective.

To solve for this, having days or part-days that you block out for meetings is important to being able to get into flow. If you’re trying to do heads down work but you’ve got a call in an hour, you might not get into flow because you’ve got that time boundary looming.

I think leaders and executives probably spend more personal time doing work that is creative or otherwise in a flow kind of typology — whether that is on the weekends or during vacation or other non-office moments. Covid has likely given people time to do work in a different style in a positive way as well.

I also get my “mise en place,” just as chefs do by laying out their ingredients in different bowls in preparation for making a meal. Getting my physical environment set allows me to enter flow because I’m not contending with interruptions by getting up to search for a different colored pen or because my back is aching due to an uncomfortable chair.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

My goal would be to make visible the tremendous value of small investments in the environment that pay off for individuals and society. This could take many forms. The work of colleagues Laura Kurgan and Sarah Williams of Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University comes to mind as a creative way of accomplishing this. Their Million Dollar Blocks exhibition at the MoMA used information graphics to convey the cost of incarceration as compared to having community centers in urban neighborhoods for young people.

Another example would be the price of an outhouse compared to the cost of persistent disease. For example, people having safe and sanitary places to go to the bathroom is an urgent but often neglected issue. In the U.S., plumbing is a public service that everyone has access to, with few exceptions. However, this is not universal. In places like Bangalore, India, where there are enormous U.S. and global corporate organizations, there is limited central sewer and water services. Each company that sets up their office building there must also develop their own plumbing infrastructure. This is, of course, expensive for the company, but even more costly to the adjacent area in many regards. So much more could be gained by sufficiently taxing the corporates and building a public service infrastructure.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Oprah is a public figure who has fascinated me since early childhood. As a bit of a latchkey kid, I regularly watched her talk show after school. It aired on the one channel with reasonable reception (and followed the soap operas which I found rather tedious). I was often taken by the people she hosted, by their stories, and by the way she would engage both her interviewee and the audience. For how public of a figure she is today, I feel that the portraits of Oprah I have encountered over the years only scrape the surface of who she is. Meeting her one-on-one for a meal could provide a chance to finally ask my own questions.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

In addition to visiting PLASTARC’s website and signing up for our weekly newsletter, we frequently publish articles in Work Design Magazine. You can also keep up-to-date on our latest thinking and projects by following @plastarc on twitter and my LinkedIn.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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