Most of us spend at least one-third of our waking hours, and a larger fraction of our energy, working. While organizations have begun to recognize the dangers of sedentary lifestyles — employee benefits often include gym memberships, standing desks, and other ergonomic accommodations — they often limit the domain of their concern to the most superficial interpretation of the “working person.” It is long past time to expand our concern out to the “whole person.”
As business owners, people professionals, and managers, we and the people we work with are not just building products, not just building a culture — we’re building a place to live. A place, virtual or physical, that people will inhabit for years to come. A place where people will bring their most focused, energetic selves (at least at the beginning, and longer if we hold up our end of the bargain), along with their hopes, dreams, self-esteem, and anxieties about being able to take care of their families and about succeeding in life generally. We have a moral responsibility to do whatever we can to help people thrive in this place. Not just to succeed in their commitments to the business. To thrive.
It is not a simple task. There is no checking a box and calling it done. A number of our individual needs are knowable and addressable only in context. But there is more we can do at a baseline level to help our work communities thrive.
I’m going to focus on two such baseline categories: Environment (work space) and management (relationships). Lots has been said about the latter, and I’ll add my 2 cents in a follow-up post. For now, here are some thoughts about the former.
As soon as we step into a space we embark on a profoundly complex analysis of its various features. Does it feel crowded or spacious, neat or tidy, clean or dirty, old or new, quiet or noisy, warm or cold, soft or hard, light or dark?
If there are people present, the race through this initial Goldilocks analysis is complicated by rapid-fire social assessments. What do the people here look and sound like, are they working or socializing, friendly or unfriendly, happy or sad, serious or silly, relaxed or stressed, similar to me or different from me?
(It’s no wonder we often don’t catch people’s names when we first meet them. It’s barely audible amidst the din of our social-spacial appraisals.)
Initial impressions unfold in milliseconds, but the information gathering continues indefinitely. Over time, as we begin to inhabit a space, we develop a deeper sense of our relationship to it. Am I crammed or accommodated here, protected or exposed, productive or distracted, energized or enervated?
Ultimately, we are trying to figure out if this is a place where we will thrive. The answer to this question may change as more information comes in and conditions change, but there is a constantly looming danger that we will decide the answer is definitively no, we cannot thrive here. That danger intensifies if we have decided we cannot thrive here and are forced to be here nevertheless, and without the power or resources to improve the situation. When that happens, dejection and malaise set in, on their way to resentment or apathy.
There are so many dimensions to this devolution. It is impossible to head them all off for all people. But if you don’t attempt to elevate the baseline environmental experience, you won’t have solid ground to build on, and you may already have lost the trust of your employees. Here are some easy places to start.
1. Sensory Pollution
Our sense organs are constantly scanning for important signals. Polluting those channels with noise not only makes it harder for us to identify the signals, it makes us sick in the process.
It is no longer controversial, if it ever was, that noise pollution can have devastating effects on stress levels, and thus on mental and physical health. There is growing backlash against open offices, but the problem is deeper than physical shapes and boundaries. A private office can still suffer from adverse acoustics. We spend thousands of hours in these spaces every year. Acoustic ergonomics are critical. If you’re serious about taking care of your employees…
Big budget solutions
- Consult with an acoustical engineer or ergonomics specialist to ensure that all work spaces have been designed carefully to promote healthy sound dynamics.
Small budget solutions
- Remove, contain, or move away from sources of chronic noise pollution (plumbing, HVAC, printers, phone ringers, traffic, etc.).
- Diagnose the acoustics of a space yourself (note the iOS option at the bottom), and then make some fixes.
- Sponsor full or partial payment of noise canceling or other sound suppressing headphones.
Of course, there is much that can be said about light pollution as well. That’s a post for another day.
2. Food & Drink
Over the years I’ve visited countless workplaces with vending machines and drink fountains. Almost every single one of them was geared more towards indulgence than nutrition. Diet and stress are highly correlated.
It may have been the case 20–30 years ago that you had to choose between delicious food and healthy food. That’s no longer the case. Our collective knowledge about how foods affect our bodies and brains has evolved considerably.
Make it easy for us to make good choices.
- Hire a chef full-time or once or twice a week to prep nutritious meals and snacks. Even having a day or two covered here and there can make a difference.
- Replace controlled access to grease and sugar (vending machines, stocked kitchens, team meals) with access to more nutritious options.
- Try to negotiate an employee discount at local restaurants that serve healthy food.
I’ll never forget the time I walked into the offices of a large government customer in Maryland and immediately saw someone asleep in his chair. On dozens of other occasions in other workplaces I’ve seen people dozing off in meetings, hunched over and heavy-lidded at their desks, or otherwise complaining about exhaustion.
Large federal bureaucracies and individual evening activity choices notwithstanding, it’s time to do away with the stigma of “sleeping on the job.” Insufficient sleep is correlated with tons of health problems, including heart issues.
If you’re hiring people that you can’t trust to stay awake enough to do their jobs, you might want to let them go and reconsider your hiring process. For the rest, make room for napping, both in your physical space and in your organizational culture.
- Don’t just drop a lumpy couch in the corner of a room or a bunch of big pillows on the floor. Create spaces that are inviting and well bounded. They should be only for sleep. No multi-use or lounging allowed.
- Then, actively encourage people to use these spaces. Or to take naps at home, if that’s where they work.
- Set the tone as a leader by taking an occasional nap yourself, and set your Slack status to “Taking a nap, back online @ 3pm.”
4. Tasks & Errands
One of the most stressful aspects of my week is trying to fit in errands between home and work. Though the time required is often not huge, it has an out-sized affect on stress levels as we try to thread the needle in the short gaps between work and family obligations. I often feel like it’s too big a time requirement during the workday, and I don’t want to use up valuable family/downtime doing them on the weekends.
Helping people offload “gap tasks” goes a longer way than you might expect towards alleviating the day to day stress that accumulates into mental health issues. If you take seriously your responsibility to look after the well-being of employees…
- Hire a full-time employee concierge.
- Sponsor a Magic account or two for textable requests
- Hire a freelance personal assistant for a few hours a week, or whatever frequency you can afford, who can field requests for the whole office.
- Set the tone as a leader by not only encouraging people to take the time they need for errands doing the day but by doing them yourself, setting your Slack status to “Running some errands, back online @ 1pm.”
Adults need recess too. And by recess I don’t mean taking a stroll to the water cooler, though that’s better than not taking any breaks at all. Many workplaces I’ve visited have video game consoles, foosball, or ping-pong tables set up. If they’re set up in a place that won’t distract non-players, these kinds of diversions can be somewhat effective recess strategies, and ping pong in particular may be good for your brain. But they are sub-optimal for a few reasons, one of which is that they tend to appeal primarily to one demographic — young men. Here are some alternatives:
- When people spend much of their day in front of a bright screen, it’s not particularly restorative to take a break in a room that is just another brightly lit box. Decompression scales with the amount of overhead space. Give people spaces of all shapes and sizes to explore.
- If you have any chance for a good view from your office make sure it’s the communal and play spaces that take greatest advantage of it.
- Provide chalk walls or coloring spaces where people can step away from work but still be occupied. Such activities can have surprising meditative effects, and will help people stay away from their phones, which can defeat the restorative potential of breaks. They can also function as more comfortable environments for socializing, since people don’t need to approach and address each other head-on, with the expectation of a specific agenda.
- Set the tone by advocating strongly for the importance of restorative breaks, and model them by taking them yourself. As with napping, few people will do it if they haven’t seen their manager do it first.
Addressing sensory pollution, diet, and sleep deprivation, while easing the strain of peripheral logistics and promoting truly restorative breaks, together comprise just the tip of the iceberg of ways you can and should be molding your environment to better care for employees.
Of course, these are really just food for thought. They may or may not be realistic or relevant to your space and organization. There is no substitute for talking with your team and finding out where the space and culture are taking more from employees than they are giving to them.
My next post will focus on management and general interpersonal strategies to better look after the well-being of the people you work with. Until then, I’ll leave you with one final thought:
There is a common compassion practice in Buddhism that recommends noting that every person you cross paths with is somebody’s mother, father, daughter, son, husband, wife, or best friend. Each of these people is trying to be happier and more successful, and is likely struggling to do so. If you are reading this post, maybe you are lucky enough to have the space and resources, and the will, to help them get there.