If you haven’t heard of the ‘paleo/primal’ movement then you haven’t been paying attention and you don’t live in California. It’s primarily a way of eating (and exercise and living in general) that looks back to our ancestry for answers. In other words it tries to emulate the lifestyles of cave people without giving up the many modern trappings (after all you can’t make money from your paleo blog without a computer). In short what this means is less processed/industrialized food, more activity, less calories, more natural movement etc.
But this got me thinking, having written and consulted a lot recently about the ‘ideal’ work pattern or way of working. What would a ‘paleo’ workplace look like? Even though I am a proponent of hybrid and remote, some companies are keeping some or all of their office space. How can we start to rethink the workplaces we are keeping as we redesign for more occasional and less intensive use. In short, can we make future workplaces more human (and not just like we have watched too many episodes of The Jetsons or The Prisoner).
Don’t worry if this sounds like something that wouldn’t interest you. This article basically uses this as a lens to discover what a modern workplace could be. And for those of you creating home/remote offices there may be some ideas too.
The Paleo factors
First let’s quickly mention some of the ‘natural’ or ancestral features of the human race and how they might make a difference to the workplace.
As an ex-six sigma advocate I started to think about applying the 7 wastes to my life. And you know what? It really worked. Stripping out rework and applying a vaguely statistical approach to groceries and bills saved me money and made my life a tiny bit better. But the one thing that didn’t work for me was saving movement. I looked at a simple exercise like maintaining the lawn. I could save time and energy by employing someone else or on investing in a motorized scarifying machine. Why didn’t I? Because it made me move. In the summer I would have to be out there every week for an hour putting in physical effort to get a lawn good to look at and that my kids could play on. If we don’t see human movement as a value-add then we all end up looking like a typing pool from the 1960’s. Besides we know, whilst sometimes overblown, the health risks of sitting seem to back primal advocates’ obsession with movement.
Talking of waste, I think I had a point at the beginning of that paragraph. Yes – movement isn’t a waste if it’s human movement. The technology that maps space utilization and movement tracking in the workplace still has value (see further down) but don’t treat a long walk to the printer as a sin (in fact since offices should be paperless make the walk longer – nudging in practice).
I’m not going to get into the pro’s and con’s of the paleo way of eating – that’s hotly debated and filled with extremist views left and right (does a keto diet make you angry?). Instead let’s talk about the way in which people get their food.
Having worked in tech there was a big shift towards making food readily available at all times so people could keep working. Vending machines and fresh fruit deliveries abound. But the really quick solutions (which are hard to avoid in a proudly fast-paced environment) are also easily available. Our ancestors were not able to get food without effort and even then the calories were likely trapped inside the food (requiring cooking or digestion). How does that compare with putting sugary foods 100 yards from everyone’s desks? Great for productivity (maybe) not so great for health.
But not only that, the high carb, high caffeine diet is much discussed (with caffeine getting people over the blood-sugar crashes until they can back up on carbs). That isn’t controversial. I have also seen some people point out the link between caffeine and capitalism – essentially making the point, I guess, that caffeine is a capitalist conspiracy. I doubt that, and coffee has lots of health benefits so I wouldn’t discourage it. But it does make you wonder if the way we eat/work needs caffeine to sustain it, is it right?
Don’t get me wrong I believe in treating people like adults and allowing them to make their own decisions. However when it comes to base instincts such as craving sugary substances (which would have been a lot less available to our ancestors and so the craving had no evolutionary cost) we need to give our rational brains a fighting chance.
Food is also a communal thing. This probably even predates our human DNA. We are almost designed for feast and famine and a non-genetic definition of tribe would have been the way in which resources are pulled. Make a big kill – the whole tribe comes together to carve, cook and preserve. To what extent does the modern workplace encourage the ‘breaking of bread’ with our brothers and sisters. Numerous studies have shown the value of this in bonding. I also vaguely remember a study that says disputes are more easily solved over food because we are more open-minded when food is present.
I remember vividly a change made to the desk set-up in one place I worked. I had a typical low-wall cubicle. Enough to drown out the sound of typing, not enough partition to prevent you overhearing everyone’s conversation. Anyway the row-by-row setup meant most people were sort of facing one person whilst sort of back to back with one other person or or a wall. I was in the middle of a row and one day they removed the desk behind me. ‘Great’ I thought ‘one less distracting conversation’. Unfortunately it was to create a sort of mid-row thoroughfare and as a result throughout the day I had people walking directly towards my back before taking a sharp turn to go up or down my row. I hated it. Or more correctly my lizard brain hated it. I slowly became aware that having people walk towards me I couldn’t see (and whipping my head around every time would have seemed weird) was stressing me out on an unconscious level.
In other words the above story makes the case that our natural instincts for visibility and exit strategies will never go away. No matter how many qualifications we have or what advanced technologies we can master. We must take into account our instinctive, emotional and irrational selves – they play a much bigger part than we care to believe.
The link is unclear but there appears to also be a part of our brain that responds to nature. Something about it allows our brains (probably via our amygdala) to feel more relaxed in natural environments and it boosts both creativity, focus (even in children with ADHD), and memory. Essentially, it seems, nature is stimulating but in a way that seems to support cognitive function and unlike busy urban environments doesn’t demand our attention as we become hypervigilant to unnatural threats.
I recently posted about sound-proof booths being installed in some offices as part of the return to work. Now whilst I don’t think the purpose of coming to an office is to spend it in solitude I also think the open plan office with all of the available noise isn’t very natural either. And despite this being the default layout for many years there are plenty of people pointing out the shortcomings.
Our ancestors would have sat in a communal area maybe, with a family-sized group (3-10) and wandered in and out of that space as was needed (if you don’t already know – check out Dunbar’s number – it will come up again later). There wouldn’t have been a lot of talking, there would have been the background noise of some ‘doing’. What there wouldn’t have been is a huge cavern filled with hundreds of voices. We all like a bit of bustle sometimes but some open plan offices have gone to extremes – not only knocking down partitions separating people working perfectly well on their own, but also making holes in ceilings and floors to create gigantic echo chambers for hundreds of employees.
Think of the introverts. Think of choices. We also need to be a little bit careful in the post-pandemic world to understand why people are actually coming to the office.
It’s true that when we are working from home we may be slightly starved for company and so it may be seen as OK to prioritize interaction in the workplace. But people’s needs do not turn off and on on a daily basis. If I’m an introvert it’s still unreasonably difficult to expect me to have an ‘extroverted day’ because I’m back in the office. Not only that, but the day I need to be back amongst my colleagues might also be the day when I feel least like doing it – give me the means to manage myself in the best way possible and make my interactions with my colleagues as effective as they can be.
Also, echoing (pun intended) the fight or flight commentary above about nature, it seems even natural sounds can have an enhancing effect on tension and relaxation, and can mask some of the babble associated with open plan.
Finally on a practical note rather than a primal one – some people will be in the office and have to go on virtual meetings. Give them places to do that rather than making them book meeting rooms.
I really struggle to write this. Not because it’s a difficult concept but becauseIi can never spell ‘rhythm’. If you haven’t heard of this idea, the basic premise is that we have evolved over millions of years of biological processes that are prioritized at times of the day built around the average availability of daylight (circadian = day cycle). However they are so ‘hardwired’ now that most functions will continue in the absence of daylight.
Of course you might have heard some people are owls (stay up late) and some are larks (get up early). My kids sadly cover both bases. But in reality this doesn’t link to much variation in the day biologically, but may add a layer to circadian rhythms to give us times of the day we are more effective at different tasks. In other words each person’s circadian rhythm is more similar to others than it is different, but has enough quirks that we need to give people choice in how they structure their time whenever possible.
I used to think I was unusual in that my most productive times seemed to be morning and night. But actually this ‘dumbbell’ productivity isn’t so rare – so how does the work day get structured – right in the middle when I’m (and many others are) at their cognitive worst. Why? Because it’s also when we’re at our physical peak and we have inherited the workday from manual work and manufacturing and not redisgend it for knowledge work (the concept of a ‘workplace’ is one of the reasons we haven’t seen fit to redesign it). It’s why asynchronous working appeals to me so much. But pretty much everyone has a ‘slightly-after-midday’ slump. It’s the reason the number of car crashes jumps up just after midday.
This reality – programmed into us by natural light rhythms, might seem to lend itself more to when we are working remotely – respecting our own rhythms and making person choices. This is true. But our healthy circadian rhythms demand things some workplaces don’t offer – light, sleep, physical activity and variety. In fact, having read this sort of research about the value of a catnap in the afternoon I used to sneak off to my car for 40 winks at once place I worked to get that afternoon ‘zing’.
Human beings are social animals. Even though some of us are more introverted than others, socializing and having human connection has powerful repercussions for mental and physical health.
From a primal point of view it’s hard to maintain close bonds with too many people (remember Dunbar’s number from earlier). Family-size social groups are better for us. We can really build trust. In creating the paleo workplace we need to think about how we create the opportunities for social interaction and also the spaces that can be used for planned interaction.
This is one of the places I tend to agree with the current dominant narrative – the purpose of a workplace is interaction rather than work now. Workplaces will over time, if not already, be used for coming together either formally or informally. Where I disagree is the idea that this cannot happen virtually – it can and the wholly remote people will learn to get their fix of in-person socialization elsewhere. But if you have a workplace, design it for mixing.
The New Workplace in Brief
So taking the above themes for a starting point, let’s try and practically adapt the workplaces for a more human centric (rather than productivity-centric) design. Although it’s worth saying that with the trends of circadian rhythms, movement, food and socializing we actually converge with the latest thinking on productivity anyway – it might just need a leap of faith.
Dynamism and choice
Time to start treating people like grown ups and give them choices (with a bias towards human -centric, healthy choices). This means having desks that can be stand-up or sit-down and spaces that are modular and configurable. Give them knowledge and training on changing the arrangement and have screens that show how things should be done safely. With less sitting at desks in offices you can unshackle yourself from the ergonomic perfection of the past – give people direction and choice to create flexible fun spaces to do what office should be for now – interacting.
Lets not forget that in general creating more flexible setting is also more inclusive – especially when it comes to disabilities and people who aren’t ‘average’.
Democratizing Light and Air
No more corner office nonsense. This is now about making sure everyone gets the light they need to kickstart their circadian rhythms and reduce eyestrain. According to Harvard as far back as 2018 light is the most sought after workspace perk.
Hopefully if we have learnt anything from the pandemic it’s the value of air and ventilation especially where people come together. Of course we are all hoping we never see another pandemic like this one, but wouldn’t we all want a few less sick employees?
This can sometimes be at odds with creating inviting, creative and more flexible spaces but the future of this compromise is not based on the power held by any individuals (the corner office people). Assuming you want to keep your employees ‘let there be light’.
If you have to deploy occupancy and movement sensors to understand your workplace then don’t aim for minimising movement – aim for maximising. Creating walking routes – put communal areas at opposite ends of the building.
Think about encouraging people to cross over and interact. For the purposes of ease of plumbing and cabling coffee and food stations are often to the edges of the floorplan. What if they could be in the middle – everyone has to walk to get there but the added bonus of potentially increasing social interaction.
Echos aren’t common in nature so for the purposes of sound diffusion and deflection as well as a more natural surround start to ditch flat structures and opt for the irregular. Irregular either in the form of nature (see below) or things that remind us of nature helps to make the environment more relaxed. We wouldn’t have had a large flat surface in nature and with less need to fit in lots of square furniture in less and less space we can afford to be a bit more imaginative.
You may want to consider some areas of the office space with natural music. Be warned though pumping through a cacophony of rainforest noises won’t help people who aren’t familiar with rainforest noises and whale song is, well, for whales. Try matching the natural sounds of the country the office is in, give people control wherever possible, or set up a company playlist of nature as voted for by employees. Talking of nature …
Bring Nature In
Probably one of the more expensive ones but as well as helping to create more irregular surfaces we also need to bring nature inside. It boosts our cognitive capacities and productivity. Another way of thinking about this is that the whole point of the workplace is control. Essentially ensuring work can get done safely and without interference from the elements. But keeping nature out comes with a price – a price we pay in a drop in productivity and an increase is stress. So why not try to create a space over which you (safely and cost effectively) have the least control possible. It ticks the dynamism box above and the need for nature and irregularity.
Some studies have even suggested as little as the occasional pot plant on desks can support cognitive function although the evidence is limited, can it do any harm?
A sort of extension of this is the reduction in use of hard chemicals and manufactured materials. The links between these things and health is very hard to prove, but if you line it up with an opportunity to flaunt eco-credentials, making our environment as natural as possible even at the molecular level is a no-brainer.
Space for Expression and Creativity
How can you create (or create the opportunity for) a space that’s inspiring? With the probability to be created on a budget, add books for a library feel – books encourage creativity in a way that electronic files can’t. They are visually appealing and just sit there inviting you. You can leaf through them without knowing what key ‘search words’ to use.
Think about how people can throw ideas around in the space. Allow them to be overheard – who cares? If people have the quiet spaces then let people create loud ones too.
Sleeping places to cope with the midday slump. It seems to be a very western perspective that this is a crazy idea. Lots of workplaces around the world have them. Spaces for the aforementioned cat-nap, but people also want somewhere to go to relax, meditate and pray. Are all of these accommodated in your workplace? C’mon what are you going to do with all the extra post-pandemic floor space anyway?
Essentially again these are about choices. Places for focus on work as well as focus on non-work. Most people aren’t effective in long stints in the way we have worked in the past, and I think if we maximize choice we will see people adopting more varied days and being just as (if not more) productive.
These innovative solutions get their own shout out as they fulfill so many of the options above. They dampen sound, bring in nature, can be used in art, paneling or whole walls.
And whilst discussing what we can do to make the workplace more primal, you may want to check out this article that was written back in the early days of the pandemic that discusses some of the reasons for Virtual Attention Taxation ‘Zoom fatigue’ and how we can correct for them.