Ideally, working in an office should be a refreshing and inspiring experience. That’s the thesis backing the headquarter designs of some of the biggest companies in the world, including Apple’s spaceship, Amazon’s rainforest, and Google’s campus. At these companies' headquarters, a lot of thought was put into not only the aesthetic of the spaces, but how people move through them and how they could work best in them.
To learn more about how space encourages productivity, allowing employees to enter into a state of flow in which people melt into their work, Inverse reached out to Andrew Franz, founder of New York-based Andrew Franz Architect.
Is flow something that office designers aim for when creating a workplace?
Definitely. Productivity is a critical consideration in design. Clients want places that engage staff and increase the quality of their work or productivity. Another way to think of it is creating a safe environment that minimizes distractions or pressure and lends a sense of comfort encouraging focus.
The resulting spaces may shed a commercial workplace vocabulary in favor of a warmer, more inviting environment suggestive of a library or a den: intimate and welcoming, yet ideally in an airy, open space flooded with daylight and energy. The surroundings support calm attentiveness and the ability to access one's intuition — ideal for flow.
How has office design changed to accommodate flow in the years since the term was coined in the 1970s?
One idea that contributes to the flow state is called “active design.” These principles promote physical activity and health, so newer offices encourage movement up and down and across the spaces. This creates energy and allows breaks and a marked contrast to allow for immersion into the heads-down “flow” work that makes up most of the day.
For one office project, we created a “circulation loop” that included several touchpoints along the way: coffee service, a large chef’s kitchen, lounges, yoga studio, and a gym. Not only is this good for one’s health, but the circulation loop also generates the happenstance meetings and exchange of ideas that mark today’s best and most innovative companies.
What are the design features that encourage a flow state?
Ergonomics as well as health are critical to the physical contribution to flow states. We also see more use of better acoustical designs integrated into workspaces to enhance flow. An example is the honeycomb-motif polychromatic ceiling we used in a client’s small meeting and working rooms.
A mix of vintage, modern and custom furniture, and lighting project a warm atmosphere that more closely suggests a boutique hotel lobby or contemporary loft residence rather than a command center or a cubicle farm.
What are things that companies can do to boost the likelihood of flow in their offices?
Balance the desire for a strong sense of community and collaboration with abundant private, intimate areas for employees to retreat to. The best designs create varied ways for staff to withdraw from the open, public areas and into more intimate, library-style quiet zones and breakout spaces for spontaneous meetings and uninterrupted work.
I’m a believer in the power of nature. That can come in the form of a green wall, a great view that can be shared by all, a terrace, or opening the windows. Nature is a cue for most people to relax. We had one client ask for a water feature simply so people could hear the sound.
How can individuals design their home workspaces with flow in mind?
At this moment, houses and apartments have to be so much more than just a place to shower and sleep. This situation is not only revalidating the importance of having a home to go to in times like this, but also asking us to question the nature of our dwellings — whether they are comfortable, functional, efficient, and even inspiring to us. Here are four rules to consider for more flow at one’s home:
4. Differentiate spaces with physical dividers and schedule activities. Boundaries matter. We’re seeing the same issues people were facing in open offices now taking place inside people’s homes. People who have to do focused tasks need a quiet environment, and meanwhile, the kids need to play and the groceries need to get put away while the music or television is turned up too loud.
Especially in smaller houses and apartments, people often have to take office work or homework to their kitchens or bedrooms with inadequate lighting or distracting smells and amidst noisy or nosy family members and roommates. Minimize the interruption of Zoom calls by toddlers or refrigerator door open dings by dividing spaces with physical barriers or partitions to create flexible zones within bigger rooms. It can be something as simple as hanging a curtain or fabric. Scheduling spaces for needed activities at different times can also help mitigate friction in cramped quarters. Claiming a room and closing the door is probably the best strategy.
3. Take advantage of natural light and brighten up all interiors. I’m an enthusiastic advocate of using daylight, and there are scientifically proven effects of sunlight and good electric sources on human psychology. Natural light is proven to boost mood and productivity, so ideally you would have it coming in from multiple directions and sources. Even if you only have one window in a room, don’t cover it; let the light spill in.
If a house or apartment doesn’t get much light, the next best thing is multiple electrical illumination sources to light more active spaces from multiple directions and most importantly, whether in the case of a small desk or large workroom, an LED task light.
2. Bring as much nature indoors as possible or step outside. It’s important to experience nature in some form every day. Whether it’s a plant on your windowsill, a view of the tree outside your window, or even a little balcony you can step out onto for some fresh air, don’t take it for granted.
At the very least, choose items made of natural materials for furnishing your "flow space": real wood tables or chairs, stone sculptures or countertops, and artwork that represents nature are all great options.
1. Get good wifi. (This is not a drill!) Staying connected is everything in our increasingly virtual world, so having a great quality data connection installed in your home, perhaps even with a backup system should the first one fail, is critical to maintaining flow.
Our current moment is reminding many of us how good it feels to have stable roots — to have a shelter to retreat to that reflects our deepest values, supports our needs, and gives us the true sense of safety, control, and total belonging that we all crave.