Our Work Matters

We spend about 101,760* hours of our life at work in a lifetime so let’s pay more attention to the spaces in which we work. Our workspace matters!

Where do you work? It could be a construction site, a shop, a factory or a field or a school or hospital, but for a large chunk of us these days wherever that is, it is somewhere where you sit at a desk, speak to some people and push some things around a screen.

We know technology has blurred the lines between the worlds of work and non-work and expanded our labours into the gaps and moments in between. Work is still where we collectively tend to spend more time and expend more effort than anywhere else.

So it’s odd when you think about it that in our ongoing efforts to squeeze out more productivity and performance, we rarely give a thought or attention to the all-important spaces in which we actually do our work in.

The History of Work Spaces

In The Office: a hardworking history, Gideon Haigh relates the early archaeological evidence of office work in 2000BC Egypt. It took modern communications like the telephone to convert offices from places of work to places of power. Mobile technology has made it possible to do pretty much anything anywhere but our workspaces still hold the place of power.

The cubicles? They came later, a child of 1960s Herman Miller post-industrial design, intended to inject an element of privacy and wellbeing but leaped on, in predictable fashion by the bean counters and taken to extremes. OMG the torture it has visited upon millions.

We now know that cubicles (about 10 sq m is the Australian legal minimum) are bad for us, just like we now know that sitting down all day slogging away at your workstation can kill you.

Cubicles are a special form of post industrial hell that defy all psychological and productivity logic. They’ve maddened millions, plunged us into subterranean scheming and battling to escape to the corner office, or left us cowed, desperate to escape particular shades of nihilistic grey and suck up salmon that make you want to heave.

I can’t think of a good thing that’s come out of them (ok, except maybe for Dilbert and The Office).

Free Range

More recently we’ve hit on the era of Activity Based Working which was supposed to get people out of stuffy offices and away a regular desk. This supposedly provides workers with more freedom and opportunities to bounce around ideas to help us channel our creativity and get all ‘agile’.

If you’ve been around the block a few times you’ll know that ABW seems suspiciously like an open plan and hot-desking only with acid citrus couches and weird little collaboration nooks.

Introverts and corner office types tend to struggle here but apparently, that’s how millennials and tech dudes like to roll. And with savings of up to 30% on office space, the bean counters have become big fans too.

But while the spaces might look a bit funky and you can write on the walls, it can be so depersonalising it’s like some bad joke they play on battery chickens.

Workers go “free range” – i.e. regular workstations or offices are banished. They lug their stuff from banks of lockers each day, supposedly let out to roam, free to do their toil.

And in clean desk policies gone mad, many organisations ban personal stuff like family photos, food or footy colours. That leaves the lurking suspicion that, come a day, you’ll get terminated, disappear overnight and no one will miss you.

Creatures of human habit, craving connection, this serves to alienate us into mere knowledge slaves, homeless, aimless and, increasingly anxious.

Where will it end?

It’s like we’re slicing and dicing our humanity into ever tinier pieces to fit the wheels of the productivity machine until eventually, all that’s left are tiny little atoms and poof! one day, somehow your soul has evaporated.

Now we know better and it is high time we consigned the fads and architectural fantasies to history, and started with a fresh design sheet. Not jamming humans into containers but making our work spaces more fit for humans.

We need to think actively about the spaces, how they impact our senses and the emotions and behaviours evoked as we come together in within those spaces.

Natalie Slessor, general manager of workplace and change with global construction and infrastructure company Lendlease says we now have a clearer picture of what does and doesn’t work at work, and what best practice should look like.

Turns out that to really work, our work spaces should look and feel more like our home.

Ask people want they want, says Slessor and they say: ‘I want a workplace that doesn’t feel like a workplace’.

“What they usually mean is they want a work environment that feels authentic, even homely, not clinical or manufactured.”

An environmental psychologist who loves her work humanising our workspaces, Slessor says if we want to get the best out of people at work, we need to start from our human needs and work outward.

LendLease’s Built Environment

Slessor was part of a team who had the task of reinventing LendLease’s workspace for around 2000 staff out of its global workforce of 12,000. This acknowledges the fundamental influence of the “built environment” on how we come together and feel.

“The built environment and specifically the work place has a deep connection to how people feel about the business and performance people offer,” she says.

“For example, if you could build a hospital that could heal people quicker, just by its very design, of course you would. If you could build a school that would help accelerate learning, you’d do it too. So would you build a workplace that was better you’d do that. It made us ask what is our workplace really for?”

Lendlease wanted to create a workplace that brought people together.”In a world where you can work anywhere, we need to create a place that does something that tech doesn’t, which is create really human connections and create a community of practice which is what every business is.”

“There was an opportunity to park everything we knew and just bring back the bits we really loved, that we really felt over time had worked.”

Make Health & Wellbeing Central

That meant simple, low stress, getting rid of the “free range” and ensuring teams had a home but flexibility to shift as tasks required. Health and wellbeing were central, an extension of the company’s safety culture.

So they put the kitchen in the middle, where everyone uses it, just like the home. Teams have set “kitchen tables” (standing or sitting) where everything happens, lockers right next to them and quieter zones for intense concentration and more relaxed spaces to move your body in.

The company did a pilot first at its old offices then adopted the changes in the layout for its new Sydney offices at Barangaroo. It is now rolling out changes through the business.

In case you think all this is just for cushy office types, the company has used the principles on some of its construction site offices. “They’ve been really well received,” Slessor says.

So what works? Slessor has helped us narrow down the four basics you need to incorporate to create more human spaces:

Nature rules: 

Natural light, fresh air, and plants make the difference. People do their best when they can see outside and aren’t frozen, cooked or stifled, are close to plants (real ones not plastic) and can breathe something roughly approximating to fresh air. There’s a word for it – biophilia (our innate tendency to seek out connections with nature). Find ways to include natural materials.


Give people a sense of control and choice wherever you can. Even if its simple things, like colour, art, type of furniture, even simple things like start later or earlier or work from home or a cafe some days. (And yes even in the sometimes challenging phase of getting employee input on a redesign.)


You want to create spaces and a work environment that is low stress and easy to be in so it makes it easy for people to come together. NB – you need to balance cohesion with autonomy. Too much autonomy and you start to lose cohesion.


Allow a little chaos, mix things up. It creates a spark. Maybe invite customers in, your kids, slash duration of meetings and hold them somewhere different – the cafe, outdoors, standing up, walking! This maximises opportunities for chance conversations and allows ideas and other creative “grit” to circulate better.

Most of us don’t have the luxury of big corporate budgets but Slessor offers a reality check for the bean counters.

Lots of people try to skimp on space and facilities to try to save money but that’s nuts. Its false economy.

“Ten percent of costs are in the workplace and 80% are the people. If you try to squeeze them then you are disadvantaging the remaining 80%. It doesn’t make sense,” she says.

Good human design and doesn’t need to blow the budget – in fact it can save you heaps and boost the bottom line over time.

Get a few people together from across your organisation to think of a few workspace ‘hacks” as a start.

And lots of people don’t even get those basics right. A recent Human Spaces report –The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace asked 7000 workers in 16 countries for their experiences. The first global study on workplace design and its impact found that people who work in environments with natural elements reported higher wellbeing, productivity and creativity than those who work in environments devoid of nature.

But nearly half had no natural light and nearly 60% had no plants.

Ultimately, Slessor says we need to put the work closer to home..if there was a hub where you could go to work and not have to schlep for hours, now that would work much better.

Top 5 elements most wanted in the office:

1: Natural light (44%)

2: Plants (real ones) 20%

3: Quiet working space (19%)

4: View of the sea (17% – you wish!)

5: Bright colours (15%)

Source: Human Spaces Global Report survey of 7000 employees in 16 countries.

*Mwah’s-back-of the-envelope calculation based on spending about 40 hours a week, 48 weeks a year over a 53 year worklife span (you get the picture, its a lot.)

Article written by Narelle Hooper