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Providing Restorative Space in the Corporate Environment

HubSpot's Cambridge Headquarters. Photo by Robert Benson.
HubSpot’s Cambridge Headquarters. Photo by Robert Benson.

With increasingly intrusive external environmental factors, how can designers foster a sense of focus and restfulness for individuals unaccustomed to open work environments? For companies that value focus and restoration, there are ways to incorporate more mindful design to the corporate environment, starting with the inclusion of contemplative spaces within the workplace. Many companies encourage employees to nurture their own health and achieve a good work-life balance. It fact, Fortune 500 companies have begun to provide facilities for health-related activities such as exercise, yoga, or meditation. And companies such as Google, Nike, HBO, and Procter & Gamble encourage employees to participate in wellness programs that include these activities as well. IA’s clients are also requesting facilities located within their offices.

There are many types of contemplative traditions, from prayer to meditation to deep philosophical study. One such practice is mindfulness meditation, a secular practice with roots in Buddhism that seeks to focus one’s attention on the present moment. Studies have shown this type of practice has potential to increase performance and enhance a sense of well being.

In the last several decades, science has utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging machines (fMRIs), which are capable of taking pictures of the mind in motion.  Understanding how the brain functions has changed how doctors treat malignant brain tumors, how teachers reach students with learning challenges, and how therapists rehabilitate patients with brain injuries. Even human perception, the way in which we experience the world and interact with each other, is studied by watching the brain at work as test subjects negotiate their way through simulations of everyday interactions. The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and run by Dr. Richard Davidson, has been studying ways the human brain reacts to meditation, and identifies effects on the physical brain and its behavior patterns over time.

Another pragmatic practice is mindfulness based stress reduction, (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979.  Originally called the Stress Reduction Program, the MBSR method has shown that meditation can affect the structure of the brain by creating new pathways and shifting activity from one area of the brain to another, or altering the density of gray matter in certain locations associated with positive or negative brain functions.

The hammock room at HubSpot's Cambridge headquarters. Photo by Robert Benson.
The hammock room at HubSpot’s Cambridge headquarters. Photo by Robert Benson.

In a study at Massachusets General Hospital, MRI technology was used to compare subjects’ brains before and after they participated in an MBSR program. Areas of the brain associated with memory and compassion showed increased density, indicating a positive change, while areas associated with anxiety showed decreased density, with resultant reduced stress levels. With this information, it could be argued that calmer employees make better decisions, because they are more likely to think before they act.  They are freed from the cycle of panic and reaction in which so many knowledge workers find themselves ensnared.

Recently, there has been a push for the development of a solid body of metrics to aid in the evaluation of a design’s success, particularly in the healthcare and education fields.  Data informed, or evidence-based, design relies on information gathering and analysis to measure effects of the built environment. One of the most common methods used to gather such data includes post-occupancy evaluations, which are essentially a way for end users to offer feedback. Metrics such as attrition rates help companies determine whether new and improved tenant space correlates to increased staff retention. And impacts on healthcare costs for workers—before and after a build-out—can reduce the number of worker’s comp claims and absenteeism from stress-related illnesses.  In one notable case, instituting a meditation program resulted in reduced healthcare costs so significant that insurance premiums were discounted and meditation course costs were partially offset by the insurer.

 

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