How our workspaces make us depressed, and why they don’t have to
Architect and emotional designer Juan Carlos Baumgartner explains why traditional offices kill happiness
Juan Carlos Baumgartner is founder and CEO of Space – an architecture and design company that is exploring emotional design. Traditionally our built environment has been driven by aesthetics, and in recent decades the focus has been more on usability and behaviour. But how does your city, your home, and your office make you feel? In this video interview Juan Carlos explains the psychology behind Space’s ethos ‘Design for Happiness,’ and how re-introducing social space to the workplace can improve happiness, productivity, and a sense of shared mission.
European CEO: Juan Carlos Baumgartner is founder and CEO of Space – an architecture and design company that is exploring emotional design. Traditionally our built environment has been driven by aesthetics, and in recent decades the focus has been more on usability and behaviour. But how does your city, your home, and your office make you feel?
Juan Carlos, what drove you into this field?
Juan Carlos Baumgartner: Well, really early in my career I ended up by chance in the psychology department in my university. And I took a class on environment psychology. Nothing to do with traditional design or architecture or anything like that.
And there’s a study in the 50s: they took people that were depressed, and they started to see a link between their behaviours and depression. They understood that there were specific behaviours when you’re depressed: one of them is to stop having social interactions with people, you retreat from the world, you don’t like daylight that much.
And then they took a group of people that were not depressed, and they forced them to behave as the depressed people. And they ended up being depressed.
We have been unconsciously designing a world in general, but specifically office space, that’s doing that to people! They don’t allow you to have daylight, they don’t allow you to have friends and socialisation; creating a world that is not helping us to be happy! And as a consequence today, we have 350 million people depressed.
European CEO: Design for happiness is your current ethos; how has Space’s approach to workspace design evolved?
Juan Carlos Baumgartner: Lately we have been focusing a lot on, not only helping companies to be more productive, but understanding that in the middle of the company there are humans, and that they have psychological needs.
So we started to do a lot of research – and we have some partnerships with universities to do that – to try to understand the consequences of physical space in behaviour, in health, in happiness. And one of the most important elements is socialisation.
And traditional offices kill that part! How many times do you hear in an office that you don’t come here to make friends; you come here to work?
And that has become a typical culture in many companies. And that is not helping productivity, that is not helping health. It’s not helping engagement. And mostly it’s not helping happiness.
So, one of the most important things that you can see as a difference between a traditional office and a happy office is that you will see spaces that are almost forcing people to collide, to work in teams, and to have social relations with other people. And that’s really, really important.
Physical spaces: they shape us back. And the idea is that we shape the spaces that are going to shape us back. So if you want to have a culture in a company, you can start by shaping the physical space that that culture is going to be using. And then this physical space is going to modify the culture.
European CEO: A lot of the time when I see images of these kinds of spaces, I feel like: I don’t belong there. Have I just been trained to think that work should be sad?
Juan Carlos Baumgartner: Well, the obvious companies that you would think that are into this, like: we are working with Google, or we work with Microsoft. With those companies you don’t even really get surprised when you see they have fun spaces, and they have colour, and they have people interacting in a very collaborative way. You think that is part of the nature of the business.
But recently we have been working a lot with banks and insurance companies, for example. They used to not have those type of spaces; they used to believe that work was boring and sad. There’s a study that says that in the US, around 80 percent of people hate their jobs. It’s way too many!
And I think the first challenge is to bring to the table that it not necessarily has to be boring and sad, and that the physical environment can actually help people believe that what they’re doing has a meaning and is not sad and boring.
So for example, we are working with a bank called Gentera in Mexico. And what we have been doing is that, when you get out from the elevator, it’s a bar. The idea is it’s more friendly. You can lounge, work in teams, whatever you want to do. And we have been linking that into the business. This bank lends money to 10 specific industries. So what we’re doing is, the theme of the design is these industries. So every time you go to a bar you have this fun part – this social part – but in another layer you have a reminder of what is the bank really doing. That is really important on happiness, to link the meaning of what you do to something that is important.
European CEO: What are your hopes for what architecture and design can achieve in terms of shaping the future of culture and society?
Juan Carlos Baumgartner: Well my first hope is that we can start convincing people that what we create, creates us back. What we design, designs us back. In every single thing. From language to physical objects, to spaces. Every single thing that we’re throwing to the world is going to come back to us, and shape us back.
And when you start seeing with this filter, specifically with architecture and design. Our responsibility is huge. Because we are not only doing beautiful things that are going to be there for people. But we are doing things that are moulding people, that are going to shape people, that are going to be cognitive and biological interventions in people. And today we have the tools – because we have neuroscience advances – that can measure the real consequences of that.
So, I really believe that we are an industry that has a lot of potential to change deeply the way the world is, and that gives us a huge responsibility.
European CEO: Juan Carlos, thank you very much.
Juan Carlos Baumgartner: Thank you.