Published 15 September 2017 Category: Compass Tips, Workplace, Startups, Business, Entrepreneurs

Compass Offices: More Evolution Than Revolution

Ask the average CEO how to optimise a work space and they might suggest you consult with an interior designer. Ask the same question of an evolutionary psychologist and he’ll direct you to a very different set of experts: our ancient ancestors.

Evolutionary psychologists argue that our ancestors were drawn to environments that promoted our survival as hunter-gatherers, and feel uneasy in situations that would have put our forefathers at risk. These preferences, they argue, are largely unconscious. We simply experience safe settings as pleasurable and dangerous ones as repellent, without being able to identify exactly why.

Most of us instinctively enjoy sitting in sheltered locations that overlook expansive areas like parks and oceans. Think waterfront property or apartments overlooking the harbor, the park or the Central Business District. In the past, the desire for settings that offered security and a view of our surroundings kept us alive and positioned us to find our next meal. Locations offering prospect and refuge are inherently pleasing, while areas that deny us shelter or a view tend to generate discomfort. We no longer need these features in order to survive, yet we can’t help but prefer them.

Our desire for safe locations also explains why sitting with our backs exposed can leave us feeling tense. We don’t enjoy having others sneak up on us and seek to minimise potential threat - this is one reason that restaurant booths fill up more quickly than free-standing tables. Mafia folklore has it that it’s best to sit with your back to the wall - our ancient ancestors felt the same way.


A 1984 study, for example, found that patients require fewer painkillers and fewer days recuperating from surgery when assigned to a room overlooking trees. A 1984 study found that patients require fewer painkillers and fewer days recuperating from surgery when assigned to a room overlooking trees.

A number of researchers argue that natural settings are also cognitively rejuvenating and help us restore our mental resources. In contrast to the overwhelming stimulation we often encounter at work, where we’re frequently inundated with calls, e-mails, and text messages for hours on end, natural settings engage our interest but demand very little of our attention.

It’s not hard to see why so many offices fail to engage their employees. Depriving people of sunlight, restricting their views, and seating them with their backs exposed is not a recipe for success - it’s a recipe for chronic anxiety.

We tend to assume that employee engagement is about the work, that so long as we give talented people challenging tasks and the tools to excel, they will be happy. But that formula is incomplete. Our mind responds to the signals in our environment. And the less comfortable we are while doing our work, the fewer cognitive resources we have available.

And this is why design ultimately matters. It’s because engaging employees is about creating an environment that positions people to do their best work. Paleolithic man may be long gone, but he can still teach us a few things when it comes to designing a better workplace.

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