Episode 33

The Healthy Human Workplace

You want the places where you work to support your health and wellness, right? Workplace strategist Kelly Griffin chats with us about the evolution and the science behind creating healthy human workplaces. From our beginnings in the savannah, molecular biology Brain Rules, and the 90:15 equation, there’re some great nuggets here to help make your workplace more human.

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“One of the ideas that we keep talking about, and this is one where place can be a part of it. But culture and operations are also a part. Which is to say, after about 90 minutes, what if our computers all kind of turn to a scene from nature? What if it said, “Time! Go take a break.” Go stand outside in the sunshine, if it's there or get a breath of fresh air and take about 15 minutes for yourself.” Kelly Griffin


CCB: [00:00:00] Welcome to the ONEder podcast, this is your host, CCB, with another episode of interest. I love thinking about all the different ways that we can pique your interest. And today's guest is going to talk with us about a healthier workplace which couldn't be more appropriate given our times. I wanted to welcome, Kelly Griffin from NBBJ and say thank you so much for joining us.

Kelly Griffin: [00:00:31] Thanks, CCB, and thanks so much for having me, I am so passionate about this topic, I just really appreciate the opportunity to have other people learn about it and hear where we're coming from when we think about what it means to have a great day at work. How I came at this, I grew up as an architect. I went through the whole transition from being a young designer to a project manager to a client person. But I've always been so fascinated with the human side of things and how we can create great environments that make people feel productive and healthy and safe and like they're well regarded and valued in what they do. And for me, after jeez, I guess about 20 years of my career, I was able to work on probably one of the things I'm most proud of, which was the Gates Foundation here in Seattle. And it was through that project that we worked with a consultant from London named Alexi Marmont, and she joined our team as our workplace consultant and workplace strategist. And watching her at her craft, because she's such a master of it, showed me that we can actually have a role in understanding the people that were doing this work for, the way the organization ticks, the culture that they're trying to create. And it really got me focused on the idea of building workplace strategy at NBBJ. So that was my path. We've been having a great Workplace Strategy Team since about 2014, and I get to understand all the inner workings of these great organizations that we work with, and I love hearing people talk about what makes them successful.

CCB: [00:02:19] That's so exciting. And you know, the reason, I mean, there's so many reasons why I think it's exciting… One of them is the plethora of workplace strategists that are popping up left and right now. And without a doubt, it is a gigantic need because of our massive departure from the office, from the workplace, and the amount of time that it's taking us to get back together. So clearly there is a need, and then there are people that are coming at it from many different directions. So we've got people coming at it from the IT perspective, and people coming at it from the more culture perspective, there's lots of different perspectives. But the reason why I'm saying I think what you guys are doing at NBBJ is so interesting, is because of the amount of time and interest that you have devoted to understanding. So we could come at it from an experiential or anecdotal, informal kind of perspective of our learning, and we can bring the research and the science behind it so that there is an explanation for not only what you see, but what you do. So I want to ask you a couple of questions about early fascination with this work. And I know you had talked about Kirsten Zeller at the University College London and, can you spend a little bit of time on regenerative versus conservative? I love those names because they're so almost British but go.

Kelly Griffin: [00:04:03] So Kristen wrote a paper that we came across as a firm, probably, I don't know, five, six, eight years ago. I can't even remember. It's been around for so long. But she talks about the concept of the conservative versus the generative workplace, and the conservative workplace is an environment in which the physical wrappings of that environment encourage you to maintain the same relationships that you already have. You could literally drive into a garage, park your car, go up the elevator to your floor, grab a cup of coffee at the pantry that you visit every day, go to your workstation or office and generally only run into the same people day after day after day. You're preserving and conserving relationships. Generative, by contrast, is something that suggests your building is built in such a way that there are so many different ways for you to move around, and the opportunity to interact and bump into other people is much more significant because you've created a place that encourages going this way one day, going that way the other day. And so what we love about that idea was we think that the workplace itself, the building itself can help you build better relationships. When you have better relationships, you're much more likely to build trust within an organization. And with trust comes really silly ideas and really innovative, out-there ideas. And a group of people that you feel safe working with to help advance the work of your organization, and so for us, that idea of generative workplace was super, super powerful and knowing that we could create really interesting environments that reinforce that idea.

CCB: [00:05:48] So there's the input of that environment that can be intentionally designed. And then there's also, to your healthier workplace, in so many different ways, there's the movement that you addressed. So talk to us a little bit about that, keep moving.

Kelly Griffin: [00:06:09] Yeah. So that's actually this wonderfully fundamental thing about humans. And, you know, being science geeks like we are, not only have we understood the work of Kirsten Zeller, we've also been working with Dr. John Medina. He's at the University of Washington, and he's a molecular biologist and the author of a series of books about brain rules. And his research really focuses on the fundamental qualities of being a human and what makes us tick. He acknowledges that we evolved outside in the savanna and generally on the move and always a little bit scared. And frankly, however long ago that was happening 100 to 100,000 years ago, we haven't really evolved beyond that. And so there's so much of that inherent part of who we are as humans. It still comes out today. So one of the first things he taught us is that movement is critical for our health, for our success, but also to keep our brains working. And when we think about how much time we spend sitting in a chair even before the pandemic, we were still moving a lot less than our ancestors did, who would move 13 miles a day in search of food and sometimes right now I feel lucky if I get 5000 steps a day.

CCB: [00:07:26] You're ahead of me.

Kelly Griffin: [00:07:30] But so the movement is such a critical part because in motion, we're actually also thinking at our best and creating really interesting new ways of approaching things. Dr. Medina suggests that the best meeting would be a moving meeting where we're all walking around together because that's when our brain is actually heightened and active and much more connected to what's going on. And for me, when we think about space and when we think about the environments we can create, movement is easy. If you put in a stair or if you put an amenity in the middle somewhere that everybody has to walk to, there's a lot of benefit for that, and I don't think we realize that until maybe even during the pandemic, when it kind of hit us that we could actually go take a walk every couple of hours, presuming you weren't on Zoom calls all day, but that actually helped you reset and sort of refresh and feel better at connecting with people again in this weird environment.

CCB: [00:08:32] I'm inordinately grateful that you just brought up a benefit from COVID the pandemic because, you know, that's a good thing to keep from a perspective setting standpoint at this moment in time. But I'm also glad that you introduce the applications of the science and some of the some of the observations and some of the guidance that you might share with your clients as you're helping them create spaces. And along with that movement, there was the focus and the attention. We talked about how hard it is to focus these days because you're overwhelmed. Talk a little bit about that, and the big gift that I saw in your paper was the 90:15 ratio, yeah. So talk to us about that.

Kelly Griffin: [00:09:27] Yeah. So one thing that we have learned again from Dr. Medina is that our brains are pretty good at working in moments of sort of heightened stress or heightened activity for about 90 minutes. And then after that, our ability to stay focused and not make mistakes really starts to plummet. And after about 120 minutes, we are toast. You know, it's really hard for our brains to keep up that kind of engagement and attention. And so one of the things that we find ourselves doing is like, if I just keep pushing through, I'll make it. I know I can get through this. We haven't given ourselves the gift of acknowledging, "You know what? It has been about an hour and a half, and I'm pretty tired. I'm going to take a break right now." And so one of the ideas that we keep talking about, and this is one of those moments where space can be a part of it. But culture and operations is also another part of it. Which is to say, after about 90 minutes, what if our computers all kind of turn to a scene of nature? What if it said, “time!” Go take a break, go stand outside in the sunshine, if it's there or, you know, take a breath of fresh air and take about 15 minutes for yourself. And that could be as simple as spending some time outside, taking a walk around the block. Just even doing some deep breathing can help restore you to that ability to think and be on top of things again. There's been some really great studies that show where people have studied nurses, and after that 90 minute threshold, they realize they start making mistakes. And so that's when it becomes a real critical issue, and you want to make sure that people do get those breaks. And frankly, our society and our work culture doesn't really let us do that. I think again, if we're thinking about one of the potential silver linings of the pandemic is thinking about: wait a minute, I have a little bit more control over how I spend my day. If I knew that this was a thing that was true, maybe I could do something about it.

CCB: [00:11:27] Mm hmm. I'm thinking about the fact that work is going to fundamentally change for a long period of time, at least the way that we approach work. And the idea of nine to five or nine to nine has, another silver lining, has gone out the window. It's like, no, there are more important things and the life-work balance. Let's not talk about work-life, let's talk about the life-work balance, has been a gift because it's given some people the opportunity to manage that a little bit more effectively. So I'm sitting here thinking about how the impact that the old way of working, going out the door gives us the opportunity to restructure and redesign, and you and your colleagues at NBBJ know. I've been thinking about not only space but protocols, but policies, but culture elements. There're two things that I wanted to ask you. So the first one I want to say is, so how is that all coming together? And from tool standpoint, you're building tools or you're building suggestions and guides and prompts for your clients. So talk about that a little bit.

Kelly Griffin: [00:13:05] Yeah, we've actually created again based on the research with Dr. Medina. This thing we're calling the Rhythm of the Day Tool where we're asking people to evaluate when they feel at their most alert, when they feel they're most fatigued, and where are the places that alertness is really enforced? And where are the places that people go to recover from that fatigue? And what it allows you to do is basically a survey instrument, and you use it as a way to inform not only, you know, maybe a set of designers about the kinds of spaces that people feel like, Oh, wow, this is a really good environment for lots of activity and alertness and engagement. And this is an environment that doesn't work as well for that. But it also is an opportunity to build your own self-awareness so that you're in a position to exert a little bit more control over your day. When somebody asks you, “do you get tired?” And after about an hour and a half of doing work, I met you before the pandemic, nobody would have asked you that, you would have been tired. At the end of the day, you would have known you sleepy after lunch, that kind of thing. But to have the very specific information that says, give yourself a break after that amount of time, simply by asking you to think about it through this survey instrument, I think is really fascinating because it tells us something that maybe we intuitively knew. But now we can be explicit about it and understand that there's a way to address that fatigue that shows up.

CCB: [00:14:38] Hmm. There're so many folks that are trying to come at some of this “nudge” activity, Cass Sunstein and what's his name? Thaler, I think, from who wrote the original book about nudge theory and thinking about how do you just prompt people in the right direction, the direction that you intend, and that's obviously been extremely embraced by our technology friends. But the idea of, everyone doesn't need to have a PhD to understand this, but one of the little prompts or suggestions that you had was turn off business phones during sleep hours. Seriously, that is a message that we don't expect you to answer the phone. I can say that to you and you're still going to answer the phone if I'm your leader and I call you. But if it's turned off, that has that dual not only did we say it, but we're doing it.

Kelly Griffin: [00:15:52] Yeah. There's a couple of ways that’s sort of fascinating, right? Because there's the technology side of it, which means that here is your office issued phone and laptop. And oh, by the way, everything shuts down and emails don't go out after six o'clock at night. That would be sort of a control that you could put into it. That doesn't necessarily stop your boss or your manager from texting you on your personal phone, right? Which implies that you always have to be on. To me, the other thing that has been sort of a silver lining of this pandemic is the acknowledgement that we do deserve space and that we can say it's been enough today. I need to take a break, and I think there's a lot more empathy. I think this pandemic has taught us an incredible amount of empathy in a way that suggests that we all understand a lot better about what people are going through, and we're not going to push on each other as hard. I also think that managers have realized that if they're going to attract the talent that they want and keep the talent that they have, they can't behave in as many demanding and high expectations ways that sets up a culture of, maybe your computer turns off and you don't get any notifications after six o'clock tonight, but I'm still going to text you, that tells you it's a culture of overwork and high demand versus somebody who's going to show up and say, No, I'm not going to send you emails. And if you send me an email, I am not going to respond to it.

CCB: [00:17:25] That makes me laugh because my thinking was it would go off at 10 and turn on again at 5. But when I laughingly say that it is about the expectation, it is about the different cultures--the different cultures of work and of business, the organizational cultures that embrace and or have to modify whatever the suggestions are to fit within their culture. And I love the thought that culture is behavior. You can be intentional about shaping culture. And then if you're not, you have a culture that is comprised of all the things that you didn't pay attention to.

Kelly Griffin: [00:18:08] Exactly. Exactly.

CCB: [00:18:11] Ok, so I have that one little note to myself about follow the circadian rhythms, and the reason why I thought about that was also taking you back to our ancestors and the whole idea of biophilia. And you talked about outside. So the elements, and you dropped it in the comments that you've made, the elements of nature that how much better we feel.

Kelly Griffin: [00:18:38] Exactly, and so I'm in Seattle. And yesterday was the first day that the sun set after five o'clock since November. And so to be in the dark all the time has been really rough and I finally been able to figure out how to get outside during the day and get some sunshine and get some light, because that's how we're built. Humans evolved outside and we are running on roughly between a 23 and 25 hour clock every day. And those rhythms are set up by the light that is emitted by a rising sun and by the light that's emitted by a setting sun. And the need to be asleep at night is a big part of our health as well. And so the circadian rhythms are super fascinating because when we sometimes go to our offices, we don't have access to daylight. We're under terrible, it used to be terrible fluorescent light, at least it's better LED lighting these days, but the lights don't reflect a natural rhythm of a day with the changing quality of light and the way that your body is tuned to that. We actually have a fellow in our practice named Joseph Montaigne, who's done a lot of research. He's a lighting designer and he's done a lot of research on how you replicate some of the circadian experiences and using lighting over the course of the day in the workplace. And he's setting it with some of our healthcare clients who are really interested in trying to keep their nurses up an alert, especially if you have to do night shifts, right? Because that's completely off. But I think having the acknowledgement that early morning has a certain mood and a certain tone, it has a certain light quality. It triggers all the sensors and things in our brains and our eyes that say it's time to be awake, it's time to be alert. Melatonin levels change so that you are in a much more alert mode versus at the end of the day when all of that starts to wind down. The other thing that I think has been fascinating about that is that 23 to 25 hour clock also suggests that some of us are very good in the morning and some of us are very good in the evening. There's the larks and the owls and sort of how they're talked about. And that goes back to that idea of when am I most effective and when do I want to be working for me personally, it's first thing in the morning and then by noon, that's enough of that. You know, I can do other things, but my really good juicy brain time is first thing in the morning. So we need to think about not only how space can support that, but also how organizational culture will enable that kind of behavior. And if it's an owl person, then they don't need to get going until one o'clock in the afternoon. But they're super productive and that's when they want to work. Then we should embrace that too, because that's when we're accepting you as a human, how you function and what you can be good at.

CCB: [00:21:35] Which is great given the fact that there's so much research and so much data coming out right now that folks are way more interested in the flexibility of their time than they are in the private office. They would rather have control over when they work, rather even more so than where they work. And that was just a recent Microsoft study that came out, which I thought was pretty fascinating. I have a question for you about your practice, and NBBJ works across many different industries. And so how does your workplace practice support all the different industries, and who are the, if you could say if there are, are there different client types that are more embracing of this knowledge or this information at this moment in time or is it hard to talk people into listening? I'm always curious about that.

Kelly Griffin: [00:22:38] Yeah, you know, it's super interesting because it's all of the above across all the industries. So one of the things I have observed is that culture really does drive behavior when it comes to people's attitudes, about flexibility and about choice and about rethinking their work environments. And some of the cultures that we've run into that are more hierarchical, are more bound by regulation or are just very traditional in nature. It might be finance, it might be academia - those folks fundamentally believe that they do better when they're in the office and really want to go back to a pre-pandemic workplace, work-life. There are other folks that we've talked to who think that this really is the paradigm shift they've been waiting for to try something else. And we've worked with folks who have been focused on reducing the space in their real estate because they realize not everybody is going to be back. We're going to have terrible utilization. Let's look at making our physical environment more aligned with the number of people who are going to be here. To other folks who have given up their workplaces entirely and are thinking about moments where we're going to have a learning center here so that we can train people up in the way that we work, in the way that we think and we can help them grow in our organization. Or we might have a little drop in co-working space over here to help folks who can't necessarily be at home all the time or who are really bored at home all the time. So they're looking at kind of a network of spaces, not their traditional acres of workstations and monitors where you sit all day, but rather moments that meet very specific work needs, that tends to be more on the technology side of things. I recently started working with a new mental health institute that's going to be in Utah, and this was a fascinating group of people who, their primary goal is to bring collaboration to this institute and bringing ideas from a whole bunch of different places and a whole bunch of different expertise to inform mental health problems and to help solve mental health problems. They're embracing that and how they want to do their research, but they're also embracing that and the design team that we've built for them, and traditional research, traditional academia, has lots of, you know, private offices with professors and principal investigators who own a lot of real estate. This organization is really fascinated with the ideas that we can bring from technology or even from some of the gaming companies that we've worked with and wanting to embrace those ideas because they think it'll give them the lift that they're looking for to say, we're a different kind of research organization and we're building a different kind of space to help really emphasize that.

CCB: [00:25:32] Wow, OK. I told you when we started this that it was going to go really fast and we are at the end, and conversations are always fascinating when people are telling their stories and sharing their expertise. And you have a heck of a lot in, personally and well as your NBBJ organization. So I wanted to give you a one final moment to say, is there anything that you would like to have our audience walk away from with a final comment or anything that you want to reiterate or reinforce?

Kelly Griffin: [00:26:05] There's one idea I definitely wanted to share, and I think the thing that's been fascinating for me as I've evolved as a workplace strategist is really understanding how our workplaces were built as if humans were machines, right? You know, Taylorism kicks off. We have all that scientific management stuff, and we're trying to build an industrial line for human work. And it's been refreshing and delightful and sort of a relief to see our industry say, “Oh, wait a minute, it's actually humans doing the work with all of their idiosyncrasies and all their foibles”. How do we build environments for humans? And so I'm really fascinated to see how this pandemic has accelerated that shift. And to think about what helps us be successful as humans, what it takes to help people feel like they really have a purpose, that they really have choice and that they have opportunities to grow and pursue things that are fascinating to them within the framework of an organization that is achieving something together. So, I am really happy to see that workplace strategy itself is also evolving away from the do we have the right seat-sharing ratio? Do we have the right square footage per person? Do we have the right mix of meeting rooms and things like that to who are you as an organization? What do your humans need to be successful? And how can we create a work experience that includes space, and includes technology and includes HR policies that make all of that successful? So, to me, I feel like this is a great moment for this profession and the opportunity to really rethink how we work every day.

CCB: [00:27:54] Thank you so very much, Kelly. It's been really a delight having the conversation with you and the learning that you've shared, and I will let us all know that the transcript will be published, and many of Kelly's references will be on the podcast page so you can find out more. And the ONEder podcast is available on all streaming services. So you go look for it and listen to Kelly Griffin from NBBJ, and thank you so much for coming to the ONEder podcast.