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How to Create an Environment That Makes You Feel Whole

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How to Create an Environment That Makes You Feel Whole

If I asked 20 people what it looks like when they are in a state of flow, I’d probably get 20 different answers. Personally, I do my best thinking during exercise, and when I immerse myself in nature – say walking along the Yarra or sitting under a tree in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. Visiting places I haven’t seen before, and listening to music I haven’t heard before, can also help me think more clearly and creatively.

Cycling, walking or chilling under a magnificent fig tree doesn’t look like hard work, but the truth is that these are the times when I do the best part of my job. I compose articles and emails in my head, make difficult decisions, and come up with innovative solutions for my clients. So when I’m back at my desk, all I need to do is download what’s already clearly formed in my mind.

I know I’m not the only person who finds it easier to get into flow outside the traditional workspace. The American researcher Dr Jonas Salk had an epiphany while spending time in a 13th-century Italian monastery, which led to the development of the polio vaccine. And Eddie Vedder was surfing when he composed the lyrics to those songs that later propelled Pearl Jam to stardom.

This doesn’t mean that the office space is becoming redundant. We will always need spaces to access technology, to focus, and to connect and collaborate with each other. But we need to think about our workspaces differently than we did in the past. We need to ask the questions: What’s the real role of our workspace? How does it support our work?

We can’t run on auto-pilot.

Even though we – business owners, service providers, educators and artists – all have different jobs and different measures of success, we have one thing in common in the way we work. We all do a lot of nonroutine tasks, solve unique problems and develop customised solutions.

We just can’t run on auto-pilot. To perform our work well, we need to be in the right headspace. Being fully present and thinking clearly can make all the difference between having a wonderfully effective day and running around in circles achieving nothing.

Of course, there are many factors that can help us get in the zone. But I believe one of the most important things is that ‘we feel whole’. We can only do our best work when we actually want to be where we are, feel safe and inspired to be our authentic selves, and feel emotionally connected to the work we’re doing and the people around us.

A humanised physical environment can help us get into the right frame of mind and entice us to put our hearts and souls into what we do.

So, what makes the workspace humane?

1. A humane workspace gives us a sense of connection to nature.

Surrounding ourselves with natural colours and materials, and having indoor plants and perhaps also a water feature in our workspace is a great start. Access to daylight is fundamental, but installing a lighting system that mimics the changes of natural light can also make a difference. If you’re lucky, you have views of natural scenery, but photos or artworks showing nature scenes can also add to the natural ambience of the space.

2. We generally enjoy having ‘nice things’ around.

Objects that may not have a function other than making us feel good. In many office spaces, wherever you look, all you see is work-related furniture, tools, files, memos, you name it. No wonder that in these kinds of environments work feels like work, and life appears to be happening somewhere else. Just think about how many ‘nice things’ you have at home, and how many you have at work. Do you see a divide? If so, you know what to do.

3. What could be more humanising than humour?

I’ve seen an office once where the only place people felt comfortable sharing fun stuff with each other was the toilet. That’s very sad. So many great things can grow out of laughter – it’s a catalyst for collaboration, innovation, and deepening relationships. So please enjoy laughter and humour at work. If it comes from a pure and caring place, it will leave your integrity and professionalism intact, I promise.

4. Humane spaces often feel somewhat unfinished.

They give us the permission to experiment, create a mess and make mistakes. Mike Finch, the then CEO of Circus Oz, told me once that he wished their new workspace was scruffier, allowing their artists to impose their own aesthetics on it. Do you find that your workspace is a work in progress? That’s great news, enjoy it!

5. When we see things around us that don’t traditionally belong in an office, we tend to feel more liberated to be ourselves.

A strategic design firm I know of, whose work involves engaging corporate clients in role-playing sessions, has a playful workspace with cartoon figures on the doors. This gives clients the permission to be silly and playful, and this helps them think more creatively.

6. We tend to feel more at home in spaces that reflect what we stand for and reminds us why we are there.

When I joined Sustainable Built Environments, an environmental consulting firm, in 2006, I loved the fact that the office was fitted with recycled furniture and had its own waste composting system. The space was not particularly pretty, but it made me feel at home. It showed that my team walked the talk.

7. Workspaces that nourish our minds, as well as our bodies and souls, can really help us feel whole.

You might enjoy music, exercise, meditation, relaxation or social activities, or you have other hobbies that help you recharge. Either way, you’ll be able to work better if you have the opportunity to practise those activities that lift you up at work. It’s also important that your space is stocked with good quality food and drinks. It’s not just a health consideration – good nutrition does help us feel and think better.

8. Humane workspaces offer a variety of choices, allowing us to work in ways that best suit our task, mood and work style.

Ideally, you should be able to sit or stand as you please. You should be able to use digital technologies or work with pen and paper. And you should be able to choose between quiet and buzzing spaces, serious and playful environments, and messy and tidy areas.

Our personalities, goals and needs are unique, and therefore there’s no simple recipe for creating a workspace that feels authentic to all of us. I once heard this from a space psychologist, “Trying to find a formula for creating the perfect workspace is a bit like trying to find a recipe for falling in love.”

So, feel free to try out different ideas around setting up your workspace. I’m confident that you’ll eventually come across something that will strike a chord with you, and your relationship with your work will transform.

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