In conversation with Nikolaj Bebe

While the physical attributes of an office space inexorably contribute to productivity and wellbeing, it is the psychological characteristics of the workspace that should set the tone, according to Nikolaj Bebe, Senior Manager and Head of Store Design at Bang & Olufsen. A specialist in design and architectural psychology, we caught up with him to discuss what is means to create an inviting workspace and the challenges organisations face as they look creating the framework for the good life at work.

“Spaces influence us in many ways,” says Bebe, who looks to behavioural psychology when creating humancentric spaces that inspire and delight as much as they promote productivity. “They affect our moods, feelings and behaviour. First, there is the physiological aspect: can our bodies fit in the room? Is there enough air? Enough light? The basics are covered by laws that protect us. However, there are other issues we are faced with that are not safeguarded by regulations. How loud can we talk? How often should we work together or alone?” he adds.

There are financial gains in creating open plan offices. Yet there are equally many cultural benefits to be had in smaller spaces. “Both types of workspaces offer up constructive and destructive work patterns. Everything comes with a price,” Nikolaj notes. “The question is: how much are we willing to pay? Not just financially, but also emotionally – at the cost of employee satisfaction and getting the job done well.” According to Bebe, the price we pay depends on the type of organisation and the tasks employees undertake daily. “A company must first look deep into its DNA. We can’t just create something generic when it comes to workplace design. It must be within the context of the company.” Design is undoubtedly an important aspect, ensuring employees have an inviting, productive atmosphere in which to work, but for Bebe it goes beyond this to encompass the very heart of the company.

“We need to start looking more towards behavioural science. It’s terribly old fashioned of a manager to look only at the quantity of work his or her employees are producing and not at the quality of work, the environment in which it is undertaken, or the psychology behind it.” By first looking to the authentic identity and fundamental values of a company we can then translate this knowledge into new work settings for employees—walking the walk. “The physical aspects of the inviting workspace need to come from the top down. We need to define what we want to accomplish as a company and how we want to act,” Bebe says. “The space should align with these values. That requires bold leadership. From there, a company’s DNA can manifest itself in physical ways. But we need to provide space for humans beyond the physical room, too. Companies must instil a sense of mutual trust and belief in the best in all. Employees should have the flexibility to do their work in ways that also work for them. The more freedom, responsibility and meaning they have, the more ownership they take,” he notes. So how can we optimise the workspace to accommodate this? Bebe says the answer lies in creating a framework of dedicated yet simple zones which facilitate the work we do individually and collectively: “When not in the office, we should be free to work from wherever it best suits us as individuals. When we are finally gathered as a team, we should spend time together, listening, discussing, learning and being inspired. Why spend so much time getting to the office if we all end up doing when we get there is sitting in our respective cubicles or on Teams calls? We are inherently herd animals and desire meaning and connection in life. We need to look at efficient and meaningful ways of working together. That is the essence of the inviting workspace.”

“Adding this meaning to work also means feeling the company we work for physically. Through the choice of colour and furniture, as well as markers of the company itself. Often it is the receptionist who procures a handful of desks or chairs. Or an architect who has attempted only to understand the space as physical rather than emotional. That’s not designing a workspace. We need to look at the culture.” By setting clear expectations on how to behave, how to care for employees and colleagues and how to mentally prepare for and undertake tasks, we can facilitate more constructive ways of spending time together. “All of these things need to come from an organisational level. We can’t just decorate a meeting room nicely and hope that people will take it to heart.”

Bebe believes we should look to nature for inspiration: “Chaotic and harmonious, nature is this way for a reason. Everything is there for a reason. We should think more organically about the spaces we work in and from there create an environment that nurtures employees in meaningful ways.”