Erin Peavey is a Dallas-based architect who has also trained in psychology. Her research into how good architecture and design can foster social connection and mental wellness has been published internationally. Here, she speaks to Britomart’s Jeremy Hansen about combatting workplace loneliness and the design moves that can keep teams connected to their offices and each other.

JEREMY Erin, we’ve all been through lockdowns and seeing the acceleration of remote work. You’re an architect and you’ve studied psychology. What changes have you noticed since this huge surge in remote work in terms of social connection?

ERIN There’s some interesting research prior to the pandemic that indicates that fully remote workers tend to have higher levels of loneliness. Now, with the shift towards large swathes of the population working remotely, there are different outputs. There is the potential to be more connected to our local communities, but also there’s sometimes a high prevalence of just staying at home because we’ve built that habit over the course of years. What I’ve seen is an understandable rise in social anxiety that is essentially from people not being used to going out or being around more people more often. In general, we’re seeing people be more hesitant to go in and work full-time in person.

Working from home can feel comfortable, but we’re learning that just because it’s comfortable doesn’t mean it’s what’s best for us personally. Increased flexibility allows us to juggle our work-life balance, but what I’ve heard consistently is this feeling of being separate from your group, of not seeing people as often, and of feeling less a part of the workplace. 

JEREMY Do you think there’s a better awareness among people of their own emotional needs? Remote work felt really liberating for a lot of people because they weren’t having to commute, but are we now becoming more conscious of the ways that a lot of workplace interactions can form a bedrock for good mental health?

ERIN It’s a great question. I haven’t looked into the data specifically on that, so I can only speak to my own personal experience. I think people need to become significantly uncomfortable to recognise that. Loneliness and social isolation can perpetuate itself in some ways unless it’s disrupted, because we can internalise and start to feel like it’s our fault, like we don’t belong in some way.

I think people’s emotional intelligence increased during the pandemic because we had to slow down. However, we also numbed out a lot of the pain that we were feeling. It’s still rare for people to tell me, ‘Oh my gosh, did you know just how bad loneliness is for your brain, for your immune response, for this, for that?’ In many ways, the pandemic helped to destigmatise talking about that, because it’s just assumed that everyone felt lonely at some point. Now it’s about helping people understand that loneliness is really bad for your health and that being connected is great for your health. 

JEREMY There is a serious skills shortage in many countries, which has been part of the reason a lot of businesses have gone all in on offering employees flexibility. This raises an interesting question about where the duty of care lies in terms of employers being responsible for their employees’ wellbeing. Is an area you’ve looked into, and what are your thoughts are about how that dynamic is playing out?

ERIN I think that part of understanding our employees’ wellbeing is to listen well and listen regularly. We also need to remember that for some people, the workplace can be very uncomfortable – it can make them feel othered. So we can’t just assume that forcing everybody back into the office is a correct interpretation of the data. But I do think that regardless, we all need social connection and we need meaningful social connection.

I also think one of the great things about working spaces, or co-working spaces, is that just being around other people is good for us in a lot of ways, whether we’re introverts or extroverts. What works well [in office organisation] is allowing people to moderate their level of interaction: to know that if they’re going to show up, other people are going to be there as well, and that – if they need to do focused, heads-down work, or if they get socially overwhelmed – they can also remove themselves.

But to go back to your question, what is the role of worker wellbeing? I think anytime an organisation says, ‘Dear worker, I’m investing in you because I want you to work better for me,’ you make it very clear you don’t actually care about that person. I think we’re working through a complicated model where we consistently try and tell businesses that if they invest in these things it’ll increase their profit, their efficiency, and the effectiveness of their staff. But when they tell staff that’s the only reason that they’ve done it, it may take away some of those benefits.

JEREMY How do we design better offices that give people the interactions they want at work? A friend of mine said one of the best things you could do in modern offices is make sure everyone has a desk – their own place, something the trend for hot-desking has made rare. 

ERIN Desks equal attachment and belonging – an absence of one might tell someone they don’t have a permanent place. For me, it’s a question of, do you like your desk? Some people find it helpful to move places. But if an organisation wants people in the office it could say, you need to be here three days or more in order to be able to have a desk of your own.

There are different levers to push and pull, components of the built environment that might impact how people think, feel, and behave. For instance, having ownership over your single place can give you a deeper sense of commitment. At the same time, I think there’s something interesting about the models where we see people having more flexible space and being able to choose where they want to be. Some of the co-working models that I’m seeing are interesting, especially some of the dynamics around activation – maybe it’s a coffee shop, a place to get food, a place that brings people in, that keeps a flow that feels natural and vibrant and plugged into the community. But then understanding that people might like that as well as the option to slip away to a quieter space.

One of the cultural ideals I think we’ve had in the workplace is this high level of extroversion, but we now understand that about 50 percent of people are introverted, and that there’s plenty of people in different realms of the spectrum on different days. 

JEREMY A lot of these things could be classified as workplace culture. Because you’re an architect, I wondered if you could talk a bit about how the physical design of spaces can lead change or inspire change. Have you seen many examples of that, or are we still at a point where the design is still coming down the pipeline that responds to these situations?

ERIN I think that one of the great and sometimes not so great things that the built environment does is it is a symbol of values to people. Think of Greek temples and Parisian streets and what they represent. The built environment can lead and inspire change. If I was working with a client I would say, what is it that you want people to feel as a part of this? Is belonging your top priority?

There are signals that say this is a place for humans: obvious things like nature and daylight, but also human scale. One of the things that I think is disconcerting about a lot of giant open workspaces is that there’s no place to feel safe. How do we create nooks and sub-areas and ways to help people to feel like there are multiple spaces they can be a part of? How can it feel like a building is offering choices of where and how people want to work, both throughout their day and based off their personality?

Also, it’s important to look at the history of a place and its people. Having local artists that can maybe come in and do an installation can help all of us understand this moment in time and how we are a part of it. It’s also worth thinking about small nudges that say, we’re here for you, we welcome you, your health and wellbeing and sense of connection is important.

If a business said, what we want to be about is community, that can mean fostering an internal community as well as reaching into the community outside the building. How can a building do that? How does the building create an exterior space that welcomes in the community? The built environment can be a wonderful symbol of that, but you have to understand what it is you’re trying to achieve.

JEREMY You’ve written a really interesting piece about how workplaces are often associated with stress. How can good design minimise that association?

ERIN There are a lot of different ways, but to me one of the critical things is movement and physicality. When we move our bodies, our brains think differently and more creatively. So we need to make places that allow people to do that. If we understand that one of the core reasons to come into the office is to be together and to have these mind melds, then we need space for that. A lot of walls should be working walls: whiteboards or pinup boards where you can share ideas and see how they relate, creating an additional brain outside of your individual spaces.

So, you need to create places that allow for movement, but also understand that some spaces need a door. It’s about creating gradients throughout spaces, understanding active and non-active working styles, and creating intersections and spaces that are naturally highly engaged. Everything needs to be married with the culture of an organisation, because you can create an environment that is perfect but the working styles in that organisation might be sending strong cues that you’re not allowed to use it as designed.

There are also basic design elements: when our backs are exposed and there are people walking behind us, our nervous system can’t calm down very easily. We naturally dislike being in fishbowls, and yet a lot of our spaces are designed to be fishbowls. Obviously anytime you can incorporate nature, sounds of nature, water, plant life, views of nature, those just naturally take our defenses down and help us to feel calm, so I think that’s huge too. 

JEREMY Does it feel like we’re on the verge of a great transformation in office design and culture – and if so, are you confident we’ll be able to make the transition to make workplaces a cornerstone of mental wellbeing? 

ERIN I think people are thinking about what they want from their workplace, are taking into account their mental health and overall wellbeing and expecting their employer to invest in it in different ways. It’s an awakening of our awareness of how the places we spend our lives in are impacting us, and simultaneously there’s been an awakening about our own mental health and how that’s connected to everything that we are. And with those two combined, I don’t see a way that high-quality employers can ignore this without feeling the impacts of that.

JEREMY Architects have in some ways historically been regarded as the arbiters of ways of living and working. Is the profession changing in light of all this?

ERIN My first training is in psychology, so I’ve never understood an architect as a primary arbiter of wisdom. I think that any time that you serve in any way, which hopefully we all do through our professions, that you start by seeking to understand. I think the more that we can do as a society to seek to actually understand the root and the tangle of problems versus just thinking that we have the solutions to them, the better that we’ll be.

JEREMY Is all of this is going to be enough to overcome the convenience trap of working from home for people?

ERIN I think the future of workplace is likely a hybrid. I don’t think that’s going to be 100 percent at home, and I don’t think that’s going to be 100 percent at the workplace. And I think that the convenience trap is not the same for everyone: there are a lot of things that happen at home that we want to get away from; a lot of us that can’t afford independent offices at home. But I really feel strongly that staying only in one space is not great for our mental health. When we focus on work-life balance and having some boundaries between our work, it is helpful to have a place to go to work and then to be able to return home fresh and separate from that place. It’s also about finding the workplace has a value for social connection. 

This interview is one in a three-part series about how workplaces are evolving. To read the interview with Sarah Wright, an associate head of department at the University of Canterbury's Business School, who is researching workplace loneliness, click here. And to read the interview with Sir John Kirwan, co-founder of workplace wellbeing platform Groov, click here