Room to Think: The Rise of Still Spaces in the Workplace

Silence is an endangered species. Here’s how you can preserve it in the workplace.

Outdoor meeting space and gardens at Newell Brands’ Atlanta HQ. Image courtesy of Perkins+Will.

Quiet is a “think tank of the soul,” says Gordon Hempton, a sound recording specialist and co-author of One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet. It is in quiet spaces that our intuition reemerges from the intellectual chatter pervading our workdays. Hempton cautions, though, that, “Silence is an endangered species.”

If silence is endangered, then open offices may have precipitated its demise in the workplace. Without thoughtful design, open office plans foster collaboration and communication at the expense of concentration and contemplation. Limiting distractions and noise can improve employee attention and productivity but may not go far enough. With increasing focus on employee well-being and mindfulness, forward-thinking companies are creating quiet zones, meditative environments, and even sacred spaces to lower the cacophony, boost creativity, and restore emotional balance.

Architecture and design firms, at the behest of clients, are now incorporating “room to think” into corporate environment plans. In 2016, the SaaS software giant, Salesforce, added a meditation room on each floor of its San Francisco offices. They’ve done the same in their London headquarters. Medtronic has offered its employees use of a meditation room for over 30 years. The Chicago headquarters of SRAM — manufacturer of high performance bicycle components — sports a quiet, softly lit break room that can be used for reflection. Prentice-Hall publishing company created a meditation room called the “Quiet Room”, where employees can sit quietly and de-stress.

Indoor/outdoor space at an international media company’s Sydney office. Image courtesy of Perkins+Will.

Contemplative workspaces are not the sole realm of the indoor office. Outdoor workspaces are being used to promote calm and meditative awareness. Often, the two realms — inside and out, natural and manmade — are intersecting. Newell Brand’s Atlanta offices provide generous opportunities for employees to work alone or in small groups in outdoor meeting rooms and restorative rooftop garden spaces. The Sydney office of an international media company features a peaceful indoor atrium that opens onto a sprawling semi-enclosed deck. At special interest media company Rodale Press in Pennsylvania, the publisher added a two-story American Indian prayer atrium based on a Pueblo Indian-style “kiva” or meditation area for employees to reflect and revitalize.

Major furniture makers have joined the quiet movement. Office furniture powerhouse, Steelcase, claims that 95 percent of today’s workers need quiet, private spaces but 40 percent say their workplaces don’t provide them. So, Steelcase partnered with Susan Cain, author of the bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, to develop a set of five “Quiet Spaces” incorporating the company’s V.I.A. soundproof architectural walls. These intimate settings are ideal for yoga, meditation, prayer, spiritual reflection, or simply peaceful work time.

A student’s rendering from the “Search for Contemplative Space” studio at the Georgia Tech School of Architecture. Image courtesy of Daniel Griffin.

The shift in office space design is more than about adding doses of quiet in the workplace. It is about adding moments of stillness. Enter the pods: furniture pieces which provide for silent, still sitting or napping as well as working. Google and Huffington Post, for instance, have each installed MetroNaps’ EnergyPods — contemporary lounge chairs with a convertible room for privacy. Facebook and Nestle, meanwhile, favor the tubular units from Podtime. The meditation app provider, Headspace, prefers Spacestor’s Railway Carriage pods which address a range of situations from intimate collaboration to undisturbed concentration.

“Inspiration is the feeling of beginning at the threshold where Silence and Light meet,” the renowned architect, Louis Kahn, once wrote. If contemplative spaces in the workplace ideally provide this inspiration, inspiration for creating such spaces may come from examples in the spiritual community. Several major academic institutions — such as Catholic University and Georgia Tech — are exploring this line of thought. At Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture in Atlanta, a 2016 design studio class led by one of the authors of this article (Julie Ju-Youn Kim) and titled, “The Search for Contemplative Space: Looking Inward/Looking Outward,” gave undergraduate students hands on understanding of how architecture can elevate the human spirit through the spatial relationships between material, structure, and light.

Another student’s rendering from the “Search for Contemplative Space” studio at the Georgia Tech School of Architecture. Image courtesy of Daniel Griffin.

The students’ mandate was to design a new urban retreat center for the Atlanta Soto Zen Center. The result was a set of models including well-considered spaces at multiple scales, exterior gardens, communal gathering spaces, meeting rooms, and in the private resident spaces. The project also revealed to the students the importance of meditative space and opened discussion of other applications of contemplative space such as allowing office workers the chance to breathe and step outside of the sounds and into silence. With learning experiences such as this, we will soon see new designers entering the field who already appreciate the value of contemplative spaces.

There’s a lot of noise about noise in the workplace and just as much mindshare being given mindfulness. How do you find the workplace balance between providing for collaboration and contemplation amidst the options? Perhaps, if we sit quietly the path forward will become clearer.

2 Comments

  • Kate Thibeault says:

    Please tell me more about “Prentice-Hall publishing company created a meditation room called the “Quiet Room”, where employees can sit quietly and de-stress”

  • Brian Gibson says:

    From the Internet to portable computers and smartphones, new technologies aren’t only making our lives easier, they are also changing the way we work. More and more people are shifting from the conventional office job to remote work. Either working from home or from a co-working space, or engaging in various forms of digital nomad-ism.

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