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Safety and workflow efficiency are frequently the first priorities in the design of a laboratory facility. Given the rigor and systematic processes that science requires, the humanistic aspect of the scientist is often neglected. However, the recent climate and the pandemic have brought to the forefront the importance of incorporating health and wellness, inclusive design, and a vibrant culture to attract and retain the best talent. If workers are not provided with a comfortable environment that fulfills basic human needs, then regardless of the rewards and recognition, they will be dissatisfied with their environment and unlikely to be at their most productive.
There are a host of challenges to improving working conditions in controlled scientific environments, but the benefits are well worth the effort. Scientific workplaces designed to satisfy each tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization) can increase employee well-being, improve company culture, and facilitate scientific innovation, discovery, and exploration. Ultimately, it results in better outcomes for the people that work in the space, their work, and the community as a whole.
Just as humans are motivated to fulfil their needs in a hierarchical order, moving from the most basic need to more advanced needs, we have identified five ways scientific facility design can help improve the workplace experience from a holistic, humanistic perspective.
The bottom tier of Maslow’s hierarchy contains the most essential things a person must have to survive, including the physiological needs of air, food, water, and shelter. In a typical interior space, this means acoustic comfort, high air quality, cleanliness, daylighting, thermal comfort, and nourishment, all of which have been proven by research to improve health and contribute to productivity.
Nourishment is a critical, yet often overlooked, physiological need in lab spaces. Given the 24/7 nature of scientific work, where it may not be possible or prudent to leave the building and access off-site food at odd hours, it’s especially important that companies focus on nourishment. It’s also often not possible to bring food and beverages into the lab for safety reasons, making it even more important to provide designated spaces for employees to step out of the lab to eat and drink. This nourishment space can also serve as a social place where scientists can interact with other people who might work outside the lab. Coupled with the opportunity to open a window or step outside, it can also deliver the added benefits of access to daylight, fresh air, and contact with nature.
One way we are using design to help encourage healthy choices is by adding full kitchens complete with stoves, fridges, and ovens to break rooms. This allows people to cook a healthy meal for themselves or their coworkers using fresh ingredients. In addition to the health benefits, cooking can bring coworkers together and strengthen the culture. Healthy vending machines filled with freshly prepared meals are another way companies can encourage employees to enhance their nourishment in a convenient way. Bowls of fresh fruit in the kitchen, as well as grab-and-go-cafes stocked with fresh food, are other strategies for supporting the health and well-being of employees.
The second level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs relates to physical and psychological safety and security, including protection from potentially dangerous or threatening environments. In lab design, ensuring a safe and secure working environment is often the top priority. However, when safety needs are not met, it can make users uncomfortable and contribute to a stressful environment, impeding on workers’ productivity. While there is extensive information available about how to manage potential hazards in a lab, one overlooked factor is how safety can be enhanced through design.
Adding color and contrast is one strategy to enhance safety and improve wayfinding. For example, an emergency shower surrounded with a pop of color makes it easier to find. Colorful lines on the floor can indicate which areas need to kept clear of equipment, boxes, or furniture so occupants always have a clear walking path free of obstructions and easy access to emergency exits. Colors on the wall can also help users easily identify the different departments in a lab space. Color has the added benefit of providing more visually stimulating spaces that combat boredom, improve concentration, and bring a sense of liveliness to the space.
Biophilic design, the incorporation of nature or features that resemble nature, is another strategy that is proven to improve mental functioning, reduce stress, and lower illness and absenteeism, all of which contributes to a greater sense of safety and security for occupants. While live plants can’t be added to a lab space, design can mirror and resemble forms of nature. Biophilic elements can be incorporated through plant-inspired finishes and shapes, wood-inspired flooring, and other elements that remind occupants of nature while still being easily cleanable. This connection to nature further increases stimulation and comfort for workers in an otherwise sterile setting.
When appropriate for the work at hand, adding windows with views of nature is extremely beneficial. Looking through a microscope at slides or pipetting into test tubes for much of the day requires extreme precision and focus, which can be mentally demanding and draining. Having the ability to look up and view nature through a window, especially if you can’t physically go outside for a break, provides a much-needed mental rest that restores attention and memory. Even a 15-second break to view nature has been shown to enhance cognition and psychological well-being. In fact, one study quantified the benefit by demonstrating that employees who had views of nature took nine fewer sick days, on average.
Especially given the potentially hazardous nature of working in a lab, it’s critical to provide an environment that enhances cognitive function and improves well-being.
Next on the hierarchy of needs is love/belonging. When it comes to laboratory work, this can be accomplished by creating spaces that allow for social interaction and connection, which has a positive impact on mental health and community (or workplace) resilience. When employees are given the opportunity to collaborate, relax, and socialize with one another, it has a positive impact on productivity, innovation, and mental health.
We often hear from scientists that it’s difficult to have an impromptu meeting or discussion because of the need to take off protective equipment and reserve a conference room potentially far from the lab. Because of this, collaboration among scientists happens far less frequently than desired. To solve for this, we frequently add a breakaway area directly adjacent to the laboratory space where colleagues can quickly bounce ideas off one another, meet about a project, or have a virtual call with someone offsite. This gets workers out of their chair more frequently as well, which has added physical and mental health benefits.
Communicating stairs are another design feature that enhances the sense of belonging. More than just a way to move from floor to floor and get your steps in, they serve as a space for all-hands events, eating meals, meetings of all sizes, and community events. A design element that is front and center, it encourages people to collaborate and connect both with coworkers they know well and those they wouldn’t typically interact with by creating curated collision zones.
Esteem, which focuses on choice, purpose, and achievement, is another critical component of laboratory design. When people can choose what space best accommodate their work on any given day, it enhances productivity and improves well-being. In a scientific workplace, this means that the industry is moving away from individual assigned bench space, and instead providing areas assigned to instruments, so scientists have the flexibility to choose workspace depending on their activity. This could mean an employee works in an instrumentation room one day, in a technology-enabled space on computational models or simulations the next, and outdoors collaborating with colleagues the following day. With more scientific work becoming data-driven, it’s critical to provide ample private space for heads-down focused work as well.
Outdoor space is an important component of providing options for both collaborative and focused work, as well as respite and socialization. When fully enabled with Wi-Fi and power connections, outdoor areas serve as an enjoyable environment for a Zoom call, focused data analysis or working session with a colleague. Outdoor areas provide stress-reducing benefits of nature and fresh air, while serving as collision zones that encourage interactions and collaboration between departments. They provide space for the company to connect with the surrounding community as well.
Thoughtful branded environments can provide scientists with sense of purpose in their work and help foster a sense of achievement, connecting their day-to-day work to the broader impact on the community.
The last pillar of Maslow’s hierarchy focuses on mental health, wellness, and personal growth. While this is often more focused on operationally, design can help foster these qualities in the workplace by creating calming spaces for respite, relaxation, and meditation. Nap pods are one option that allow employees to escape from the stressors of the lab for a quick rest, promoting investment in personal well-being. Zen gardens filled with native vegetation and walking paths are another way to allow workers to disconnect from the high demands of the lab, which often leads to increased reflection and “a-ha” moments. Cozy seating areas, both indoor and out, invite employees to take time for themselves and connect with colleagues, while also providing a choice of environment to accommodate a varied range of needs and preferences on any given day. These strategies serve to support policies and programs that allow companies to invest in encouraging employees to develop their whole self, improving overall satisfaction and motivation.
In summary, when scientific workplaces are designed around the five pillars in Maslow’s hierarchy, it increases employee well-being, happiness, and productivity while improving company culture. This ultimately helps companies attract and retain top talent, and foster the innovation and discovery that is so important in this industry.
Isabel Mandujano leads the laboratory planning practice for LPA, a national integrated design firm with offices in California and Texas, helping create innovative research and development facilities for corporate, pharmaceutical and biotechnology clients. Throughout her career, she has worked with corporate clients to develop sustainable ground-up research and development facilities in established life science campuses, as well as transform existing retail and office space to laboratories that support emerging life science ecosystems. In her leadership role, Isabel works with laboratory managers and scientist to create high-performance laboratories that are inspiring, sustainable, functional, and safe.
Rachel Nasland is a research analyst and design strategist at LPA. Trained in environmental psychology, she uses a mixed-methods approach to examine the interplay between human behavior and the natural/ built environment to support design teams throughout the design process, from pre-design to post-occupancy evaluations. With a greater understanding of how the immediate environment impacts its users, and in turn, how individuals use their space, Rachel informs design that contributes to user-centered environments emphasizing health, well-being, and sustainability. She is a certified Fitwel Ambassador and pursuing her WELL AP certification.