How to Reduce Stress as People Come Back to the Office

Applying Neuroscience Principles to Foster Comfort and Improve Workplace Health

April 27, 2020

Design Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Suzanne Carlson, Edwin Beltran and Hannah Smith.


As COVID-19 sweeps the globe, it’s creating two health crises: one that is physical based on the impact of the virus itself, and one that is emotional due to the wide-ranging toll it takes on mental health.  When it comes to emotional health and work, a specific stressor is the thought of returning to the office and the fear of getting sick from fellow commuters or colleagues.

Acute and chronic stress negatively impacts our lives, from job performance to relationships, to critical thinking and educational outcomes. Neuroscience research shows that stress can literally make our brains shrink, yet there are also proven ways to re-energize and feed them.

Over the past decade, our workplaces have been optimized to increase productivity, collaboration and innovation. Now more than ever, our offices need to not only optimize job performance, but provide comfort, mental stability and focus — to help us flourish while keeping us safe. But how?

Neuroscience as a Framework

Dr. John Medina, an affiliate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and an NBBJ Fellow, examines the causation of stress and its impact on us as humans. Applying Dr. Medina’s research to the workplace in our COVID-19 world may help not only alleviate stress, but also support comfort, resilience and optimism in these difficult times. Here are some specific ideas, backed by neuroscience research that can help:

Provide choice to increase comfort and calm.

When employees have greater control over their work, it reduces stress, which is especially critical during a pandemic. An important first step is to give employees the choice to work from home, return to the office, or combine both modes. In the workplace, providing options can also mean creating spaces for “prospect” and “refuge” — areas where colleagues can both see each other and also go to retreat.

Offices that provide prospect and refuge mimic the savannah environment in which our pre-historic ancestors lived, with views of the sweeping plains and a cave close by. “Developing simultaneous preferences for expansive space and enclosed shelter was fundamental to our survival,” writes Dr. Medina. Today, in office plans that provide high levels of visibility, modular “micro offices” with easy-to-clean materials can help with infection control and offer social distancing, flexibility and balance, in addition to privacy and quiet. These strategies, coupled with operational changes — such as stringent cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting protocols — may help.

Support an active workday and policies to help build resilient behaviors.

Offering ways for employees to incorporate motion into their work activities is especially important during the pandemic, to improve not just physical health, but mental clarity too. Studies show walking meetings at 1.8 miles per hour optimize information processing, while lowering the stress hormone, cortisol. Circulation paths in and around the office could serve as meeting and fitness loops, with graphic markers to facilitate proper social distancing and indicate the amount of calories burned based on distance traveled. Allowing walking meetings, where employees have the opportunity to go for a walk outside the office too, is a win-win. It helps maximize cognitive focus, provides fresh air and reduces stress.

Adopting policies that address social distancing guidelines and employees’ needs for solitude and socialization can lay a positive foundation too. For example, welcoming stairs can help people to get in their steps, increase their endorphins — and avoid the close confines of an elevator — while promoting greater connections between colleagues on different floors, which can reduce stress as well.

Employ nature’s healing benefits.

As humans are wired to spend time outside, it’s even more critical now than ever before to consider the positive effects of nature on our health and productivity. Numerous studies show that looking at plants and the sounds of running water can lower anxiety, speed healing and even boost the immune system. These are key elements workplaces could benefit from, and particularly so during the coronavirus crisis.

While some workplaces connect with the outdoors in a significant way, incorporating smaller touches can help too. Simple strategies like access to natural daylight by opening blinds and pulling in fresh air via operable windows could lower indoor contaminants, because sunlight and higher rates of ventilation can reduce the viability of viruses in the air and on surfaces — like a natural disinfectant. In addition, weaving in green-colored accents like rugs and furniture, facing desks toward views, or even bringing in certain plants with antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, can increase employee wellness.

Engage the senses to create restorative moments of reflection.

Providing a sensory experience in the workplace that acknowledges heightened emotions could provide comfort and familiarity in these challenging times. Studies show indirect attention breaks — such as views to outdoors, listening to calming sounds and smelling soothing natural scents like lavender — for 10 minutes per every 100 minutes of focused attention, can minimize stress and blunt the negative effects of mental fatigue, but also promote mindfulness and increase executive function.

These restorative experiences could be amplified by creating niches filled with peaceful artwork, inspiration boards or team achievement walls to provide additional ways for employees to pause, regroup and reconnect with themselves and their teams.

In Summary

As we return to the office, stress levels of employees will be high for a variety of reasons — but we should strive to avoid the workplace itself being a cause of such stress. By incorporating the benefits of neuroscience into the workplace, we can transform our offices to evoke a sense of calm during what is a difficult situation for all, and be ready for whatever the future may bring.


How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at

Banner image courtesy Sean Airhart.

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Is Your Post-Coronavirus Workplace Planning Focused on Fear or Growth?

Organizations Should Keep These Three Responses in Mind When Strategizing Their Return to the Workplace

April 24, 2020

Principal, Workplace Strategist, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Kelly Griffin, Andrew Lazarow and Samuel Liberant.

For more than 100 years, neurologists have been looking at the ways stress can pull us out of our comfort zones and free us to achieve at higher levels. But what does one do when that source of stress is a pandemic? Weeks into the worldwide shutdown in response to COVID-19, many organizations are asking themselves, When can we get back to normal? What will the new normal be? These are understandable questions; however, it’s important for organizations to reflect on how they’re reacting before bringing employees back to the office or making changes about future policies or office design.


The Three Zones

An organization’s response to crisis typically falls into three zones, through which one may move sequentially, almost like the grieving process.

  1. The Fear Zone
    The “Fear Zone” is a reactionary phase in which an organization follows impulses. The Fear Zone is a stance of loss aversion, an attempt to mitigate a painful situation as quickly as possible. This is a common mindset, as it is human to seek comfort. We are built to develop routines, and the emotion of fear may often direct our actions. Importantly, this is usually a temporary place that can be an enabler of change and an improved mindset.
  2. The Learning Zone
    Next is the “Learning Zone,” when an organization develops new confidence that enables reflection on thoughts and reactions. The Learning Zone is a time of increased awareness, not only introspectively but also of how others respond to the situation. The organization gains new skills and experiences that allow it to deal with challenges and problems.
  3. The Growth Zone
    Finally, in the “Growth Zone,” an organization is empowered to make swift decisions in support of a greater purpose. Now that it is more resilient and comfortable with being uncomfortable, it asks how to grow from it, how it will be affected going forward, and to whom it might reach out for help. An indicator of being in this zone is a new mindset, characterized by acting with immediacy after reflection. Performing at this level, the organization is free to see new goals and objectives, or new solutions to existing objectives.


What the Three Zones Mean for the Workplace

An organization in the Fear Zone will focus on immediate mitigation and attempt to return to its comfort zone as quickly as possible. While this response is understandable, even necessary, in the early stages of a crisis, an organization that never progresses beyond the Fear Zone can make short-sighted decisions. For instance, responding to the coronavirus threat by tearing out workstations and putting everyone in 8’x8′ cubicles with high partitions, thus undermining everything we know about the importance of daylight and human connections to personal health and organizational performance. Or by installing infrared fever monitors, which are of limited effectiveness when anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of people can transmit the disease while exhibiting no symptoms.

When an organization moves from the Fear Zone to the Learning Zone, it is working hard to make itself better. It begins asking, either internally or with the help of experts, the questions that spur reflection: What is your underlying vision as an organization? How can you remain authentic to that vision amidst changing circumstances? What is critical to your work, and to our basic need as humans to be social? What makes your staff feel valued even through this moment?

Finally, in the Growth Zone, the crisis becomes an opportunity for an organization either to confirm its purpose or to question and refine it further. Most organizations will say yes, their vision and purpose continue to be relevant, but it’s a powerful question to ask, because it serves as a reminder of who you are and what you stand for. It puts a crisis in perspective and allows an organization to align around a meaningful, intentional path forward, regardless of whether or not it reveals immediate design solutions. This renewed purpose can also be used to refine ideas — or potential design decisions — developed in the Learning Zone.

Everyone starts in the Fear Zone, but the sooner an organization can access what’s true to itself, the faster it can move into the Growth Zone and physicalize the changes it needs to make.


Potential Implications

Potential changes to collaborative vs. focused work locations
Organizations in the Growth Zone will reflect on what worked and what did not work in their response to COVID-19, and will take the opportunity to connect those lessons to their purpose and social sustainability before driving to real estate outcomes. An important task is not to solve problems but to explore possibilities. Maybe an organization will permanently locate 50% of its workforce in the office and 50% at home. Or maybe the office becomes a more social environment with fewer desks and more support for team-based collaborative interactions, while the home becomes a place for more focused work. Regardless, successful organizations will engage in a purposeful, growth-minded dialogue about what best supports their vision.

Potential changes to protocols and operations
Nor will we solve all the problems of COVID-19 through physical changes alone. There will always be pinch points where people gather — and potentially spread a contagious illness — in elevators, in restrooms, by the coffeemaker or in conference rooms. Journey mapping — helping people understand all their touch points on the way back to work — can reveal changes to protocols and operations that mitigate those pinch points, perhaps by opening up stairs and limiting the number of people in an elevator. Perhaps an organization will hire a barista so there aren’t dozens of employees’ hands touching the coffee pot and sugar packets. Perhaps when colleagues brainstorm together they wear masks or bring their own set of markers to the conference room. The point is to ask what an organization needs to fundamentally achieve its mission while eliminating the touch points that pose a potential threat — primarily in the short term, but potentially for the long term as well.

Potential changes to emphasize wellbeing and social connection
For many of us in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, our world has narrowed to two questions: Will I get sick? And how can I cope with isolation? For many organizations, their response to COVID-19 may double down on those two issues, wellbeing and social connection, which we already knew were vital to the health and performance of both individuals and organizations. Perhaps we’ll create more environments incorporate nature, encourage movement and connect people to each other to boost employee health and performance and each organization’s triple-bottom-line.


What People and Organizations Should Do in Response to COVID-19

  1. Notice where you are.
  2. Pause and give space for reflection.
  3. Allow yourself to pursue an intentional journey of greater purpose with a renewed sense of spirit, commitment and engagement.

As yet, no one knows for certain whether the coronavirus pandemic will be forgotten quickly — because unlike a natural disaster like a flood or volcanic eruption, it leaves behind no dramatic physical evidence — or whether it will spur major societal changes. Either way, once the immediate threat passes, an organization’s long-term challenges and goals will continue to exist, and those who are able to align around their vision will be the ones most positioned for success.


How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at

Banner image courtesy Adobe Stock.

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How to Make the Return to Work Safer

Tools for Developing COVID-19 Workplace Strategies

April 23, 2020

Principal, NBBJ

As a number of states roll out tentative plans to gradually reopen their economies, businesses have to move quickly to establish new protocols and strategies for returning to the office in the evolving pandemic landscape. First and foremost on the agenda is the need to develop new safety protocols to ensure the health of employees as they return to work. Established guidelines — such as OSHA’s Guidance in Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19, which outlines engineering, administrative and work practice controls that employers should take to reduce the risk of workplace infection, as well as a number of CDC publications — lay the groundwork for creating safer work environments.

While these guidelines provide a crucial reference point, developing a “return to the office” strategy is still a complex task requiring companies to weigh a range of unique risks and benefits. There is no one-size-fits-all approach — each company’s strategy may look different, and some employers will continue to rely heavily on remote working strategies, while others move quickly to return essential workers or adopt another approach.

The current climate may offer an opportunity for companies to be less reactive and more strategic in how they approach workplace design and strategy, as the pandemic has catalyzed dialogue about important issues which may have otherwise gone unaddressed. Some of the key topics companies should take this opportunity to consider more deeply include:

  • Work/life balance and the need for flexible work from home programs
  • The drawbacks of open office plans and the desire for privacy and separation
  • The costs of commuting, including increased pollution and traffic
  • The need for more agile and flexible workplace design
  • The importance of measuring cost per person rather than pursuing increased workplace densification and focusing on cost per square foot

Given this context, it is vital for companies to understand the short and long-term issues they need to address in developing their own return to the office strategy. Several tools can help companies address these design and planning questions as they work towards a workplace strategy for the COVID-19 era and beyond. These tools — including a step-by-step outline covering the major tasks involved in developing a workplace strategy, and a matrix covering related design and facility issues — are presented below as preliminary conversation starters to provide companies with initial direction as they launch into the complex work ahead of them.

Click here to download the PDF: “Framing a Return to Office Strategy.”  


How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at

Banner image courtesy Sean Airhart.

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