Why Your Ideal Office May Not Have Four Walls and a Ceiling

Leigh Stringer

A/E/C Stories is an ongoing series of posts featuring individuals who excel in the architecture, engineering and construction industry.  Nominate someone.

The sun might be shining, but don’t fault those who fail to notice. Most are stuck inside during the workday, glued to their desks and fixated on computer screens. For them, it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole other world outside, waiting to be explored.

And as some companies are starting to realize, there’s a whole other workplace waiting to be discovered.

Leigh Stringer, a principal and workplace strategist at EYP Architecture and Engineering in Washington, D.C., helps organizations accommodate the evolving needs and preferences of their employees while creating healthier, more productive work environments.

A health and wellness enthusiast, Stringer is currently working with the College of William & Mary, a public university in Williamsburg, Virginia, to help measure the results of the school’s new integrative wellness center, designed by EYP.

“The college has done a great deal of thinking about what it means to be a healthy student,” she says. “We’re working with W&M and research partners at the University of Virginia to look carefully at specific building strategies used and how they impact the health and wellbeing of students and staff. It’s really important for us to measure whether or not spaces perform in the ways we anticipated, and learning about it in real time. I love that part of my job.”

Stringer is also passionate about sustainability, an interest she attributes to Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, as well as to her family.

“I had my first child shortly before watching that movie, and very quickly started thinking about the kind of world she would grow up in,” she says. “That was a big reason for me getting engaged in the sustainability movement initially. I did it for her.”

Stringer’s passions inspired her to author two best-selling books: The Green Workplace: Sustainable Strategies that Benefit Employees, the Environment and the Bottom Line and The Healthy Workplace: How to Improve the Well-Being of Your Employees—and Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line.

Leigh desk.jpg

Embracing the Great Outdoors

This past summer, L.L. Bean tapped Stringer’s expertise to conduct research on behalf of its Be an Outsider at Work initiative, which encouraged employees to temporarily swap their office for the great outdoors. The campaign set up outdoor co-working spaces in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Madison, Wisconsin.

“Working in air-conditioned buildings all the time, we forget that nature exists,” says Stringer. “But our preference as humans is to be in and among nature. It’s wonderful to be protected from the elements, but there are so many beneficial reasons, from a health and productivity perspective, to be outdoors.”

Stringer says that humans benefit from being in forested areas because of beneficial bacteria we breathe in that support gut health as well as from phytoncides, or plant-derived essential oils, that fight off harmful microorganisms. Humans also are exposed to negatively-charged ions (oxygen atoms charged with an extra electron) near forests and large bodies of water that positively boost our mental outlook and reduce anxiety and depression.

“Nature improves our wellbeing and makes us feel happier and healthier,” she says. “Saving nature for evenings and weekends really limits the benefits.”

L.L. Bean conducted a study with 1,000 Americans who work indoors and discovered that 87 percent of them enjoy being outside, yet most never venture outdoors during the workday.

Some participants blamed issues that, according to Stringer, are totally solvable: glare on the computer screen, no power or no Wi-Fi. Others said they couldn’t work outside because they didn’t have a supportive boss or are simply too focused on their work to think about leaving the office.

“When most people think of working outside, they imagine sitting uncovered, exposed to the elements in a large open field,” she says. “But working outdoors could mean sitting under a small covered seating area. Really, there are a number of great design solutions that will work beautifully.”

Leigh team.jpg

The desire to be outside is so powerful that it’s easy to overlook the possible downsides, such as noise pollution. Stringer came face-to-face with that issue when L.L. Bean set up shop at Madison Square Park in New York City.

“There were ambulances and fire trucks passing by the entire time,” she says. “It was crazy. You couldn’t get more ‘urban’ than where we were located. What was really interesting was that everyone had the same reaction—after a while we stopped hearing the fire engines. We were focused on our tasks. We were more tuned in to the sounds of nature—like birdsong or the wind rustling through the trees in the park.”

Of course, not every job is conducive to the outdoors.

“There are still many people who resist the idea of working in an outdoor environment,” says Stringer. “Nurses, retail workers or computer programmers need spaces with complete focus or access to equipment to do their job. There are some tasks I know I’m better at in a silent room indoors—like writing. The thing is, most of us can take breaks or do a surprising number of work activities outdoors. Private conference calls, one-on-one meetings, coffee breaks, creative brainstorm sessions—are all perfect activities to do somewhere other than a traditional office space. In fact, they might be even more effective or pleasurable outdoors.”

She emphasizes the importance of not relying on one-size-fits-all solutions. “Giving workers a choice in how, when and where they work might just have a greater positive impact on their performance.”