Last year, we developed a Point of View issue on the culture of comfort and wellbeing that everyone needs to thrive; to genuinely be at ease, especially when the work is hard. Yet today — everything feels hard.
Since COVID-19, What will help us feel safe has become one of the central questions of our time. In revisiting our work through this context, we believe more than ever that the dimensions of comfort we reported on are safety’s essential companions in all wellbeing. Because, if a sense of safety is the lens through which we view the world now, then the dimensions of comfort are the constant settings on its dial. And design remains a powerful tool to help create them all.
Through this lens, we’re proud to share our Point of View issue, Relate. We’ve taken care to acknowledge the current times, but largely what you’ll read was written before COVID-19. We hope this can be part of our ongoing discussions with you as we all work toward the safety, comfort and wellbeing we need to thrive again.
It’s easy to relate to being comfortable. But sometimes it’s harder to be at ease.
Work isn’t easy. That’s a reality we all recognize. But it’s possible to be at ease, even when the work is hard.
A state of ease within ourselves and throughout the world, wherever we may live and work.
Wellbeing is a mantra, a movement and a growing mandate today. It spans from mind to body and from individual to community to the planet; from the wishful to the measurable. Equal to its rising cultural value, wellbeing is now studied across the scientific spectrum, increasingly demonstrating that when, or where, it’s present — from the neurological to the ecological to the biological — it’s always restorative. In this sense, wellbeing is a source of balance and increased capacity. The balance itself that we can feel.
There’s a reason wellbeing is (literally) in the air these days. Stress of all kinds is on the rise. Burnout is real. We experience disconnection amid so much connection, as we’re swept into the ever-present communication of the digital age. We end up drained despite the fulfillment of our own productivity and creativity, racing to keep stride in a time of accelerated, unprecedented change.
Many of us, and many environments, are susceptible to the pressures and demands of this pace. And, as we spend more hours inside, we experience a withdrawal from nature that depletes us even more. We lose touch with the vitality of sensory experience that’s long been understood to provide the foundations to our wellbeing.
This is happening everywhere. But it’s especially uncomfortable in modern work. How can workplaces become a better source of wellbeing, unique from other spaces where we might work?
It’s no wonder that pursuing wellbeing — restoring it, really — has become an individual and organizational necessity. Nowhere else do we feel the pressure points more than in the increasing hours we spend on where and how we work.
The pressures themselves aren’t going to change. But, what can change is how we respond to them. And we know we can get help in that response from a central source — increasing our comfort.
We’re driven to design for surroundings that prioritize comfort in all its dimensions — physical, social, emotional and cognitive.
An innate response that brings us wellbeing across many levels of our experience.
The very word implies a loosening and lightening — a softening — that goes against all the tension in our set ideas of performance and achievement. But comfort is a virtually universal desire. When present, it lets us operate with fewer barriers, with greater ease and trust. Indoors and outdoors; in effort and in play; from introspection to interaction — comfort provides the building blocks of more wellbeing, so that we can feel safe and relate better to each other as we all face life’s demands.
Within this broad domain, the work environment, specifically the built world of design, is a crucial place to activate a culture of comfort. People need spaces that both energize and replenish; that foster social connection and personal health; that are designed to reduce stress. The future of work depends on elevating our access to these conditions, to make the workday and workplaces more comfortable and human.
On multiple levels, it’s possible to affect how to make work more comfortable.
We may not even be aware of four ever-present dimensions to our experience that hold the innate ingredients for comfort.
Experts and workers alike are avidly experimenting with ways to elevate such dimensions every day. They’ve begun to ask a different question — how can we encourage feeling well rather than just doing well? Can we apply a deeper sense of care; soften the edges of the hard work we do, as a means to achieving better, more enduring and valuable results? What if the new life of work placed a culture of comfort and wellbeing at its center?
This quest is one of the great problems of now. The puzzle is that we have to lean into conditions that may seem antithetical to hard work, in order to flourish in the work that’s hard.
Comfort is the antidote we’re seeking.
Fit originates in nature, in the nautilus shell and the honeycomb; it’s the part of a structure that is both mathematically beautiful and ideally shaped to its particular purpose. We instinctively want fit in the cut of a suit, or the way a ring encircles a finger, just as we borrow natural forms of fit for the turn of a staircase, the slope of a ceiling, the contour of a chair, the depth and cradling of a plush sofa.
But physical comfort extends well beyond the structural notion of fit. Humans perceive — and actually seek — signs of vitality in our surroundings that activate all of our physical senses. Greenery and fresh air; positive aromas, natural light, an outdoor view and acoustic rhythms… these are parts of the innate human need to be connected to nature for our comfort and wellbeing, an experience that is known as biophilia.
Signs of natural vibrancy in our physical surroundings activate all of our senses, and help us feel that we fit where we are.
So, from the outside in, the colors, patterns and materials that make up our experience of spaces can distinctly add comfort or subtract from it, if they are welcoming and full of life, or if they are missing. The earthy richness of hardwood, stone, leather; a wool rug or soft fabric; motifs that invoke nature — all trigger a sensory neuro feedback loop of comfort because we relate them to our ecological world. Their absence creates the dulling perception of a cold and sterile surrounding that’s ill-equipped for our wellbeing. These are symbolic, biophilic aspects of physical comfort that we favor in our decision making, because we feel less comfortable without them.
Integrating nature within a space, with living walls, gardens and water, takes us directly to that source. These features provide literal physical comfort and soothing sensory variation that are equally therapeutic and pragmatic, bringing nature close enough for everyone to share.
Humans are social animals. We organize ourselves into groups of all sizes in order to experience belonging, support, teamwork and unity. Social units from families to sports teams, companies to natural ecosystems, all enact these values in terms of working well together. Work in this sense seeks harmony, suggesting that when everyone fits and functions in a community with their own unique contributions, friction is eased, while outcomes improve.
This mutually beneficial alignment is frequently described as the powerful engine of collaboration. And being collaborative is among the most sought-after talents in the new life of work — following the social principle that building relationships and working well together will expand what we can imagine and create. Collaboration matters more than ever today as we try to solve increasingly complex problems. Because, few great things have been achieved without teamwork.
Our natural inclination toward social comfort means that we favor situations where we can experience deep-seated connection and engagement with people we know or trust. Once thought of as a soft skill of secondary importance, the development and fulfillment of strong social bonds has in fact been shown to help build the empathy and deeper relationships that are essential for people to collaborate on multi-dimensional assignments. Consequently, social aptitude and social connection are key ingredients for high productivity in modern work. And conversation is their natural medium.
This is especially significant in an era when we transition fluidly from in-person meetings to the digital meeting space and back again. In both, social comfort permits the wide range of informal, familiar interactions that help us bond on the personal–professional continuum. Socializing often precedes more concentrated work, allowing for creative ideas to bubble up without the immediate pressure to be productive. It can also assist intensive practical sessions, to make hard work become easier. The opportunity to be social in person can make work a place where we want to go — rather than one we leave — to find even deeper support and community.
When groups connect with trust, they build the strong bonds needed to work together and generate powerful outcomes.
Workplaces have responded by fostering social comfort as a primary dynamic. They include an ever-widening range of settings that invite and invest in social connection— from more personalized open plans where people see each other daily, to lounges, cafés, team rooms and casual meeting spaces. Stiffer, prescriptive office furniture is being replaced with more physically comfortable and residentially inspired furnishings that put people at ease. This can mean choosing a more relaxed, reclining, or rocking state of seating, to create gathering spaces where people can perch and lean in. These design inclusions help us reduce stress and separation so that we can listen and laugh together, show genuine interest in each other and respond sincerely; and suddenly, the work flows just as effectively as it does freely.
Consider, though, that emotions and feelings aren’t quite the same. Emotion is a biological response to stress and stimuli, both positive and negative. We’re all subject to fear, attraction, alertness, anger, the hunger-and shelterdriven states that try to ensure our survival. Feeling is the broader mix of our cognitive thoughts, memories and experiences on top of our core emotions: everything that makes each one of us see and record the world differently. It’s an act of interpretation, literally, to feel. So, emotional comfort is the inner barometer for how we feel — how open we are to relate, create and participate — from intuition and the heart as well as the head.
When we’re allowed to be true to ourselves, we can operate from the heart and react with greater resilience and understanding.
It’s no wonder that feelings, moods and temperaments are expressed in sensory, physical terms — light to dark, warm to cold, soft to hard, still to kinetic. They are that much a part of the body; and research confirms that how we feel powerfully affects and can even change our physical and mental condition.
Emotional comfort lives in the experiences where our instinctive needs are met. The ease in a room of our own, the solace of familiar companions, time spent in a favorite landscape, the unhurried pleasure of slowing down instead of always speeding up. In these moments we build a reservoir of comfort and positive association that we can tap later on, whenever the need arises.
The brain is a marvel at making connections between things. It finds, recognizes and creates patterns to make sense of the world around us. In this constant activity, the brain organizes all the stimuli we take in, from the sensory to the emotional, to the complex inputs from other people, places and events. How we interpret this incoming data into perception that we can use is where the mind takes over. Our thinking, memory, learning, association and decision-making make up what we call cognitive ability. We’re able to discard what’s not needed in the moment, and fill in the blanks, in order to focus on what matters.
Our cognitive comfort depends on this remarkable aptitude for thinking and reasoning that helps us function; but it also lets us create. This is the deep processing and producing that people are being asked to do today. We use our cognitive ability to relate each step to another on multiple pathways, leading to new insights and ideas, and ultimately, greater levels of mastery in the skills we need to craft better solutions. This ability to be attentive and fully grounded in the moment prepares us to synthesize ever more complex matters and make accurate decisions faster, from a state of composure. This is known as the flow state, the zone.
It’s so rewarding and comfortable to be in the flow state, where we experience dexterity and acute focus without feeling the effort. We’re able to tune out distraction but still pay attention. This is our intrinsic response in nature, alert to the waves on the beach, the sounds of the forest, the transit of the sun, while on a long walk; it’s the same pleasurable feeling to get lost in a book or piece of music, or to be in the deep dive of meaningful work — the sensation of being so absorbed in the moment that time drops away. And this is the desired state at work, where an individual or a group is required to remain focused and productive for extended periods of time. Cognitive comfort means we’re in this attuned mindset, highly stimulated and at ease at the same time. Alternately, when we’re feeling scattered, tired, or facing conditions that feel overwhelming, time slows down, focus wanes, and we experience discomfort.
We rely on our heads to get things done. When we’re in cognitive flow, our minds are highly stimulated and at ease at the same time.
Many people benefit from the aid of external stimuli to fuel personal flow and focus — drawing energy from a communal space; responding to vibrant and biophilic colors, textures, or music; doing better while multi-tasking. Others need the restorative solitude of a private surrounding, from an enclave to an enveloping chair, or to have gentle silence, to dip into introspection and productivity. Both approaches are valid, and great workspaces today can provide a variety of options along this spectrum to let people choose the settings that will help them do their best work.
Comfort provides key ingredients that work together to help us gain greater wellbeing.
Facing each other casually, two supportive lounge chairs foster social comfort as an inviting setting for conversation and shared experience. A well-placed screen allows for a natural mix of in-person and remote meetings. With proximity to the outdoors and the energy of passers-by, this preferential spot also cultivates the conditions for emotional and cognitive comfort — a sensory-rich place in which to spend time on focused work, or, simply to rejuvenate.
People intuitively seek settings that feel at ease. It’s possible to plan for all four dimensions of comfort working together to create greater wellbeing.
Physical comfort is tangible in the highbacked fit and responsive shape of the chairs, and in the convenience of an ottoman, a reading lamp and a useful side table. The organic pattern and earthy tones of a wool rug are inspired by naturally occurring afternoon shadows. Biophilia helps with a living wall to filter the air and provide both color and texture. Open access to a terrace lets in fresh air, environmental sounds and soft, warm, dappled light that will change in color and shadow throughout the day — elements of living pattern, along with the greenscape, that connect us to nature and the passage of time, even in an urban setting.
Comfort helps us relate — to our senses, to each other and our environment.
Join Coalesse in experiencing how the four dimensions of comfort lead us to the culture of wellbeing.
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