In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan is joined by architect Leslie Saul to discuss redefining the workplace.

Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I’m Mari Ryan. I’m the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It is my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Leslie Saul.

 Leslie founded Leslie Saul & Associates over 25 years ago. With a background in architecture, interior design, and painting, Leslie brings an artistic and logical approach to problem solving. In over 30 years of professional practice, she has been responsible for designing more than eight million square feet of space. Her projects have won local, national, and international recognition and awards. Leslie is also an active and dedicated volunteer for community and industry organizations. Leslie, I’m so excited to have you here today for this conversation.

Leslie Saul: Thank you so much for having me, Mari.

Mari Ryan: Here we are in 2020, and boy, what a year it has been. This has been a landmark year in so many ways. Our lives have been disrupted by a pandemic, we are in the midst of dealing with working from home, children out of school, and are in the midst of a political election that is rocking our nation. This has impacted not only the way we work, but where we work. Today, we’ll explore the built work environment with Leslie from the architect’s viewpoint and talk about the transformation that workplaces are going through. Leslie, why don’t we start with this idea of how the world of work has been disrupted and requiring employers to send their employees home to work. Let’s talk about those pluses and minuses of working from home.

Leslie Saul: I did prepare some pluses and minuses because I think it’s interesting; for every con there is a pro. Not everyone has the same pros and cons, but some of the cons are we feel isolated from our coworkers in the world. One of the things our firm has done is to institute a daily check in call, which I think has made many people feel better, but the pro is we don’t have to deal with a soul-killing commute and we get more hours to work or more hours to do whatever we want to do.

Another cons is when we were in the office, we used to be able to just run into each other, or wave a hand and get a connection with someone. Now, collaboration is more difficult because it has to be planned. The technology is amazing, and that’s the pro, that we’ve learned how to work remotely pretty well. It’s kind of amazing. Even us, in our field where we want to look at samples together with clients, and I think people are starting to get more comfortable with a tiny meeting, but before, I would say, this month, people wanted to meet remotely even to review samples and [indecipherable – 03:21.3].

Anyway, I feel like we figured it out, and I think that’s a pro, but con, I have here “no regular supervision.” You don’t have someone in your office who has more experience, even if they are not your official supervisor, who can help you answer questions. The pro is that you can work when it is good for you. So, you might be doing your spreadsheets at midnight instead of 10:00 AM.

One of the big issues for me as a designer is that our home set ups are not as ergonomic as our office set ups were. Now, we’ve encouraged some of our clients who actually call us about it, if they are working 100% from home, bring your ergonomic chair home. We are also talking about acoustics. The space is not necessarily good at home. We may be cold or hot, whatever.

On the other hand, when we are at home, we don’t have to work in just one spot. We can pick up our laptop and our phone and we are mobile. We can sit on the back porch. One of our employees actually checked in on the daily call from her porch. Why not? We could hear chickens clucking in the background, by the way.

That brings up the distraction issue that I know a lot of people have talked about. One of the cons of working from home is there dishes in the sink, the floor in the kitchen could use a cleaning, the kids want help with homework, the mail just came – which I can see from this chair when he comes – that kind of distraction that you didn’t have when you were in the office. In the office you were in the office, home, now you are in this “both land.”

On the other hand, we have more time for healthy activities. Again, that is partly because of the commute time, but also we’re thinking about cooking from home because we’re not going out as much. We’re thinking about healthy eating, at least a lot of my friends are and we are sharing recipes of things that we probably would not have done before, things that are more complicated and take more time.

I think one of the unhealthy aspects of working from home is that people don’t know when to stop. We’ve heard about a lot of people who are just working, working, working, whereas at the office people start leaving at five or six o’clock. You go, oh, it’s the end of the day. I should go. We found that particularly a problem with people who are living alone. They just don’t have those other people saying, “c’mon …”

Mari Ryan: … time to eat, time to walk the dog, whatever.

Leslie Saul: The good news about working from home is that we are less exposed to the virus. The decision to send us home was a good idea. It is less healthy and I think the one con that nobody really thinks about, but my clients are starting to think about is security. I think people understand that we’re at home, and hopefully our wi-fi is secure, but some of us might be going on the back porch and we might be picking up somebody else’s wi-fi connection, and we might be exposing our data to others that we may not be able to. Even in our home office, we might not have a locked file cabinet, we might have dogs and cats who walk all over our papers. I think we at least need to think about security when we talk about working from home.

The positive is that the sun is shining outside and I can go and take a walk in the neighborhood whenever I want to and I don’t have to plan that either. So, I do see pros and cons and I see a future where we are going to have hybrid work. We’re going to have people working from home and we are going to have people working at the office. What I’ve been thinking about is how do we make the office a place that we want to be and a place that protects us?

Mari Ryan: That’s a great transition to my next question. I’m curious about when you are designing a workplace, how do you think about the wellbeing of the occupants, of the employees who are going to live in that space, that time? How do you think about that when you are designing a space?

Leslie Saul: I think it’s changed, especially in the last month. We’ve had our office corporate clients call us and say, okay, we’re going to close the lounge, we’re going to close the kitchens. We have these people sitting across from each other. I guess we can put glass up between people, but then we have the people who sit side to side. Do we need glass on the sides? Are we putting everyone in little glass boxes? I heard from a friend that she is in the middle of designing an entire office of little, itty bitty offices. So, 80 inch high offices for everyone. Everyone is going to have their own little pod.

 I remember offices with 80 inch high panels because I’ve lived long enough and there used to be at Digital Equipment Company, if anyone remembers DEC, they were out in Littleton or Maynard, and all the cubes were huge by the way — which were about 8 by 8, which no one would do anymore today – 80 inches tall and you literally felt like a mouse in a maze. You had signage, everything had a number, it was like going to MIT with the numbers and letters, buildings have numbers at MIT. I don’t think that’s really pleasant, and yes, they are saying they are making them all out of glass, but then I’m in a zillion fish bowls.

 So yes, that may stop the transmission of the virus, and maybe that is our priority number one, but I think that all of these efforts to make us safe from COVID are not making it more pleasant and make us feel better when we are at work. I’m not sure that people are going to feel that wearing masks is enough. I’m jumping ahead to one of my points that I wanted to make later, but it just popped into my head.

 We also have cleaning protocols that have been established where every night they are coming through and fog-bombing and the whole space, and what we have discovered is that there are some bad chemicals being used in these fogs, including pesticides and we just don’t even want to know about that. The more we learn about this virus, we’re thinking that the transmission by touch is lower than we first thought. We used to wipe all our groceries down. Do you wipe your groceries down anymore? No. At home, we put it away and whatever.

 I’m worried about in our effort to make everything super-safe, which I appreciate, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be safe, we are doing things that maybe are not good for our health, such as the way we are sanitizing, and totally not good for our wellbeing.

 Mari Ryan: How do you balance this need for safety, infrastructure, esthetics, creating connection … how do you balance all that when you’re designing these spaces?

 Leslie Saul: I think we as people need human connection. We need connection with nature, which includes plants and animals. We need to bring nature into our offices. We need to have views of nature. We went through a process with a software company, a healthcare software company out in the suburbs. They asked their employees who were a part of evaluating where should we go and they did not want to move from the suburbs because they loved how they looked out the window at trees. One of their goals for their space was to make a healthier space.

 What’s interesting about that space is not only did we introduce real plants with a low budget – we sacrificed some things to get that – but we also did make a little more separation. I call it the monks copying the Bible where it’s one big table and everyone is in open air. People had a sense of place, they had their own space, which I know is not trendy these days, people talk about unassigned work spaces. I think if we are trying to make people feel connected, they need to feel connected to people, they need to feel connected to the work itself to the team members that they work with, so we have to do the things that foster that connection with people and with the brand. If the brand is all about healthcare software, then doesn’t the space need to reflect not just their logo and colors, official branding, but who are they? What are they about? If they are about health and wellbeing then maybe we should make the interiors reflect that.

 Mari Ryan: You would certainly hope so because I think that’s not only going to communicate the brand, but it’s also going to give the employees more of a connection to that brand in the work that they are doing.

 Leslie Saul: Right. When you are connected you feel engaged and that whole Gallup poll about we’re not feeling engaged anymore. I think in some ways we are and I think they are doing a pretty good job at the brand level. You know, the Hancock sponsoring the marathon; you start to say, oh, I like working for the Hancock, they sponsor the marathon. These are things that people make that feel good about the brands. I think the brands are pretty good at that. I’m not sure they are good on a smaller level.

 I want to think about … rethink everything in the office. What’s a conference room? What is the point of it? A big table in the middle of a room with white boards around it. Why? Why are we thinking that way? Maybe it’s a group of people who work together in a big room with their desks around the perimeter and the whiteboards are in the middle where we can work across from each other and somehow see each other and write notes. I don’t know. I don’t know what will be the answer, but I want to think about it fresh and I think that could lead to better work spaces for everyone.

 Mari Ryan: Excellent. Let’s continue this thought process around connection. Connection is one of the core elements of our wellbeing model and a number of wellbeing models that exist in our universe. I’m curious as to how you design a workspace, especially given the constraints that we are now experiencing. How do you design a workspace for connection and collaboration so that people can come together in meaningful ways?

 Leslie Saul: I think that is really the crux of it. You’re separating people to save their lives, including home and work, with big, glass partitions and then we’re also saying, I want to feel connected and I need to feel connected. I have this crazy idea that I am going to share for the first time here, so you can tell me I’m insane.

 Mari Ryan: Bring it on.

 Leslie Saul: I’m thinking that the classic way we’ve been organizing office space for years – I’ve been doing this for 40 years – and the first thing you do is who works with whom, and then who does that group have to work with because we want people to feel there is some synergy between all these groups and among the team itself. I have a whole new idea, which is we’re in our little pods now, whether they are tall or just enough to cover our sneezes, and we are going to try to break big, open spaces into smaller spaces because I think that does help you make a connection.

 What if instead of sitting next to the person who is working with you on this big presentation for the investors, you are working remotely with that person? You are both in the office, but you are working remotely. Why? Because you’re sitting next to the person who shares your love of baking, or basketball, or beer. So, we sit people according to an affinity group rather than work groups. We’re in the office so we can have one of those crazy meeting rooms I described where we have to sit for three weeks because this investor thing is done and we’re going to be in that room, like a war room, to get it done and be creative, but also when you think about it, if I sat next to a person who cared about wellness, like you, and we talked about these issues that were important to us, it may not really be our work, but it’s important to us, we would feel this connection even across a glass screen.

 I think that what we’ve learned about remote working could be applied to the office to create this sense, especially in these big companies that I know you are working with. Self-made affinity groups. I’m not telling people that if you bake that that is the official affinity group. I just have this feeling that we need this extra level to overcome these barriers, literal barriers, that we are putting into our office to keep us safe. Idea of the day.

 Mari Ryan: I love the idea of the day, so that’s fabulous. I think we are going to see a lot of experimentation. I think a lot of employers are going to try different things, and they might see them simultaneously so they can have a series of experiments and then assess which ones work best and which ones meet the needs of their employees while keeping them healthy and keeping them productive.

 Leslie Saul: I’m hoping. I want to be there. I want to try things.

 Mari Ryan: I get it, I do too.

 Leslie Saul: It’s not going to work to just do it the way we’ve been doing it.

 Mari Ryan: I totally agree. Yes, I think that is part of the reason we’re going to be seeing so many changes and seeing a lot of experimentation.

 Leslie Saul: Good. So let’s do this again in a year and see what we’ve learned.

 Mari Ryan: See what we’ve seen, exactly. Leslie, if our audience wants to learn more about you and the work that you and your team are doing, where can they find you?

 Leslie Saul: I am Leslie Saul and my website is Lesliesaul.com. We have a small firm and you can learn and see our projects, and you can learn how we work as well. We’ve simplified architecture to three steps. I think people make it too complicated. Anyway, a little plug for us. Thank you so much. 

Mari Ryan: Thank you so much for being here today. As always, I love spending time with you.

 Leslie Saul: Thanks, Mari.

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