The Secret Power of Physical Space to Influence Change
“Is your workplace supporting you on your journey, or fighting back against the changes you’re trying to make?”
Take a look at your desk and immediate workspace – what can you change to nudge you towards a better way of behaving? A post-it note? A picture? A lamp? If you don’t have an allocated desk, increasingly common in these days of hotdesking, what else could you pull out of your bag when you sit down, besides your laptop, to make it feel more like your space?
What is the Spaces Context?
The Spaces context, to which we usually pay very little attention, has a surprising amount of influence on our day-to-day behavior. The buildings that we live and work in exert influence on us from the moment we enter them, but we rarely notice the impact. When looking at renting or buying a house, room or office, we spend time assessing the space, absorbing and evaluating the reaction it generates for us and deciding whether it feels right. But once we move in, those feelings are put to the back of our minds and little effort is expended on evolving the space to optimize its influence upon us.
Putting Theory into Practice
I admire people like my partner, Hanlie, who have an insightful relationship with space. She spends significant time and energy creating spaces that connect with you – whether at home or work – and understands the value of this. As anyone that has visited Habits at Work’s Chicago ‘Habit Lab’ will attest, the working environment she has set up there – which is set up for behavior change workshops as well as day-to-day working – provides a cornucopia of experience. There are thinking spaces adorned with skulls and science; there are colorful, stimulating and inspiring spaces designed for creativity; meeting rooms with walls made of whiteboard material and a breakout area with a living wall.
Every room has self-standing lamps illuminating highlighted areas of the room. The walls are adorned with noticeable, useful signs which are designed to inspire and motivate. There was usually music playing somewhere.
As an occasional visitor to the Chicago space, I was struck viscerally every time that I walked into the office. Sure, it was an extreme example to demonstrate the art of the possible, but there was no denying that the space was ‘talking’ to me, and influencing my demeanor. I loved being in the Chicago office and always worked well there – there was a persistent feeling that the senses were being stimulated. I loved that every time I visited something would have changed and I would find new feelings bubbling up, creating a different stimulus and stirring up something within me.
The Stockholm Piano Stairs Experiment
One of my favorite illustrations of the power of the physical environment to influence behavior is the experiment on the Stockholm underground. In an attempt to get people to take the stairs rather than the escalator, the experimenters painted the steps like the keys of a piano and in some cases set them up to play notes according to which key you stood on. The effect was remarkable, as illustrated in the YouTube clip below and discussed in the corresponding research paper. The researchers observe that making the stairs attractive is associated with “opportunities for triggering intrinsic motivation, social engagement and how to keep people involved in the long-term”.
Learning About Spaces
There is a clear potential to use the physical environment to facilitate behavior change. So we’ve created an assessment and a course for those looking to work with space to create new, healthier behaviors. The learning takes place in a two-stage process:
- An initial assessment which allows you to evaluate the physical space that you’re working in (usually an office or factory, but the assessment can work for home workers too)
- An educational course on the theory of special influence containing eight distinct influence methods explained in detail, with practical exercises designed to prompt thought about how you can apply those theories in your workspace.
The course and assessment are designed for professionals and senior employees with the ability to shape working environments to more effectively land wellness and other change programs. At the end of the course, participants will have an understanding of what it takes to change the physical environment to help people adopt new healthier and high-performing habits. Of course, many of us are working from home right now and the assessment and training could trigger some fun and useful changes you might want to make to improve your habits. You can always go back to the assessment after introducing a new influence to determine what impact it has had.
The Influence Methods
If converting your stairs to a piano is too challenging, what other influence methods might you want to try?
- Nudge: The concept of a ‘nudge’ was captured by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their 2009 book of the same name. A nudge is any aspect of the choice architecture that predictably alters people’s behavior without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. Nudging works best in situations where you don’t consciously register the nudge. The piano stairs are more than nudging – they are too obvious for that – but some more subtle signage like cartoon footprints on the floor, or arrows pointing to the stairs would constitute nudging.
- Location, location, location: Many of the influences in the physical realm relate to proximity, visibility, convenience, and distance. Human beings are programmed to take shortcuts – heuristic thinking – to avoid the frontal cortex becoming overloaded with decision making. We are therefore much more likely to engage with items that are within immediate reach and highly visible to us for most of the day. If someone has placed a bowl of unhealthy treats on the table in the middle of your work area, you’re not going to the canteen to buy a banana or apple for your snack. Speaking of canteens, if the first food that you see when you walk into the restaurant area is fast food, what do you think you’re going to choose even if you had different plans when walking through the door?
- Telling stories and signs: There are places that we go to in all buildings where we pause…and stare out of the window, at our shoes, at the wallpaper…this a great place to fill with attractive, useful signs and stories. Humans have evolved listening to or reading stories; it’s how knowledge was spread before telecommunications. We engage deeply with characters in stories with whom we can empathize, whereas facts and instructions leave us cold and unstimulated. For knowledge to take hold in our memories, we need an emotional stimulus, a feeling that we can attach the fact – or story – to bring it to life. Filling your wait zones with stories of real people and colorful and inspiring visuals that support your current change journey can be a powerful and effective way to keep things on track. But don’t leave them there too long…
Change Craft’s resources
Change Craft formally launched our services “Lead the Change for Healthy Behaviors” with the National Wellness Institute this week, leading to a huge spike in activity in our training courses. At the same time, we launched our latest course and assessment promoting the use of physical space to create the right context of health behavior change.