A series of comic books.

The Fine Line Between Good vs. Bad Well-being at Work

Editor’s note: this piece was also posted to WIN: Women in Innovation as part of their WINsights Series. Special thanks to Kate Judson, Joëlla Bril, and Leah Delany.

For many of us, working from home during a pandemic has turned the whole notion of workplace well-being upside down. Some of us might be experiencing a pervasive “always-on” feeling, the dreaded monotony and ergonomic torment of our converted dining table/desk, or a sense of disconnectedness from colleagues. There are also some bright spots in the new ‘hybrid’ (remote and in-person) model of work: like squeezing in a virtual therapy session between meetings, catching an afternoon nap, or building unexpected relationships you would have never had access to in the “before times.” But overall, the pandemic has presented a huge physical health challenge to all of our systems, and an unprecedented threat to our mental health.

As designers and strategists immersed in the world of work and workplace — in which productivity and engagement is directly related to the mental health of employees and cultures — we got very worried. We see the recent patchwork of lived experience as a great prompt to reimagine what well-being truly looks like at work – in this WFH era and beyond. We partnered with Women in Innovation (WIN) to host a global virtual workshop on the future of workplace well-being and gather diverse perspectives on the issue, with the ultimate goal of answering the big question: “How might we radically reimagine workplace well-being for the WFH and hybrid era?”

We started by taking inspiration from Scott Barry Kaufman’s book Transcend, which recasts Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a sailboat. Rather than a stacked pyramid, Kaufman’s sailboat has two parts. The hull of the boat represents the things that fulfill our need for security and keep us afloat: self-esteem, connection, and safety. Meanwhile, the sail represents our needs for growth and progress: purpose, love, and exploration.

Using this framework, we chose four binary lenses to explore with WIN’s audience of talented and inspiring women: Stress/Rest, Danger/Safety, Linear/Contextual, and Loneliness/Togetherness.

After a brief introduction, our Gensler team lead the virtual workshop with breakout sessions, each with their own warm-up exercises to balance the body and mind. Then by imagining utopian and dystopian futures of these topic areas, we generated a range of bold new ideas and shared actionable concepts that could elevate our well-being at work in the near and longer-term. The results were inspiring, surprising, and at times had a unique twist. As a capture of the conversation we created the depictions below to envision what good and bad might look like.

Rest vs. Stress

Our first breakout group focused on the physical well-being dynamic between stress, energy depletion, and rest. Everyone sleeps – yet true rest seems very elusive for many. We frequently give up rest and stymie relaxation while seeking more output with caffeine, anxiety, distractions, and diffuse attention. It feels like taking time to rest is something at odds with productivity, but in actuality taking a lesson learned from the Nap Ministry, being well-rested would be the best support for energy, productivity, and happiness. Why do we think of these things as opposites, when they are not zero-sum?

So, why then is rest so radical?

In the dystopian post-pandemic scenario, we envisioned workplaces presenting minimal wellness activities and options that would only add to people’s daily workloads. In this scenario, employers would do the bare minimum to accommodate for individuals’ life circumstances and every “wellness” initiative would be obviously geared toward increasing productivity within the job itself and not about living a healthier more restful life. Ultimately in the far future, we envisioned technology as mediating everything – distancing people from being able to interpret and articulate their own body states and eroding personal autonomy to advocate for what they need.

For the opposite, utopian scenario, we envisioned a workplace where people are actually able to clear their plates when they feel the need for rest and recuperation. Where employers go above and beyond to provide not just for individual wellbeing, but for the wellbeing of their families and communities. Employers would encourage shared language around wellness and wellbeing, and technology would provide a helping hand from the background — advocating for people to take breaks and allowing leaders to see anonymized aggregate data about how energized or depleted their employees are. This could also enable leaders to reduce the work week or provide for collective days off as necessary.

Ultimately, our restfulness is a huge function of how we show up interpersonally and at work, yet many of us don’t currently have a nuanced understanding of what truly helps us feel rested — and many of us have stressful jobs with heavy workloads. How might we move people from feeling burnt out and not in control, to having energy and agency?

How might we reinstate the importance of rest and energy in our working lives?

A diagram of a house.

Safety vs. Danger

Our second binary focused on psychological well-being — exploring what it means to mentally feel safe in context of work. Safety is foundational for individual well-being and growth at work. Yet, we all experience situations when we don’t feel comfortable asking questions or providing candid feedback.

So, why then are the conditions for psychological safety not on the critical path?

Establishing psychological safety isn’t all that simple but organizations are increasingly acknowledging its importance and promoting the right conditions. One great example comes from Pixar, where co-founder Ed Catmull intentionally created a structure that forms a community of creators and promotes behaviors like honest feedback or sharing work-in-progress to build trust and learn from one another.

Looking ahead, we expect many organizations to work in a hybrid model post-pandemic. When we envisioned the possible ways this model could turn into a dystopia, we saw that many fear being measured by the number of hours spent at the laptop, rather than the quality or output of those hours. In this dystopic world, collaboration could feel forced and less creative as we don’t truly understand each other without organic conversations and body language.

Meanwhile, when we envision the utopian scenario, we begin to see the need to rethink how productivity is measured, to build in time for mental health breaks, and to reconnect with nature as we work from home more often. Technology is enabling us to connect in a deeper, human level and team therapists are helping our teams building rituals and talk about our emotions.

How might we foster honesty, curiosity, and openness in teams while working from home and moving towards a hybrid future?

Contextual vs. Linear Learning

Our third binary we focused on intellectual well-being and learning in order to explore what it means to rethink our teaching and training models under this new hybrid model of working. Many of us are tired of signing up for a seminar to learn discrete work skills and we no longer have the opportunity to learn by osmosis from sitting in a dynamic office five days a week. With the flexibility afforded us by remote work and virtual collaboration, we have the chance to learn in new, unexpected, and serendipitous ways — and to bring those learnings directly into our innovation work. The truth is, we have inherited behavior around schooling and learning that we now have the opportunity to challenge.

So, why then should learning still only happen at lunch?

Take this classic TED talk about how to tie your shoes — most of us had no idea we’ve been tying our shoes incorrectly. A simple challenge to something we “know” can open our eyes to what else we’ve been missing and how we can use this moment to grab knowledge in new ways. This dystopia is exacerbated by digital-only learning — a single modality that often lacks the deep human connection that many of us benefit from in a learning environment.

On the flip side, a future utopian scenario could look like learning when and how it suits us best as individuals. In this scenario, we could also take advantage of new access to people in our global communities with whom we might not have otherwise had the opportunity to connect with. A mix of technology, people, and sources of inspiration will feed multi-modal and contextual learning opportunities.

How might we take the best methods of remote and in-person learning and apply them to the next generation of professional development?


Togetherness vs. Loneliness

Our final topic dove into social well-being to explore the contrast between togetherness and loneliness. As we find ourselves spending hours on end video calling with colleagues, friends, and families — often zooming with folks we maybe haven’t seen or spoken to this much in years — you would think the pandemic creates the sensation of social togetherness.

So, why then do we feel so lonely when we’re supposedly so connected?

To solve this paradox, we sought the lessons learned from the savvy Lakshmi Rengarajan who pre-pandemic warned us of this social dynamic contradiction perfectly. She often talks about the difference between “meeting” and “connecting” by using the Dos and Don’ts she learned in the dating world and applying them the workplace. Forced social events often claim to bring people together but actually miss the point — which is to build deep and meaningful relationships. In the work from home era, this theory has been amplified as we try to replicate social events online and learn that many of them feel shallow mediated through a screen.

As we think ahead to a time when we can return to real-life, human-to-human interaction, many people worry they will have forgotten how to naturally engage with others. In a post-pandemic dystopia, this fear could manifest as anxiety about what to do if someone reaches out for a hug, a loss of confidence making presentations in-person without the webcam’s reflection, or even worry about what to wear on your lower half!

In an ideal or utopian scenario, the biggest opportunity for hybrid work experiences is to go beyond our typical means of leveraging technology to enhance our social dynamics. Imagine leveling the playing field so that more folks can engage at the table, ensuring their participation is holistic, and making the experience both inclusive and meaningful.

Ultimately, as social animals we yearn to be with others and will need to make sure the future scenarios in which that happens is good for our health. As innovators of these new forms of mixed human interactions we must ask:

How might we provide social nourishment in the new normal hybrid experience of work?

A cartoon of a person in a bathtub.

This themed approach to visualizing and discussing utopias and dystopias brought us face-to-face with the “fine line.” In every group, there were certain situations in which the difference between a dystopia and utopia could be subtle. Specifically, the presence of technology brought the utopias and dystopias closer together – technology can over-mediate, control, and take the place of human connection, or it can support and advocate. This fine line might be found in the design of the system or the frequency of the “nudges.”

As we move forward in building what we hope is a utopian future of well-being at work, it is important to understand that dystopia is never too far away, and what works in one situation might not work in another. The more nuanced viewpoints we develop on well-being at work, the more opportunities we have to present the best version while resisting the dystopian. We should seek to build dynamic and multi-modal well-being into our working worlds — in other words: this is a call for innovation of systems that support individuals, families, and their communities not just physically, but also mentally, intellectually, and socially.

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Zsuzsi Nagy
As an innovation strategist who joined Gensler through the Design Strategist Development program, Zsuzsi combines her background in industrial product design with a user-centered approach. She believes that understanding users' needs is a crucial starting point to creating meaningful experiences — whether through products, services, or environments. Zsuzsi is based in San Francisco. Contact her a .