Environmental design: elevating experience and shifting behaviour

A start time that is optimal for everyone. A well-balanced and exciting agenda. How the space is arranged. An opportunity to move around and have time outdoors. Different room layouts for different discussions. Where people will eat. What choice of food they’ll have.

Everything listed above will affect the environment of an event and how someone experiences that event. Because the environment someone is in can change their behaviour significantly (by up to 80%), all these choices and decisions have an impact.

This is environmental design.

The nuance is that it often gets taken to mean ‘location’, whereas it actually considers every single detail, such as how a person is primed by the invite, the first thing they see as they arrive in the room, whether music is played during a break, and arranging to have lunch somewhere that’s a good walk away, rather than in the next room.

It’s widely acknowledged that shifting the environment automatically shifts the behaviour. Place a video camera on the same person, on the same day, in completely different settings – work, social, perhaps somewhere they don’t particularly want to be – and their behaviour will be different each time.

At Leading Edge Performance, we care about creating the optimal environment for all client interventions; elevating each experience through environmental design is one of our pillars that sets us apart. Whether a half-day coaching workshop or a week-long strategy planning event, we will carefully consider the environment so that it creates a positive shift in behaviour and encourage our clients to adopt this in every interaction they have with their teams.

Experiencing both sides

Recently, I’ve experienced environmental design done exceptionally well and done not so well. The difference was striking – and because my not-so-great experience was immediately followed by an incredible one, the contrast stuck with me.

I was away with a new client in an amazing LA location supporting a global board – senior leaders at the top of their game. They arrived into an environment that would be theirs for the best part of a week. The event co-ordinator and PAs had worked hard and matched the team’s norms, but it just wasn’t conducive to high performance.

A few things stick in my mind: the team rarely spend time together yet the downtime was filled with Zoom calls and emails; a well-meaning invitation to an evening social event wasn’t quite as inclusive of everyone as it could have been; and the end-of-night taxis hadn’t been arranged, meaning a late night for all before a heavy finance session early the next morning. This didn’t set anyone up for success.

I came away thinking it was OK and I knew we’d helped to move the team forward, but it was a tough week and because of how the week had been set up, I felt we were always on the back foot.

Almost straight after that LA event, I arrived in an elite sport training camp during the run-up to a game as part of the coaching staff. Everywhere I looked on arrival I could see athletes being individually checked in and weighed, asked about their sleep and physical/mental wellbeing, prompted to discuss their goals, and briefed on what to expect in the important days ahead.

A group of people had designed this critical preparation week, taking into account everything from when the athletes would need to feel relaxed and when they should feel competitive, to when they’d need time to consolidate thinking (and that this would need to take place somewhere different from where they’d be in a competitive mindset). Ensuring inclusivity was also driving all decisions, as was the importance of rest and recovery to peak performance.

The level to which this environment had been designed was incredible.

Both teams I was supporting are at the top of their game, but when you compare the two environments:

One team is, effectively, navigating a sub-optimal environment that’s not designed for success and is just based on lots of repeat behaviour. The team are tired, disjointed and unprepared for each session. They fuel on poor food and don’t move around enough to feel energised and healthy.

The other team is being guided through by an environmental design where every moment has been well thought through and is being executed with precision as well as adapted in flight. The team are primed for high performance and able to perform optimally.

Facilitating behavioural change

When the environment dictates someone’s behaviour more than anything else does, it needs to be focused on the desired outcomes. However big or small our support for clients, we ask questions and make decisions to design an environment that will help give them the outcome they want: a shift towards a new culture as part of a transformation programme; a high-performing and self-aware team; leadership skills development for a group of managers.

It’s important to us to be involved in planning the whole event so we can consider the overall flow and order of sessions to balance high levels of concentration, time for social interaction and some form of wellness activity – perhaps a walking meeting or yoga. Allocating different spaces for different types of conversation or activity also plays a part.

People are in our care during this time, so, if 10k steps a day is optimal for humans, we won’t create an agenda that means they’ll be hard-pressed to hit 1k. The restaurant we book in the evening might take in a walk – not only for a way to re-energise, but also because walking side by side, in step with someone, surrounded by interesting stimuli for conversation, is a positive way to shift behaviour.

For global meetings, our jetlag protocols encourage subtle changes to ensure rest, something that’s highly valued in sport. I see signs of the corporate world embracing this, moving away from the traditional-thinking ‘badge of honour’ of getting off a red-eye and heading straight into a meeting – but we have a way to go still.

Elevating the environment, every time

Supporting clients can also mean designing sessions within one of their larger development programmes or annual conferences. Here, we’ll make every effort to bring in environmental design. From the moment we’re involved, we’ll be asking whether a venue has already been booked and if there’s scope to guide them towards somewhere out of the traditional big cities and with good outdoor spaces, for example.

We’ll look to find something that will feel different for their teams, or a way to set up the room or open the session in a new way that helps them achieve what they need. This might mean grouping seats in threes to get different people talking or opening with an engaging set of questions around wellbeing and expectations.

If the thing that will move behaviour the most is the environment, it has to be the starting point. Every choice we make at planning stage is driven by environmental design. Some are big, some are small – they’re all important.

It’s motivating to introduce this approach to clients and be able to build on it with others. Elevating each experience through environmental design is how we can best support our clients, and it’s brilliant to see the resulting behaviour shifts and performance gains.



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Patrick Marr

Owner Director

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