Non-Profit Leadership: The Importance of Trauma-Informed Design in the Workplace

As a leader, have you ever considered how to create a positive physical environment for your mission? I remember when I entered my first day at Lakeside how discouraged I was at the physical environment. Like many non-profits the facilities lacked any sense of order. Our furniture for our school and reception areas was not professional. Many of our facilities needed renovating or repair and many things just didn’t work. I recognized that we had no tools, we had antiquated equipment and had no access to the supplies we desperately needed for education, counseling, maintenance and vehicles. This was the result of financial strain and deficits for years.

I knew that the physical environment we had was sending loud messages to both our staff and students. I visioned with our Board of Directors to work together to improve those facilities immediately. I remember my first facility design and renovation. I softened and professionalized the space we had for our students. I remember some of the staff who came to my office, questioning with some skepticism about what would happen if we made the changes I proposed. Yet when we made those transitions, our students responded by calming their responses and affect. Their behavior actually improved. That was the beginning of my journey of changes and renovations.

Since that time I have spent many sketching hours making spaces work for our needs. Often it was a lot of cramming a lot into smaller spaces to work for our needs. However, I always insisted on new furniture that was coordinated so there was some consistency.  Also, as we grew in our program numbers I was able to create more space and different space designs.   With each improvement I noticed a substantial level of enthusiasm, appreciation and pride in our appearance. We also noted that we were undoing some of the poor reputation of alternative education in how we appeared to our school district representatives, our parents and our students.

Now with the help of staff member, Angela Denny, who oversees our décor, furniture and facility appearance, we have designed trauma-informed environments for our students and staff. Our 27,000 square foot administrative facilities are designed especially for our work environment including intentional lighting, a journey-like hallway, high ceilings, gentle music, water fountain and gathering spaces with features that are focused at calming our staff and all those who enter. Our furniture is all consistent. The public appeal has been affirming and we are now having discussions about consulting other physical environments. I even have some individuals who come to our facilities just to experience the calming influence.

What I have learned over the years is how important it is for a leader to be very aware of the physical environment just as much as the emotional environment. Working in or visiting a facility that is designed for exactly what goes on in that facility provides congruency in its mission and programs.

Here at Lakeside, our programs are designed with brain regulation in mind. This process integrates trauma-informed care principles into design to create physical spaces which reduce stress and lift the spirit. They actively promote psychological, neurochemical, and physical safety, well-being and even healing. These processes include removing adverse stimuli and environmental stresses, they create dynamic multi-sensory environments, promote connection to the natural world, and reinforce personal identity and choice all while balancing program needs, safety and comfort. These considerations give a sense of professionalism, empowerment, worth, and dignity to the environment and therefore the staff.

Our students and staff recognize that our environment is so important to our program results. We saw quite a difference when we gave it proper attention. We have even added interventions within our classrooms that help students to take a break and regulate. It is all integrated into our classroom and facility design.

Non-profit leaders can have a significant impact to staff and clients by how we create our physical environments. More and more I am hearing about architects and interior designers who are specializing in trauma-informed environments which is extremely helpful to individuals who need a safe, calm, and trauma-informed environment as they get needed support and have new capacity to recover.

Our staff also need that sense of order, calm and renewal for their busy and hectic lives and especially in this often-chaotic world. Sometimes this aspect is not seen as important. Covid has changed many things including previous separation from each other and being back in the home to work. Especially now and since re-entry into the “new normal,” we need to be all the more vigilant to create an atmosphere of compassion, congruency and positivity in our workplace.

Gerry Vassar


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