Stress, Performance and Workplace Design
Editorial Team in Financial Services Firms, Workplace Design, Workplace Research

Are trading floors stressing out financial service professionals? Image © Gensler

Gensler’s Financial Services Firms practice area is investigating the connection between stress, performance, and workplace design—and they’ve focused on a notorious hotbed of stress: the trading floor. The team recently published the first stage of their research, Trading Stress for Wellness. We spoke with research team members Rocco Giannetti, Kimberly Kelly, and Braxton Satterfield to learn more about the project.

Interviewer: Your research notes that while workplace design as a whole has undergone significant change in recent years, the trading floor has remained largely the same – why do you think that is?

Kimberly Kelly: I think one likely reason for lack of change on trading floors is the resistance to trying something new. Traders continually deal with the volatility of the market; consistency in their environment may act as a counterbalance. That doesn’t mean they think the trading floor in its current state is great, but it’s familiar. They may also be worried change won’t be an improvement.

Rocco Giannetti: That fear isn’t necessarily unfounded. While the layout of trading floors themselves hasn’t really changed—long rows of trading desks—support spaces have changed, and not necessarily for the better. For example there are fewer places for traders to step away from their desks, and just fewer amenities overall.

Braxton Satterfield: A lot of that stems from high-density requirements. Excessive headcounts are taking priority over lounges and collaborative areas, which limit opportunities for stress release.

Interviewer: Your research is focused specifically on stress in trading environments—why stress in particular?

RG: There’s been so much focus lately on stress in the workplace in general, especially in open plan environments. By definition a trading floor is an open plan environment to the extreme—completely open and very dense. And traders are largely tethered to their desks, which makes the situation even more challenging.

KK: One of the aha moments in our exploratory research was an insight from Dr. John Coates, that “stress changes our every thought.” He explains that our physiology responds to stress, including hormone levels.

BS: Low levels of stress can actually be productive when sustained for short periods of time. But elevated levels of stress for extended periods of time has been proven to contribute to reckless decision-making. Understanding the relationship of the environment to stress is a step toward designing spaces that can mediate negative outcomes.

Interviewer: You note that stress isn’t just a wellbeing issue for traders, it’s an issue for their performance with potential impacts on the market as a whole—can you elaborate?

RG: Following the financial crisis of 2008-2009, there were a lot of theories around risk taking and rewards in financial markets. Stress and risk taking are directly correlated, and connecting trader stress, environmental factors and market performance seemed like an obvious and very timely research study.

BS: By better understanding the role of stress on the trading floor, we can potentially provide design solutions that improve wellbeing for traders. Less stress should improve trader performance and, in turn, market performance.

KK: Market performance is a key element of this research study. Unlike other occupations, trading can use the market as a measurable stress variable. This allows us to compare what’s happening in the environment with what’s happening in the market.

Interviewer: You’ve already begun discussing this issue with clients—what has been their reaction? Is stress on their minds as well?

RG: Client response has ranged from intrigue to alleluia. One client in particular has embraced both the research and the opportunity for it to inform the design of their trading floors right now. The findings are really resonating with them.

BS: Yes, clients seem anxious to get their hands on the results. The most exciting moments for me have been seeing their reaction to the negative effects caused by high stress levels sustained over time. Stress was already on their minds, but now even more so.

KK: How easily we’ve found clients willing to participate in the next phase of the study is a good indicator of the value and excitement they have for what we’re trying to achieve. They recognize that stress is a big problem in the industry. It needs to be solved, and design can be part of the solution.

Interviewer: Based on your research, what’s the one design intervention each of you think has the greatest potential to reduce stress and improve performance on trading floors?

KK: Shaping posture is a huge opportunity to impact stress through design. Our secondary research suggests that posture is not only a reflection of stress level, but can also impact stress level, which in turn impacts the way we think and evaluate risk. For me, this is a new way of looking at ergonomics.

RG: I would challenge the whole notion of proximity and visual communication. Traders have traditionally been seated closely together to enable cross-communication and leadership oversight. By leveraging technology, we can likely facilitate the same level of cross-communication and oversight while giving traders more room to breathe.

BS: One of the greatest opportunities is rethinking the design and layout of the trading desk itself, and prioritizing elements like privacy and natural views over high density, basically a flip of the current approach which puts head count first. Our focus is on the trading industry, but the research findings could have implications for better workplace design across all industries.

Rocco Giannetti is a Principal in Gensler’s New York office and a Fimwide Leader of Gensler’s Work Sector practice areas. In addition to the clients mentioned, Rocco’s projects have included workplace interiors for The New York Times and the Bank of America Tower as well as Condé Nast’s relocation to 1 World Trade Center. Contact him at
Kimberly Kelly is an interior designer in Gensler’s New York office where she concentrates on helping financial services firms solve their most pressing workplace issues. Contact her at
Braxton Satterfield is a job captain in Gensler’s New York office where he focuses on creating high performing workplaces for financial services firms and technology clients. Contact him at
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