Office design that boosts workplace wellbeing

Wellbeing in the workplace is rocketing up the agenda for a host of reasons. White collar work is increasingly about ideas and collaboration rather than repetitive clerical tasks, so staff needs are changing. And for companies engaged in the war for talent, wellbeing can be a differentiator. These issues coupled with the costs of recruitment and falling production levels are having an impact on office design, layout and ergonomics.

Many of the changes are backed up or informed by recent academic research into wellbeing in the workplace and take into account the new WELL Building Standard, a system for measuring, certifying and monitoring the performance of building features that impact health and wellbeing. The upshot is a slew of new ways of working that are designed with the employee front of mind.

For office designers and employers, productivity levels are a particularly hot topic as UK productivity remains stubbornly poor. In response experts say we need to think of people not as units of production, but in terms of the whole person.

Office wellbeing

In wellbeing terms, as long as staff have a decent office chair and a sit-stand desk, there’s less risk of physical injury. Instead, mental health issues such as depression and stress are major concerns. According to a report from the Health and Safety Executive, stress accounted for 45 per cent of all working days lost in the UK during 2015-16 due to ill health. So getting the workplace right is important to public health officials as well as employers and, of course, their employees.

There’s been a recent rash of studies saying sitting still is the new smoking because our bodies were designed to move

Likewise, paying attention to wellbeing can bring down recruitment costs as staff are less likely to leave. The cost of recruiting a skilled person is estimated at £100,000, says Dr Kerstin Sailer, reader in social and spatial networks at the Bartlett School of Architecture.

“If you reduce your staff turnover by a small percentage, you can save a lot of money and the design of the workplace is something people [potential new recruits] are increasingly wanting to see,” he says. Couple this with stiff competition among employers for knowledge workers, then wellbeing in the workplace comes into its own.

Offices designed with these issues in mind can make people feel better emotionally and physically, and can help them with concentrating and collaborating. The physical wellbeing of sedentary office workers is high profile because of all the data collected, explains Bob King, chief executive of ergonomic office furniture company Humanscale. “There’s been a recent rash of studies saying sitting still is the new smoking because our bodies were designed to move,” he says.

At the same time, open-plan environments are getting a bad press, with suggestions that they favour extravert personalities over introverts. Open plan has also become associated with stress and anxiety because of the propensity for disturbance and distraction.

“Everyone’s got headphones on, which is a cry for privacy,” says David Watts, managing director of human behaviour and design firm CCD. “If open plan was meant to encourage interaction, it’s failing.”

Wellbeing building standardsPutting this knowledge into practice

As wholly open-plan environments fall out of favour, offices are being redesigned to accommodate more varied work settings, known as activity-based working (ABW), and more opportunities for movement.

Staff at Australian health insurer Medibank have more than 26 different work settings to choose from at its Melbourne headquarters. These include indoor quiet spaces, collaborative hubs, wi-fi-enabled balconies and places to work standing up. This ABW approach not only encourages people to move around, it can be good for the social and collaborative aspects of work.

Matt Blain, a principal at Hassell, which designed the office, points to the bold staircase which winds up the atrium. “The stairs were about movement throughout the workplace and getting people to travel between floors, so it broke down the silos and encouraged physical movement,” he says.

A similar approach was taken on London’s Southbank at Sea Containers House, the new 226,000sqft home of WPP businesses. “If you provide an environment with choice and diversity, then you have to facilitate ease of movement from one setting to the other,” says Colin Macgadie, creative director BDG, which designed the interiors.

BDG installed 12 new sets of stairs between floors, meaning some floors have three staircases. “That gives people greater interconnectivity between floors, without having to swipe a security card, and encourages them to be active,” he says. But it goes further than that. The steps in Sea Containers House are wider and shallower than normal; shallower to encourage people to move more slowly, and wider so they can stop and chat.

The downsides

While more and more workplaces are getting on the ABW bandwagon, Dr Sailer cautions: “People are not as flexible as everyone likes to think. I think people are creatures of habit. A lot of people just can’t be bothered to switch work settings.” And if they hot-desk, her research shows they are likely to return to the same spot each day to sit with their friends.

The irony is that some of these new settings may not be that good for us. Being slumped in a squishy sofa and working from a handheld device is not a healthy set-up for long periods. “We need to start thinking about making these informal, collaborative spaces healthy, productive environments to work in,” says Mr King. Humanscale’s Diffrient Lounge Chair hopes to do that. It reclines so you can put your feet up and work almost horizontally. And it has a tray for a laptop, plus the option of a 27-inch touchscreen, where you can dock your phone or iPad.

Many workplace designers believe that we are only on the cusp of this new work environment. “The big organisations are adopting these principles and smaller ones will follow,” says Mr Blain at Hassell. Next, it will be landlords and real estate developers hoping to attract multiple tenants.

BDG’s Mr Macgadie adds that the workplace will borrow increasingly from the hospitality and leisure industries. This could be a yoga room for some stretching, a juice bar for a healthy smoothie or relaxing on terrace. “In the future, alternative settings will shift to be less about work and more about wellbeing,” he predicts.