The World Health Organisation predicted that by 2020, primary workplace illnesses would be cardiovascular disease and mental health. To many of us, this doesn’t come as a surprise. For years, research has pointed to the health-risks associated with sitting all day. We also know that stress is a significant factor in cardiovascular health. So, what do we do with this information? Is it the work itself or something else?
It pays to begin with the way we look at buildings, and we can catagorise them into two types: healthy and unhealthy. It’s important to note the difference since we spend 54% of our waking hours at work.
A team of experts led by Dr. Joseph Allen, the Director of the Healthy Buildings Progamme at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Health, defines a ‘healthy’ building within nine components. Many of the components seem obvious, like ventilation, air quality, water quality, and moisture. When occupants of a building begin getting sick with non-specific symptoms, such a dry cough, headaches, and irritated ears, eyes, and throats, it often points to Sick Building Syndrome. It’s one of the many reasons to keep tabs on these factors.
But other components, such as noise, lighting, and views, seek to support something less obvious: wellbeing. Wellbeing encompasses the entirety of an individual, and, unlike happiness, it’s constant. It affects how we operate in the world. Like physical health, wellbeing leads to more productive and engaged employees. Haworth’s article A Workplace Designed for Wellbeing points to a large body of research that connects health and wellbeing to the physical environment. Although we don’t always think of lighting, views, and noise levels as contributors to health, they play a fundamental role in our general wellbeing, and our wellbeing affects how we work.
In many ways, it’s not enough to make sure that buildings are well-ventilated and warm. These are crucial, but they are only basic starting points. Workplaces are different from how they were decades ago when employees separated their ‘work-self’ from their ‘real-self.’ The ‘work-selves’ of the past adapted to the work at the time, which often prioritised productivity and efficiency. Because of this, workplaces reflected this. Workplaces housed people and the technology they needed so that they could complete tasks.
But today, things are different. As more work is automated, the workplace becomes home to knowledge work, and with knowledge work comes a different set of requirements. It is more important to workers today that workplaces support needs for collaboration and connection. Today, work is more autonomous, where performance is measured instead of attendance. Today, we don’t even have to go into work to work.
A global JLL study showed that 54% of people work from home once a month, and 34% work from third places. The popularity of a third-place is led by Millennials, who now make up 50% of the workforce. By 2025, Millennials will make up the majority. As the environment evolves to enable us to work anywhere, how can we make being at work beneficial for our workers?
The ROI for Employee Wellbeing
Gensler’s 2016 Workplace Study showed that the most innovative companies had better-designed workplaces. Their workplaces had a mix of diverse spaces to work, a change to the factory-like settings of the past. It’s a layout more suited to the autonomous knowledge worker, one who requires collaboration to innovate, connection to feel satisfied, and the freedom to choose the way they work.
There is much to be said for wellbeing programmes and initiatives in the workplace. Their increasing popularity over the years is not without merit. It can produce a strong return on investment. Greater wellbeing can decrease absenteeism, attract and retain talent, reduce health costs, and decrease the effects of stress. Plus, sick days and healthcare are costs to the business, so when employees are happy, healthy, and engaged, the benefits flow on to the company.
If health and wellbeing are prioritized, businesses perform better, employees are more likely to be creative and innovative, and the organisation is 4x less likely to lose talent in the next year. Employees are also 8x more likely to be engaged.
Engagement is important because, without it, businesses are at risk for ‘presenteeism,’ which means, although workers are physically healthy, they are not engaged with their work and, therefore, not productive. A Gallup poll in 2014 showed that less than a third of employees are engaged at work. In China and Hong Kong, that number was significantly less at 4%.
If it’s not enough for businesses to create wellbeing solutions for the workplace for health reasons, it may be enough for productivity reasons. A Gallup poll in 2016 found that companies with higher engagement were more productive and saw 21% higher profitability.
With low engagement rates, it’s unsurprising that there are low participation rates in wellbeing programmes, which often require them to opt-in. But what if wellbeing could be supported by design? What if the way a workplace was designed actually made employees feel better?
Biophilia: Design with our Psychology in Mind
Biophilia is a fairly new concept, but it’s increasingly important to understand as we seek to thrive in the ‘built environment.’ Biophilia is a type of design intended to reconnect us with nature, and there are decades of research to support it. It suggests that humans have a biological need to reconnect with nature. Edward Wilson, an American biologist and one of the first to write about biophilia, said that humans have a “tendency to focus on life and life-like processes.”
In his book, Wilson explains that biophilia results in an emotional response, which can be an end to itself (such as wellbeing) or stimulate behaviours (like motivation). If the workplaces of the past simply housed employees, then the open-planned offices of today sought to motivate them to innovate. The problem was that research did not back up open-plan design. However, research supports the benefits of biophilic design.
The benefits of biophilic design are similar to the effect of taking a walk outside when stressed. It’s the reason why people head for the mountains to write a book. Biophilic design can reduce stress, improve cognitive function and creativity, improve our wellbeing, and even expedite healing.
At the core of biophilia is an understanding of what attracts and repels us. This understanding is beneficial for employers to note now that the role of the workplace is changing. Workplaces provide an experience, one that assists in knowledge work.
According to the Savannah Hypothesis, there are certain features that humans have psychologically adapted to overtime. Many of these intuitively make sense, and research on our preferences for wide and bright views, scattered bodies of water, diverse plant life, and different décor, light, smells, and visuals in retail settings support this.
Studies in workplaces, hospitals, and other urban environments point towards our affinity for particular features such as trees, flowers, and water and the value they bring to such environments. A study of over 1,600 mostly desk-bound university staff found that those who had more contact with nature reported significantly lower perceived stress and stress-related health complaints.
Consistent findings in the research point to something that many of us already intuitively know; that something about nature puts us at ease. It resets us. So, how can we incorporate this into design?
Biophilic design is more than a plant in the office, but it is not difficult to implement. It’s design with our psychology and the natural world in mind. It allows us to interact with nature within the built environment. In this way, biophilic design respects our mind-body systems so that being inside doesn’t feel so draining.
Biophilic design and wellbeing go hand-in-hand, and many of the nine components to healthy buildings point to this natural inclination. For instance, a healthy building minimizes noise distractions. Allen and his team recommend retreat areas and informal meeting areas to do this. Interestingly, it is in line with Jay Appleton’s prospect-refuge theory, which stems from our affinity for vertical and horizontal expansiveness with smaller zones divided within it. As early humans, it felt safe this way. We could survey our environment for dangers while remaining partially concealed.
Optimising our Workspaces
These days, we can design our buildings to be health-promoting. We know how beneficial wellbeing is for employees. We also know it directly affects the business. Today, we have data at our fingertips to an extent we’ve never had before, enabling us to create solutions that directly impact our employees. We can use real-time data to design workplaces tailored to our needs.
Collecting data to make better design decisions can change the way we occupy buildings. Access to data enables us to create better environments. We can monitor air quality and optimize our spaces. We can compare productivity in different areas and determine how dense a work area can be before productivity falls. Smart systems give us control over our environment, leading to happier autonomous and collaborative employees. With data, the workspace can support various activities and could potentially serve innovation more because workers are free to use them as needed. Incorporating digital processes could make the experience seamless.
Although technology enables us to work anywhere, there are still reasons for employers to ensure that the work environment is right for productivity, collaboration, and cohesion. Even with a changing landscape for work, there are still reasons to come together. If workplaces supported health and wellbeing, the workplace experience would be beneficial to employees, and businesses would do better.
Flexibility in work and ‘healthy’ workplaces are possible and now easily implemented. Employees appreciate it, too. Although omnichannel communication is possible from anywhere, technology doesn’t fully replace the benefits of face-to-face interactions. Sometimes, people need a place to go, a place to come together, and a place to focus.
Knowing all of this, we can come up with new solutions. By understanding our psychology, we can leverage design even further. Instead of being led by assumptions, businesses can utilise data and research to create better spaces.
We have only begun to explore how technology and biophilic design can work together to create work environments that genuinely serve the people, but we can start. We can start by looking at the workplace differently. A workplace that leads with wellbeing by leveraging technology and design to create innovative work solutions.