For many businesses, their office is just “there”, a functional place to put their computers, kit and people. But the links between physical environment and health and wellbeing mean it is imperative organisations re-evaluate the health and wellbeing effects (positive or negative) their office space may be having, argues Matt Webster.
Health and wellbeing these days isn’t confined to Instagram feeds and fitness blogs – there is also growing awareness of how much our workspace can affect the way we think, feel and behave – and how well we work.
The office environment is more than just a place where a business puts its desks, computers, chairs and staff; it’s a foundation on which a company can build its brand values and culture and support the physical and mental wellbeing of its teams. Thanks to an array of studies and surveys, we at British Land know that places and spaces have a massive impact on our state of mind, the way we interact with others and how productive we are.
About the author
Matt Webster is head of wellbeing and futureproofing at British Land
If you’re running a workspace, it must be designed to bring the best out of your team – to make employees feel fulfilled, valued and mentally stimulated, and to provide the right settings for different tasks. Happiness is a necessary precondition of productivity. So, how can you improve the working environment for your team and foster their wellbeing?
Creating a natural, healthy working environment
Many studies including Cox et al (2017); Africa et al (2014) and Grinde and Patil (2009) show that access to greenery and other natural elements boosts mental health and productivity. A study by Nieuwenhuis et al in 2014 showed that when plants were brought into a “lean” workplace, employee wellbeing increased up to 47% and productivity by 15%, as people who actively engage with their surroundings are better workers.
So, an obvious place to start in making a workplace more wellbeing-friendly is by an internal landscaping programme, for example adding plenty of plants and greenery, and caring for them.
Several leading companies are going one step further and investing in “biophilic design”, where the emphasis is ensuring how you design is connected with nature and which fulfils the instinctive affinity many people have with the natural world and other living systems. Whatever you do, abundant greenery is a must for employee wellbeing.
In our age of ever-more sedentary working, it is important to create workspaces that encourage people to move around. It’s becoming well-recognised that sitting for long periods has adverse effects on health – and there is so much more you can do to discourage it than simply introducing standing desks.
For example, at our HQ in London we’ve added an attractive, open staircase that easily links all floors and departments, along with centralising other workplace facilities to encourage movement. There is another dividend in designing space this way – our people are conversing, collaborating and interacting more!
There are lots of smaller changes that you can make too, for example adding photography and artwork along corridors or adjusting where you position printers, recycling facilities and refreshment areas. Sensors and smart technology also offer exciting opportunities to understand and improve how workspaces are used.
Cultivating creativity and ideas
A range of design characteristics are strongly correlated with improved creativity. Environmental psychologists suggest that the way an office looks, smells and feels correlates with our emotional engagement: an expansive, outward-looking space encourages similarly expansive thought processes. Something as simple as access to a window with views out or a different kind of breakout room, can inspire employees and put them in the right frame of mind.
Research from Wired has found that, while most of us spend most of our time in purposeful, effortful thought, 40% of our creative ideas manifest during breaks. Employees who have room to breathe, to quietly contemplate and to rest their brains also have room to develop their best, most profound ideas.
Areas for different working styles and social interactions matter too. As Holt-Lunstad, Smith and Bradley Layton showed in 2010, social relationships are one of the most powerful drivers of human health and wellbeing. Alongside quiet, individual areas, people need social areas, where they get to know each other and build trust, so that they can work effectively as teams, collaborating and innovating. What’s important in all this, is that people are offered a choice of work settings.
The bigger picture
The above are actions a business can take in its internal workspace to maximise employee happiness and productivity. But as the boundary blurs between work and leisure, companies need to think carefully about outside areas, too – where they’re located, what the surrounding public spaces are like and what the local environment offers their people.
Does it complement the things that your people like to do: proximity to gyms, art activities, outdoor facilities, bars, cafés and so on? Are there good local walkways, cycle routes and running tracks? Can people enjoy green spaces and social opportunities on the doorstep?
This kind of approach requires everyone to work together, HR teams, facilities management, property owners – but the potential benefits are huge. Businesses will be more productive and people will feel happier and healthier, simply by coming to work.
British Land’s commitment to wellbeing – a case study
At my company, we’ve experimented and tested wellbeing innovations in our own headquarters – so that we now have a deeper understanding of the impact design has on the workplace.
We started by carrying out a survey, before our office redesign. This really helped inform our architects and design priorities: we wanted an increased focus on lighting, available facilities, and air quality to make employees happier, healthier and more productive. We also wanted to ensure that our space was built according to the UK Green Building Council’s health and wellbeing principles. Concerned with the overall linkages between how our built environment is planned, designed and constructed, and people’s overall sense of wellbeing, the UKGBC principles emphasise the importance of infrastructure, access to green spaces and air quality to name but a few.
A follow-up survey found that these changes made a real difference: 88% of employees said the office supported their wellbeing, compared to just 56% before the redesign; 82% said it supported their physical wellbeing; 97% said they were proud to bring visitors to our headquarters; and most importantly, 99% said it was an enjoyable environment to work in.
Changing your office environment can help change your entire company – we’ve seen it happen. To ensure we don’t get complacent, we’re also testing the International WELL Building Institute’s new WELL certification.
This promotes innovation in the physical environment and facilitates employee health by incorporating standards around fresh air levels, natural light, active workstyles, food options, noise, temperatures and accessibility – amongst other things. British Land’s 100 Liverpool Street HQ is expected to be one of the first “core and shell” WELL-certified buildings in London.
Many businesses are so focused on commercial and operational priorities that office wellbeing takes a backseat.
But we need to see our workplaces as the pillars of employee happiness, and therefore of business success. If work is to blend more and more into the rest of your team’s lives, it’s important to do more than provide a functional space. Your team expects an environment built for human beings, and they deserve it too. Give it to them and your business will reap the rewards.
‘How Googlers Avoid Burnout (and Secretly Boost Creativity)’, Wired 2017, https://www.wired.com/story/googlers-avoid-burnout-secretly-boost-creativity/
UK Green Building Council: health and wellbeing https://www.ukgbc.org/health-and-wellbeing/
International WELL Building Institute https://www.wellcertified.com/
Holt-Lunstad, J, Smith, T B, Bradley Layton, J. Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review, PLOS Medicine, July 27, 2010, https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
Nieuwenhuis, M et al. The relative benefits of green versus lean office space: Three field experiments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20(3), 199-214.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xap0000024 , available online at http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2014-30837-001
Cox D T C et al. (2017). Doses of Neighborhood Nature: The Benefits for Mental Health of Living with Nature. BioScience, vol 67, issue 2, 1 February 2017, p147-155,https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biw173, available online at https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/67/2/147/2900179
Africa J at al. (2014). The Natural Environments Initiative: Illustrative Review and Workshop Statement. Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health
Grinde, B and Patil G G, Biophilia: Does Visual Contact with Nature Impact on Health and Well-Being? Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2009 Sep; 6(9): 2332–2343. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2760412/