How does intentional design contribute to wellness-minded workplace and the WELL Building Standard’s concepts of building performance?
In the last several decades, the workplace has evolved – from the downfall of cubicle farms to the rise of work choice. Through the constant change, one thing remains the same: workplace design has a major impact on employee health and wellbeing. In other words, our cognizance, whether it is reflective, creative, emotional, rational or intuitive in nature, is deeply influenced by our spatial environment. Space, it turns out, has the ability to increase cognitive functions in unparalleled ways.
Because of the way our brains are wired, our spatial surroundings greatly impact our sense of self and how we connect with others. For example, whether in a tranquil and relaxed or energetic and collaborative environment, we absorb the qualities of our surroundings and extend them into our own experience.
With approximately one-third of our lives spent at work, the built environments that we interact with have a profound impact on our health, happiness and productivity. Because of this, the WELL Building Standard (WELL) was developed to put focus on human-centered design and construction that positively impact health and wellbeing. Based on medical research, this holistic approach addresses seven concepts relevant to occupant health in built spaces – air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind – and how such environments affect physical and mental health.
Knowing this, how does intentional design contribute to WELL Building Standard’s concepts of building performance?
Mind and Comfort Accomplished Through Free Address
Through the evolution of office environments, stationary cubicles were phased out as the norm, allowing for the introduction of a new design approach: the open office. This open concept paved the path for new ways of thinking about how employees communicate, connect and generally support the business. Despite good intentions, distractions ruled through lack of privacy and poor acoustics, leaving employees with increased stress and difficulty staying focused. As offices began to adapt to this workplace design trend, the realization occurred that one-size-fits-all interiors at either end of the spectrum may fit no one in particular. Because both of these design approaches failed to meet the needs of the individual, work choice emerged, allowing employees to balance how and where they work with their tasks for the day and even their mood and energy level. This fresh way of thinking and working calls for spaces that fit the various iterations of work an employee needs and prefers, from focused alone time to open collaboration to time to sit in the sun and recharge, all in the same day.
By integrating work choice into design, organizations can support day-to-day processes and foster individual wellbeing while encouraging social connections through design, which is something we as humans crave.
Flexibility is another key element of work choice design and naturally supports the users. Spaces with an inherent ability to shift from one function to another afford more opportunities within the same footprint, while enabling people to grow and create their own meeting places, rhythms and traditions. It’s vital that the workforce be able to work in a way that best suits their current needs. This might mean that employees don’t have an ‘assigned’ desk but rather choose a workspace that suits their mood and the items on their to-do list each day. If the space offers a choice between sun and shade, stimulation and reflection, connectivity and privacy, employees have a sense of comfort in knowing they can choose their environment, resulting in improved wellbeing and productivity.
Material choice for flexible spaces is an important consideration as noise can quickly become a disruptive force in regards to an employee’s ability to focus. All too often, workspaces opt for hard surface materials because they look clean and stylish and are durable and easy to clean. However, it’s essential to consider acoustical comfort and balance solutions through major components like ceilings, walls and floors.
Sound absorbent flooring is one of the most effective methods to improve workplace acoustics. Textural materials inherently boast these benefits, such as carpet with its fabric-like qualities that absorb up to 30 percent of airborne noise. And for high-traffic areas, luxury vinyl tile (LVT) with Quiet Mark™ certification is an ideal option because of its sound reduction capabilities, slip resistance and durability.
In most cases, current workplace designs require holistic sound management solutions. Every office has its own unique qualities and challenges, and what works in one corner may not work well in another. It’s important to include a variety of techniques where appropriate to help create an appealing, functional and focused work environment.
The Elements – Light, Air and Water
Light is essential to wellbeing in all aspects of life. In fact, light is known to positively impact mentality and productivity. According to WELL Standards, light promotes alertness, enhances experience and supports sleep for employees.
Ironically, lighting can become problematic if the wrong source is used, namely artificial lighting that does not replicate the broad-spectrum light from the sun and results in harsh conditions. It’s important that office lighting design include a range of different light sources and considerations from accessing natural light to selecting appropriate artificial lighting that suits the work at hand to considering the color and value of the walls and floors and how light reflectance plays across these surfaces.
While ill-suited lighting selections are a well-known pain point in office design, the impact of air quality on employee wellbeing is equally as important. Many employees are sadly accustomed to the deep, white-noised hum of a central air system as well as a lack of climate control with office temperatures being too cool or too hot much of the time. However, WELL encourages designs that positively impact the workforce’s environment through reducing or minimizing sources of poor quality and regulating temperatures in the workplace.
Energy-saving HVAC chilled-beam systems, while not yet widely adopted in the United States, provide a multitude of benefits, including better tenant comfort at a higher temperature through humidity control. They require less installation space, allowing for higher ceilings and more storage space on each floor.
In addition to tackling air quality, it is important to consider ongoing water usage in the workplace. In some cases, an underground cistern can offset thousands of gallons of water annually. Rainwater can be harvested through slated roofing and treated to be used for an array of applications, including flush fixtures and irrigation.
Fitness and Nutrition Promote Productivity
Over the course of the last decade, we’ve seen a new focus on health and fitness with activity trackers like Fitbits and Apple Watches on almost everyone’s wrist. While an active lifestyle may be an individual decision, we’re seeing businesses and the workforce connect to this movement. Organizations like WELL encourage the integration of both fitness and an improved food culture as key components of workplace design and culture.
When design works in tandem with company culture to foster a healthy atmosphere, employees are given a multitude of possibilities to enhance their wellbeing. While in-office fitness centers and taking a lunch break might be the first tactics that come to mind, new ways to access good nutrition and fitness opportunities are ever increasing. Even simple adjustments like methodologies that encourage employees to make better snack choices to designs that promote physical movement like standing desks or offset stairs can make leaps toward boosting health and morale in the workplace.
In fact, investing in employee health and fitness can lead to unity across the workforce, emotional wellness, a sense of responsibility, increased productivity and increased employee loyalty.
The World Health Organization describes wellness as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Does mainstream workplace design foster these aspects of overall wellbeing? The office environment must be designed with increased workforce happiness as the core driving force, providing a space that advances workplace goals while enhancing employees’ overall wellness. Simply said, good design is good for business.