A Global Trend
By Rob Atkinson, IA, Senior Project Manager
& Praneeta Moorthy, Space Matrix , Manager-Client Solutions | Sustainable Solutions
Global trends are traced to many factors: demographics, culture, the environment, economics, technology, etc. They emerge when populations in distant locations at roughly the same time seem to veer in the same direction on an equivalent issue or aspect of their experience, often signaling a change. Why this happens depends on a confluence of local and global influences.
That said, the notion of creating wellbeing and wellness at work facilitated by workplace design—now a primary goal of most corporate interior design engagements in the US and Europe—is gaining almost comparable traction in APAC, according to Space Matrix, IA’s global partner in Singapore. As we work together on joint projects, as well as projects specific to each firm’s practice and locus of action, we see a similar though often locally flavored intent, necessity, and demand for work environments that emphasize health and wellbeing.
Of the multiple threads contributing to this trend, four are particularly impactful for workplace design. Together, these factors and the awareness they have spawned are key contributors to the growing demand for people-centric workplaces focused on employee health, happiness, and wellbeing.
The relaxed rhythm of working from home driven by the hybrid-work model, along with a drop in the daily commute, has marked a sharp contrast to the traditional routine around work—the rush to the office, assigned seating, and mandated arrival/departure times, with little attention given to employee health or work-life integration.
The absence of a full-time on-site workforce has underlined what we’ve known all along: no matter where they work, employees are an organization’s most valued and costly asset.
That employees need more from the workplace, which requires a rethinking of the work environment to support wellbeing and quality of life—a fact understood prior to 2019 but accelerated by the pressures of the pandemic—has intensified the challenge of attracting and retaining that valuable asset.
The magnetic power of metropolitan centers continues to attract talent from distant locations, which affects social patterns. Having moved to the city from far-off places, many employees, disconnected from their roots and family yet social by nature, form networks of new friends and colleagues to connect with and fill the gap. From this perspective, the workplace community takes on new meaning and importance.
Leadership is Key
IA and Space Matrix agree that the creation of a healthy workspace and culture starts at the top with its leadership. It is empathetic decision-makers and managers with listening skills attuned to workers’ needs that must spearhead a cultural shift. A transformation in vision and action is required for a more meaningful and inclusive work environment that will retain existing talent and attract new generations of professionals. The challenge rests with leadership to inspire and effect significant change not only in the physicality of the workspace but in permitting and encouraging employees to embrace new amenities, opportunities, and benefits for health and wellbeing in an environment emphasizing connection and inclusivity.
A Menu of Amenities
An array of options tailored to workplace culture, physical space, and budget make it possible for any workplace to move towards wellbeing. Of course, a refreshed design with meaningful architectural features, for example, social hubs and meditation/prayer rooms, are highly impactful. But other gestures that require little or no change in the physical environment—creating opportunities for employees to take the stairs or other options for regular physical activity (perhaps offering gym memberships); providing nourishing snacks; introducing flexible scheduling for better work-life balance; or initiating activities that strengthen communal bonds, support inclusivity, and nurture a sense of belonging—are effective measures.
Still, the opportunities presented by a thoughtful workplace design can be fundamental to realizing a wellness-focused, inclusive work environment. Creating a human-centric workplace for a family of co-workers in a setting that realizes some of the most desirable attributes of an ideal home—convenience, warmth, inclusion, safety, sharing, and celebration—is becoming essential. Forward-looking design scenarios that celebrate employees, offer comfort, and nurture a sense of belonging and connection as well as sensitivity to neurological differences are powerful. They benefit morale and productivity and as a plus promote learning and knowledge sharing.
Tailored by Design for Health and Wellbeing
Wellness agendas are customized for each client, but what are a few of the most common and forward-looking features of workplace design for health and wellbeing that IA and Space Matrix are implementing today?
Certainly, multiple alternative work areas that complement different work styles and preferences throughout the workplace are at the top of the list (and have been for a while). From workstations with the requisite height-adjustable desks and ergonomic chairs arranged in non-regimental clusters to lounge seating, work cafés, booths, niches, huddle rooms, and outdoor spaces, a variety of settings stimulating in look and feel will encourage movement, offer variety, and keep the workday fresh.
New amenities—mother’s rooms, wellness rooms, and meditation and prayer rooms—unheard of at the workplace just a few years ago are now standard. For one client with a significant number of indigenous employees, IA recently designed a smudging room with enhanced ventilation, and both IA and Space Matrix have included foot-washing stations in workplace designs. Gyms, as well as yoga and game rooms replete with changing/locker rooms are common as is access to the outdoors for work, relaxation, and a connection to nature achieved at business towers via terraces, balconies, and roof gardens. IA’s design of a headquarters in New York City, for instance, includes a pocket terrace with lush landscaping, comfortable seating, and Wi-Fi on every floor, in addition to a rooftop terrace.
Attention to neuro-diversity is a priority for any workplace keyed to wellbeing. Wider corridors for wheelchairs as well as ease in docking into community clusters or amenity areas are standard requirements. Ramps where possible rather than stairs are preferred, and doors that open automatically help employees move through spaces without hindrance. Also, signage has taken on a new importance, integrating contrast for those who are color blind, larger print for the visually impaired, and braille as a regular feature.
When planning for wellness, both IA and Space Matrix design for the five senses to create a holistic sense of place, establish atmosphere, ensure delight, or even introduce an element of surprise while modulating the rhythm of the work environment to keep it interesting and productive. All senses are engaged for a variety of intents. For example, although the transition from soft to hard materials represented by texture, finish, and flooring may create a pleasurable aesthetic experience for some users, those materials that indicate a change of space type based on touch or feel (e.g., the sensation of carpet underfoot as opposed to concrete flooring) will be a significant navigation feature for others. Sound too functions in this manner as a signal, animating areas where a buzz is desirable as a catalyst to action or contributing to the calm required for heads-down work. Fragrance is an additional consideration, thoughtfully used throughout, with the understanding that scent affects mood and impacts behavior.
The social hub is another design feature geared toward wellness. Engaging the senses of taste and smell with the promise of tasty fare enjoyed amid hospitality-inspired settings, the hub sets the scene for warm social interaction and connection. It enjoys many iterations, from establishing a welcoming vibe at reception to connecting to spaces for large gatherings to nestling at the termini of well-traveled internal stairs that are major arteries for co-worker movement through the workplace.
The employee-centric work environment focused on furthering health and wellbeing will nurture connection, inclusivity, and choice while boosting innovation and productivity because a healthy workforce is a thriving community. That we are seeing a trend towards wellbeing and wellness at the workplace is not surprising; it is inevitable as our knowledge and understanding of the relationship between the bases of human health, optimum performance, and happiness increases. And as expected, designers remain at the forefront of creating spaces that understand, respond, and even shape advances in the human endeavor to move forward.