Those working at the forefront of design suggest the modern workplace represents a person’s identity and should, therefore, reflect their needs for physical and emotional wellbeing. Matthew Cox reports
This article was written in January 2020 and published in the launch issue of the zone before lockdown and COVID-19. We believe it’s more prophetic now than before, and the learnings from here are accelerated.
We’re living in what some are calling a post-growth society, in which a company’s GDP becomes less important to an employee than the new metrics of success such as wellbeing, emotional fulfilment and doing social good. Wellbeing at work is more than a buzzword, catchy phrase, or a box to tick, it relates to ‘all aspects of working life, from the quality and safety of the physical environment, to how workers feel about their work, their working environment, the climate at work and work organisation,’ says The International Labour Organization. And according to the Nespresso Professional: Workplace Futures report discussed here, 95 per cent of office workers say the quality of their workspace is important to their mental health.
The importance of company values
Businesses in 2020 are offering more than just a salary and a desk, as work becomes inextricably linked with employees identities, and as noted above, how they feel about it all. It is becoming increasingly important that the values of a company and its employees are aligned; according to professor Jeremy Myerson, from the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, employees need to feel they are doing something worthwhile in what he calls a ‘human landscape’. The workplace is where a company connects with its employees, and offices of the future will send out clear communications about the company, and its ethos through design and services. Even simple things like providing high-quality coffee (unsurprising that this is highlighted in a report by Nespresso) can send a strong message with 75 per cent of employee’s believing this shows an employer cares about them according to ComRes who surveyed 2,772 UK workers for Nespresso about the impact of coffee and other office perks on their engagement and wellbeing.
Always-on? Prepare for burnout
The way we work has drastically changed over the past decade, with a digital transformation enabling workers to build their professional identities whilst combining work with travel, play and exploration. But this ‘always-on’ hyper-connectivity has led to an increase in concern amongst employers for the wellbeing of employees. Hardly surprising when 85 per cent of British adults said they experience stress regularly. According to HSE (Health and Safety Executive), work-related ill-health accounts for some 28 million working days lost a year in Great Britain. By far the biggest cause of this – up to half of all work-related absence in the education sector – is stress and related mental health issues. And in May 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially identified workplace burnout as an occupational phenomenon, and are about to embark on the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental wellbeing in the workplace. Responding to burnout and stress with wellness programmes is the focus of many businesses and the workplace wellness market is expected to grow from £38bn in 2017 to £52.2bn in 2022 according to the Global Wellness Institute. It’s predicted that by 2030 workspaces will have been radically overhauled to allow workers to create spaces that allow solo work, collaborative work, and spaces for socialising as the need arises, creating a more human-centric landscape. Every individual has different needs, different methods of working and as we move forward the focus on workplaces will give businesses the ability to adapt spaces to fit their workers’ moods or their preferred style of working. The report has found that busy open-plan, repetitive, bright and noisy offices will be replaced by closed spaces, low-lighting, noise-cancelling materials, quiet zones and focused workspaces.
How tech improves wellbeing
Additionally, the use of integrated technology within the workplace will reveal conditions for optimum employee performance based on personal goals, allowing for new sentient spaces using the smart technologies for personalisation. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can also liberate office workers, with almost half of UK workers stating that AI can reduce mundane tasks. In doing this, it gives workers space to complete tasks that require collaboration, creativity and in turn will increase human-to-human interaction. And according to a recent study, high-performance organisations are up to five and a half times more likely than lower performers to encourage individual, team and leader effectiveness in collaboration.
There has also been a shift in thinking around rest and breaks. It is now culturally accepted that taking multiple breaks and increased sociability in the workplace is beneficial, and the research from ComRes backs this up with 67 per cent of workers feeling more productive after a coffee break. Other developments we can expect to see include, “Worktel” – a space to work, play and stay, allowing groups working on projects to work in socially-focused spaces, with food and drink operations available continuously and additional entertainment provided. And as the workforce becomes increasingly diverse and multi-faceted it is expected that companies will adapt to become more flexible allowing employees to work and collaborate wherever their work or leisure travel takes them, labelled ‘Location-Independent Digitals’ or LIDs by The Future Laboratory. These LIDs could lead to a rise in innovative spaces with flagship offices located worldwide acting as central drop-in hubs, and an increase in flexible, community work hubs like WeWork potentially being located on every high street enabling employees to work to their own schedules in a location that suits them and their current lifestyle.
Wellness-enabled space builds resilience
Another key role of the future workplace will be its role in facilitating resilience through the optimisation of physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. Gymshark typifies the forward-thinking type of company embracing wellbeing with a focus on mind and body, and in 2019 the fitness apparel brand opened two fitness studios, a vast state-of-the-art weights room and CrossFit rig, an indoor running track and outdoor strongman yard, all made available for their 300-strong staff plus two guests each at their Birmingham HQ. In London, it’s the trend-setting co-working spaces which are leading the charge for on-site facilities, including Uncommon, based in Liverpool Street. The cool offices house a Peleton studio, the leading cycle class designed for home workouts, and the company’s research found that 92 per cent of UK office occupiers prefer ‘wellness-enabled buildings’.
Slow down you’re moving too fast
But it’s not just about upping activity. An increase in the design of social and pause spaces, along with integrated technologies, will be part of a holistic approach of ‘slo-working’ with businesses encouraging employees to decelerate, take a break, communicate with others and work at a pace and time that suits them. Technology is also being used to help to give wellbeing feedback with biosensors on stress factors such as heart rate, heart variability and even hormone levels, reminding employees to drink, eat, exercise, relax and monitor their working patterns.
A natural way
Resilient workplaces will also see an increase in what’s known as ‘biophilic’ design, where to increase occupant connectivity to the natural environment there is a direct or indirect use of nature, space and place conditions. The focus is not just the introduction of plants to the workspace, but the use of natural materials in the design of workplaces such as living walls and even ‘Plantronics’, nature-inspired audio to create a biophilic experience. There will also be an increase in the use of natural light within the office. An absence of natural light was linked to making almost half of 1,604 office workers who were questioned feel gloomy, according to research by futureworkplace.com discussed in the Harvard Business Review.
The future is bright
The Workplace Futures report has highlighted a shift in thinking, and a fresh approach to holistic wellbeing. It predicts a shift to a more fluid workforce, allowing employees to work in multiple locations, in ever more personalised spaces tailored to the employee’s mood and current needs, allowing individuals to optimise themselves and express their own identities. The increased focus on resilience culture will see more emphasis put on design to help address wellbeing through quiet spaces and a more relaxing environment, whilst also encouraging the ‘slo-working’ movement in order to discourage burnout. This change in focus should increase the happiness and wellbeing of workplaces, allowing individuals to be more aligned with the companies they work for and the impact could potentially be an increase in the company’s productivity and performance – as well as healthier, happier, fitter staff.