Following the recent Stress Awareness Month and Mental Health Awareness Week, Charles Bettes of architects and interior designers gpad delves deeper into the importance of good design in “optimising the workplace for our mutual good”
Mental health charity Mind recently published their third annual Workplace Wellbeing Index for 2018-19. The research reveals that mental health problems are not unusual in the workplace, and the charity emphasises it is crucial that organisations now make staff wellbeing a priority. Workplace cultures aside, the spaces that we work in have a great impact, and there is much that we as architects and designers can do to employ great design.
What drives wellbeing?
Several factors can be attributed to this. Awareness of the importance of prioritising workforce wellbeing is increasing among companies, as past research clearly demonstrates how it improves productivity and therefore profits. Employers are also beginning to recognise that they have responsibilities towards their staff. Today’s workers also know to be more demanding, being aware of what their office could be and the effects of their environment on their mental and physical health.
Demand for healthy buildings – an opportunity
From a developer’s perspective, wellbeing measures are an essential part of meeting their brief to stay competitive in the market. Investing more money in developing a strong design at the early stages of a project will almost guarantee that a developer reaps greater commercial rewards further down the line, be this for better lighting conditions, effective acoustics, or optimum air quality. The knock-on effects from a healthier building are significant – happier, healthier occupants mean lower staff turnover and increased productivity. We should see this as a great opportunity to produce better buildings for all of us, rather than an unwanted challenge. Debates that we were having not that long ago around whether amenities such as cycle stores, showers, lockers and roof terraces are provided are now provided as a given, as they should be. And we’re discussing other considerations to encourage more active and fulfilling lifestyles and how they can be incorporated into our working lives, and the buildings we produce. Making the physical workplace more appealing to workers is beneficial to developers and agents alike. There are numerous ways to achieve this; some offices install anything from bars and cafes to slides and mini golf, and recreational spaces are increasingly needed, in an age where the boundary between life and work is blurred.
Tech to serve our needs
Healthy buildings are increasingly ‘smart’ buildings too. Yet, while investing in integrating technology into a building, we need to be mindful that it may have a design shelf life. Architects and designers have to carefully assess technology and see will it make people’s lives better or is it just a shiny new toy. The purpose of technology, after all, is to improve our lives rather than to be fetishised. It’s crucial to create spaces that are adaptable and allow for flexibility and ease of implementation in years to come. Yet the spaces need to accommodate all the ways in which we work today, with co-working environments, private spaces, break out areas and cafes.
The outside inside
Healthy living is a consideration we always take into account when designing buildings at gpad. As an example, One Cathedral Square in Bristol was a tired office building we transformed. It now has huge amounts of natural light, spacious reception areas and internal terracing to encourage movement. Further than that, there are showers, changing areas and enough storage for 50 bicycles. The centrepiece is a naturally lit atrium, surrounded by large, open floorplates. This is also home to a vast living wall extending 13 metres high. It offers an impressive, lush focal point, and draws the eye upwards into the atrium. This naturally connects the building users to the outside and blends the boundaries between outside and inside.
Research shows that biophilic design can be powerfully beneficial on productivity and wellbeing by lowering stress levels. The CBRE’s 2016 report ‘The Snowball Effects of Healthy Offices’, suggested that exposure to nature murals and live – or artificial – plants resulted in people perceiving their performance to be 10 per cent better. 65 per cent said they felt healthier, 76 per cent more energised and 78 per cent happier. Floor-to-ceiling glazing is clearly benefitting workers on the upper levels at One Cathedral Square. It gives stimulating views across the foyer and the natural wall, as well as maximising the natural light entering the space. While the greenery is a statement, it is also a calming natural backdrop allowing relief away from the desk and screen.
Research shows how good design is a tangible way to improve happiness and productivity – Competing budgets, such as training; management development and benefits have a more easily quantifiable, reliable return on investment, which complicates things. We need to find ways to show exactly by how much good design helps. Studies such as Bill Browning’s ‘The Economics of Biophilia’ (2015) already show how relatively small investments incorporating biophilic design in workspaces can significantly reduce company costs by minimising absenteeism and savings in healthcare costs. Inspiring spaces can make a major difference to worker health, happiness and productivity. Designing workspace today is also about creating an environment that can evolve as our working methods evolve. It’s about constantly striving for the best possible environments for wellbeing, while future proofing the spaces we’re creating.
Charles Bettes is managing director of gpad