By Regina Molaro
From the June 2023 Issue
In the last few years, the workplace has become an even more stressful environment. Beyond the general stresses of navigating work and employees, employers continue to manage the fallout from the pandemic—an increased focus on creating healthier, safer workspaces, managing more remote employees, among other challenges.
Employees have also struggled to manage hybrid work models while balancing family responsibilities.
“Designers have always been cognizant to design spaces to support the overall occupants’ well-being,” says Julie Zitter, IIDA, RID, Project Director, Senior Associate of VLK Architects. “Spaces need to exude a sense of purpose and meaning while also bringing out the best in each employee. The notion of mental health is an outpouring from COVID and how humans have had to withstand change.”
Employers and employees are still struggling to find right balance of maintaining flexibility through remote work, while also fulfilling mentorship and collaboration through in-person experiences.
Many companies are identifying key decision makers that support well-being advocacy and are having them fully participate in the design process to ensure that the organization’s culture and well-being are fulfilled.
In a survey by Flexjobs, 65% of pandemic remote workers said they wanted to continue working from home and 58% stated that they would look for a new job if they were mandated to return to the office. To lure them back, businesses need to rethink their designs.
Wellness & Flexibility Driving Design
“A growing body of research is uncovering new lessons in how office layouts impact employee stress,” says Peter Miscovich, Global Future of Work Leader, JLL Work Dynamics—a professional services firm specializing in real estate and investment management. “Providing spaces for individual and group work along with an option for remote/hybrid work can reduce stress by providing more control over where, how, and when people work.”
Environments that are being designed to protect and enhance occupant health and well-being, comprise a growing portion of construction projects.
“WELL Certification, a system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features that impact human health and well-being (think: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mental health) is a huge consideration,” adds Aimee Collins Senior Principal, Design, the Americas, at Unispace—a strategy, design, and construction firm.
According to GlobalWellInstitute.org, the Well Building Standard (WELL) and Fitwel, have grown ninefold in the last three years. As of August 2021, there were over 960 WELL and Fitwel certified projects globally, and another 1,431 projects in progress for certification (Fitwel) or pre-certified (WELL).
“As the office finds a new purpose as a destination for collaboration in hybrid workstyles, occupiers need to continue increasing their investments in creative spaces,” says Cynthia Kantor, Chief Client Value & Growth Officer, JLL Work Dynamics.
“Seventy-seven percent of commercial real estate leaders agree that offering remote or hybrid work is critical to attracting and retaining talent,” cites a recent JLL study.
“Seventy-seven percent of commercial real estate leaders agree that offering remote or hybrid work is critical to attracting and retaining talent.”
— JLL study
Designing spaces that encourage collaboration and productivity while making people want to work in the office is key. “Progressive organizations are replacing traditional work environments with a mix of experiential areas for work, rejuvenation, and relaxation,” says JLL’s Miscovich.
“If we can provide spaces where everyone—no matter their work style or preferences—can be productive and happy, the future of work will be a more mentally healthy place,” adds Unispace’s Collins.
The Regenerative Concept
Forward-looking organizations are creating “regenerative workplaces that advance a more human-centric vision of work that supports mental, social, and physical health,” says Miscovich.
Combining thoughtful workplace policies with good design, provides psychological safety and inclusiveness to help employees feel energized, connected, and engaged.
It’s about creating an environment that is as comfortable as home and makes the shared office space a destination where people can interact, share a common purpose, and support individual needs and collective aspirations.
Many designers are bringing in elements of nature by incorporating plants and creating outdoor spaces. “Firms are creating various workspaces to accommodate different kinds of work styles. From dark, quiet rooms where people can go to decompress to collaborative networking areas, the goal is to provide a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ workplace,” says Unispace’s Collins.
Not every office can offer outdoor space, but the benefits of bringing the outdoors inside with natural elements are well documented, from lowering stress and blood pressure to improving mood.
Organizations will certainly continue to shape workspaces that retain the best aspects of remote work, such as flexibility, autonomy, and work-life balance, but regardless the design, it should be easy to swap out for something else.
“If a client wants a darker focus room, we can put a removable film on the door that can easily be taken off to transform the space into a private office,” says Collins. “Alternatively, if a company wants to build private offices, we can design that on a grid system that enables those rooms to be utilized in other ways such as a yoga or focus room.”
These “optional” design features are no longer “optional.” Rest and relaxation areas, outdoor space, stimulation vacuum rooms where people with sensory issues can go to decompress, have now become ‘must-haves.’
Many are talking about biophilic design, which aims to elevate one’s connection with the natural environment. Elements include skylights; green walls or “living walls,” which are covered with living greenery; and the presence of water, including fountains or ponds.
JLL’s Miscovich believes that designs that are ergonomic, sustainable, technology-enabled, and able to meet employees’ community and socialization needs, will be key. Think high-definition touchscreens, surround-sound that highlights nature images, calming music, and space for meditation or yoga stretches.
Ways to reduce stress will increasingly involve smart workplace technologies—everything from meeting room design and technology that seamlessly connects remote and on-site employees to tech-free zones for recharging.
Since design is always changing, what works for one may not be ideal for another. “Be flexible and keep your options open,” advises Collins.
Molaro is a freelance editor whose work has been featured in more than 25 publications.
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