How To Design A Happy Workplace

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How To Design A Happy Workplace

Words by Mr Jonathan Openshaw

28 September 2016

Wellness clouds, social pods and autonomous lighting – step into the office of the future .

There was a time when “office design” meant buying a pot plant to put in the corner by the water cooler. It was the era of drab carpet tiles and grey cubicles, where managers hoped uniform desk spaces would produce uniform workers. Then came the dotcom boom of the 1990s and suddenly the media was awash with stories about Silicon Valley playgrounds, where employees held meetings in cable cars and played rooftop crazy golf all day. Most workplaces today don’t exist at either extreme, but steer a path somewhere in the middle. Our work has become synonymous with our lifestyle – workstyle, if you like – and workplaces are moving away from a focus on facilities management to combine aspects of hospitality, health, leisure and commerce. Here, we take a look at some of the companies that are doing it best.

The UK is often referred to as the “sick man of Europe” – and with good reason. It’s estimated that sick days cost British employers about £29bn a year (four times that of other developed economies). This is a global issue, however, and recent research conducted in the US suggests that 86 per cent of adults will be obese or overweight by 2030, due in a large part to desk-bound lifestyles. The American Cancer Society also claims that men who sit for six hours or more a day have a death rate almost 20 per cent higher than those who sit for three or less, growing to almost 40 per cent for women. Employee health is clearly a ticking timebomb that needs to be addressed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, sports equipment manufacturer Technogym’s headquarters in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna light the way. It’s described as a “wellness campus”, and employees have access to free tai chi classes, a basketball court and talks from health experts. Their physical activity is logged in a “wellness cloud”, with the most active being rewarded. Technogym now advises upwards of 6,000 companies, including Merrill Lynch and Google, on their corporate wellness programmes, meaning that a treadmill desk could be coming to an office near you soon.

Instead of increasing your stress levels, what if your office actively helped you to relax and unwind? Gone would be the Monday-morning blues, and workers would watch the approach of Friday afternoon with dread. Or maybe not, but designersarchitects and nutritionists are still coming up with novel ways to give the office an emo-boost. Lighting is key here, with workplace design specialist HOK estimating that productivity can increase by 20 per cent and absenteeism drop by 15 per cent with optimal lighting. Products such as Ketra’s programmable LED light bulbs are now able to moderate their output depending on the time of day, ambient light levels and even individual preferences. Nutrition is also central to workplace wellbeing, and Miami-based startup Dr Smood (tagline: “Smart food for a good mood”) has formulated a range of juices and snacks that focus on the mind rather than just the body. It is in talks with employers such as Goldman Sachs to replace the office diet of black coffee and Kit Kats. The University of Exeter recently found that access to nature can boost staff wellbeing by up to 47 per cent. Amazon seems to have taken this advice to heart with its forthcoming NBBJ-designed headquarters in downtown Seattle, which will be formed of three giant geodesic domes up to 35m tall where 1,800 employees will enjoy tiered workspaces set among trees, flowers and meadows.

Office design as we know it can be incredibly inefficient, designed around floor plans rather than people, with an estimated 40 per cent of usable space going to waste at any one time. Architect Mr Carlo Ratti wants to address this. Working with the Agnelli Foundation in Turin, his design for the Office 3.0 uses a network of sensors to map the locations of individual workers before automatically adjusting heating, lighting and other environmental factors such as sound and even scent. The result is a bespoke “environmental bubble” created around each employee that can be set to his or her personal preference, while the system also learns routines over time, using this data to further improve efficiency. At the low-tech end of the scale, Swiss design house Vitra recently worked with designer Mr Konstantin Grcic to create Hack, a range of fully adaptable office furniture aimed at the startup generation. This same thinking lies behind Facebook’s freshly minted Menlo Park headquarters, designed by Mr Frank Gehry, which holds the dubious accolade of being the largest open-plan floor space in the world. The company’s mantra of total transparency and total connection is imposed on nearly 3,000 workers, who are encouraged to “hack” the space and create new “social pods” within the vast expanse.

Fun is for weekends, right? Not if you value your business. It’s estimated that engaged workers can boost your bottom line by 20 per cent, but a recent Gallup poll found that only 13 per cent of employees feel engaged in their work. Furthermore, companies with disengaged workers experience up to 50 per cent higher turnover, which is one of the greatest strains a business can face. Don’t conflate “fun” with zany corporate away-days, quirky motivational slogans and a ping pong table in the lobby, however. It’s about identifying what truly matters to your workforce and then providing it in an informal setting. Alcohol can help. From London to LA, coworking spaces such as Second Home and NeueHouse have been quick to recognise this, building social and cultural programming that rivals that of members’ clubs such as Soho House. Offices are now offering everything from woodworking courses to wine tasting, in-sourcing activities that would normally take place during leisure time and therefore in-sourcing some of the positive sentiment that goes with them. Work is not for fun, but as the line between business and leisure becomes more blurred, good employers understand that their role in our lives is also changing.

Illustrations by Mr Adam Nickel