Collin Burry: How design can improve workplace health

Prioritising workplace health benefits companies for a number of reasons. Firstly, it helps them to attract the best talent, as this is an area that prospective employees are increasingly considering when choosing an employer.

Secondly, it helps those in-role work to their best. Research from the Global Wellness Institute found the cost of unwell workers represents 10 per cent to 15 per cent of annual global economic output, but a high-performing, healthy workplace can boost engagement and productivity significantly.

However, workplace health isn’t by any means just about maximising the output of workers. In the current 24-hour society, where the rise of technology makes it hard to disconnect, people are working longer, whether this be checking emails on the commute or logging on in evenings/ weekends, which runs the risk of worker burnout. CIPD found, 87 per cent of respondents cited the inability to switch off out of work hours as the most negative effect of technology.

As such, it’s important for companies to help employees to disconnect and recharge –design plays a fundamental role; we are increasingly seeing clients making provisions for improving workplace health from the initial design phases.

For example, the introduction of a ‘Green Space’ in the office – a Wi-Fi-free zone allowing people to enjoy their lunch without temptation to check emails or social media. A company culture that encourages disconnecting creates strong loyalty amongst workers whilst attracting new talent.

Historically, office space has been designed for able-bodied men, down to accessibility, seating and desk height. Nowadays, design plays a vital role in providing an inclusive and diverse workplace by ensuring all basic needs are met.

This could be through managing stress by creating break-out zones, but also prayer rooms so those with religious commitments feel their needs are being met. Additionally, new mums who may still be breastfeeding or expressing milk may require a private space to do so – that isn’t the toilet. We are increasingly seeing employers look at their workforce when considering the design of the building and ensuring they are meeting the needs of everyone regardless of gender, religion or disability.

By following a rigorous interpretation of ADA standards, and exceeding those standards when possible, designers can make the seemingly simple act of opening and closing doors and drawers easier for people of all abilities — all while demonstrating that design can integrate seamlessly into accessible spaces creating places that are healthier and welcoming for all users.

Gensler’s Experience Index shows improving human experience adds up to better business outcomes and higher employee satisfaction, indicating the importance for businesses to consider the wellbeing of its workforce. An example of this was through our work with Netflix; during the design process they held discussion sessions to listen to what their workforce needed and ensure they catered to this, not only ensuring requirements were met, but that all workers had a voice.

Another key aspect in ensuring the health of a workforce is encouraging movement. Traditionally, offices have been designed as ‘one person, one seat’, the introduction of agile working and hot-desking encourages colleagues to move around offering a range of spaces and environments that can be utilised based on needs that day. Stairs in a building encourages people to walk around the office, so we’ve seen companies utilising the fire stairwells and repurposing them for general use, to encourage people to move around the space where a new staircase cannot be built.

Designing for diversity and inclusion also includes setting and desk space. Some of our tech clients are now encouraging standing meetings for brainstorming sessions and require a meeting space void of chairs. With employees having to stand, the meeting is more succinct and efficient, adding value to the business.

We are also seeing an increase in designing different spaces to suit different needs. This may include a focus room, a video room for presentations or a team space where talking and bouncing about is encouraged. Therefore, companies are reducing the number of standard desk spaces in favour for varied zones, in turn improving movability throughout the day.

Increasingly, products are being designed and manufactured to have a net positive impact on growing urban centres and their people. The workplace is an important contributor. Sustainable products are key contributors in helping buildings achieve WELL Building Standard and LEED certifications. Carpeting, for example, can be carbon neutral, with high percentages of recycled content, manufactured free of Red List Building Materials that are harmful to human beings, and Living Product Challenge Petal certified—all contributing to a healthier planet and human comfort.

Finally, advocating for a healthy workplace means supporting a 360 approach and considering the health and wellbeing of the planet. This comes down to using sustainable materials during the building process. Offices that support the environment will entice a positive experience for colleagues. Research from T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Centre at Harvard University and Suny Upstate Medical that found high-performing, green-certified office environments scored 26 per cent higher on cognitive tests and had 30 per cent fewer symptoms of sick building syndrome than offices in high-performing, but noncertified buildings. Therefore, investing in workplace health will not only improve experience in the workplace, but increase productivity, so is a vital aspect for employers to invest in.

Looking to the future, it is evident businesses need to consider the wellbeing of their employees to succeed. This can be through simple changes in design or considering health in the initial build process. Access to fresh air and daylight, including outdoor work environments, can alleviate stress and other ailments. Intelligent building controls can lower energy and water costs making buildings safer and healthier. The next generation of smart buildings will leverage sensor technology and IoT-enabled devices so individuals can adjust temperature, air, lighting, and acoustics to their own liking. Employers who value these principals are likely to attract the top talent whilst ensuring staff they already have remain loyal.

Collin is design director at Gensler. In 2013 inductee into Interior Design Magazine’s Hall of Fame. A “soft modernist” at heart, he describes himself as both a left- and right-brain designer who creates environments that strive for beauty and are grounded in strategy. Collin has transformed the interiors of many of the world’s most innovative brands, such as Apple, Samsung, Gallo and Dolby. His creative and contemporary approach to design has earned him more than 60 design awards and frequent publication in international design and business media. Collin believes in designing spaces that are responsible to our planet and enrich the lives of the people who use them; and he is a long-time advocate of design education and the performing arts. Collin is an IIDA Fellow and holds a B.S. of Interior Design from Woodbury University.