Over one million people suffer from work-related illnesses in the UK each year, meaning a staggering 27 million working days are lost annually . Stress, anxiety, depression and back ache account for the majority of reported ill health cases, all of which are arguably by-products of modern day working life.
Whilst some suggest this is part and parcel of spending so much time in the office, which is by its very nature deemed to be ‘unhealthy’, I would strongly argue that this needn’t be the case. A lack of wellbeing in the workplace currently costs the UK economy over £13bn a year. We simply cannot accept this as a mere consequence of office life.
Having spent the last 33 years designing international headquarters for major businesses including Coca-Cola, ASOS, Sony, Red Bull and Primark, I have championed innovative, thoughtful office design which has brought about positive changes to employee’s wellbeing and helped improve the health, happiness and productivity of staff.
During this time, I have also witnessed first-hand the common pitfalls of poorly designed offices which, if not dealt with, can have a negative impact on the lives of workers. Typical ‘mistakes’ often to blame for the poor health of employees include:
• Poorly laid out spaces with little recreational room, which means staff are tied to their desks endlessly.
• Messy and cluttered workspaces – it is true that a tidy desk equals a tidy mind, plus messy spaces are more difficult to clean and therefore prone to spreading germs.
• Inadequate lighting and antiquated ventilation systems.
• A lack of options – people are often given no choice in how, when or where they work despite the fact that each of us operate in a unique way and respond differently to different environments.
As well as getting the above correct, there are a number of fundamental basics that must be considered when designing or redesigning an office space. Key factors to get right include:
• Natural light – this is number one on the list of features that workers look for, yet more than half of the UK’s workforce have no access to it. It is so important to maximise natural light as much as possible, planning the layout in accordance with the direction of sunlight and ensuring everyone (not just the Directors) have access to it.
• Air ventilation – there is nothing worse than a stuffy office. It leads to sluggishness, frustration and can really stifle creativity and concentration. Good quality air ventilation is crucial and control of temperature.
• Mobility is key and healthy offices should encourage movement. Promoting the use of staircases instead of lifts as well as varied working environments that support people working in different areas of the office, not just at the desk. The provision of cycle spaces and good shower and changing facilities encourage staff to be more active.
• Diversity / Flexibility / Choice people do not enjoy working in a corporate environment. Offices have become extensions of homes, hotels and cafes. People want choice, comfort, flexibility and human space.
• Plants and Colour
• Good Quality Lighting
In addition to these somewhat basic principles which help toward the physical wellbeing of workers, an important and often overlooked aspect is the psychological health of staff. Stress, anxiety and depression are now responsible for 17 million lost working days per year . Whilst much of this can be attributed to long hours, job security and financial pressures, I believe that a well-designed office environment can help reduce some of these anxieties.
Social interaction undoubtedly plays a major role in this so it’s important that the workplace is designed to encourage this. Face-to-face interaction is known to improve confidence levels, feelings of self-worth and contentment so it mustn’t be overlooked. Communal areas, like cafes, social space knowledge sharing areas, are effective ways to bring staff together. They also provide opportunities for workers to get away from their desks and take a break from their computer screens.
At a recent office redesign on behalf of the FTSE 100 property company, British Land, we introduced a large, open staircase in the centre of the office. As well as encouraging people to use the stairs it also opened up the office to more natural daylight and now means people who perhaps didn’t see each other before now regularly meet and have impromptu catch-ups, which has really improved dialogue across teams.
It is important to encourage people to work in different areas and to give them a choice over their place of work. Providing communal spaces as well as quiet and private areas where people can take personal calls, or simply relax and read a newspaper, meet and collaborate with colleagues are also effective ways to create a healthier environment for staff.
We recently redeveloped the European headquarters of Primark in Dublin and the brief here was to create an office which would allow the brand to attract and retain top talent. We considered health and wellbeing as central to this so included a fitness area and studio for yoga and exercise classes, and a healthy juice bar and café. At The Colmore Building, a large office development in Birmingham, we worked on behalf of Ashby Capital to transform the space. This included a state-of-the-art gymnasium, treatment rooms, luxury changing rooms and cycle facilities.
Whilst the nature of office work does lend itself to a sedentary lifestyle, there are things that can be done to counter this. For example, it is possible to encourage mobility by allowing people to choose where they work and not relying on the desk and fixed screen as the only option. Centralising key utilities such as photocopiers, printers and recycling also encourages movement around the office, whilst open and visible staircases, as opposed to lifts, is particularly effective.
In addition, we have found that introducing a few ‘home comforts’ can go a long way to improving the psychological wellbeing and happiness of workers. At British Land we transformed a meeting room into a living room-inspired space designed for less formal encounters. This has proved really popular and is great for inspiring more creative discussions and brainstorms which help keep people motivated. At Argent’s King’s Cross headquarter we introduced an open plan kitchen living room to provide a relaxed, comforting space where staff can go to take some time out during the day.
With the number of work-related illnesses continuing to rise, I believe it is time to concentrate on creating working environments that motivate, encourage and inspire individuals to be the best they can be is. If businesses want to continue to attract the best staff and get the most out of them, the hard work needs to start at home, or in this case, the office. People want to be comfortable, feel safe and inspired by their environment!