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Happiness = Health + Well-Being

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Toronto designers put new spin on health in the workplace discussion

Have you ever walked into a meeting expecting to hear one thing and ended up hearing something completely different? It happens to me a lot which is why I’ll never stop talking to designers, clients and real estate professionals about work. Last month Inscape hosted two separate Workplace Salons in Toronto. We asked each group to respond to four questions on Wellness in the Office.  Their answers surprised me and, more importantly, helped to shape and expand my evolving view of what it means to work in a place that enlivens and invigorates employees rather than draining them. Here’s what we heard:

Vital signs of a healthy office

When you visit the doctor, a nurse will take your pulse, blood pressure and perform other routine tests before anyone even asks why you’re there. The most visible sign of health in the office according to our groups is “happy people.”  People are smiling. They’re engaged. The place is brimming with activity and buzz but no one looks stressed out. If this doesn’t sound like your office, you’re not alone. The Society for Human Resource Management reports that “satisfaction has been steadily declining since 2009, when workers were just happy to have a job.” Now that the opportunities are expanding again employers would be well served to consider the kinds of things that make employees smile.

Promoting worker well-being

A good work environment is not the only factor in employee satisfaction and well-being but it is a crucial one. Access to natural light is an obvious and well documented feature but our groups focused on “supporting individual choice” as the most important aspect in creating healthy offices.  Facilities and people need to be managed but workers want meaningful choices about where, when and how to get their work done. Balancing the needs of an organization to control with the needs of individuals to choose presents a difficult challenge to designers, especially in a world still largely driven by corporate standards. But our panel believes the reward for those who figure it out will be higher retention rates and improved productivity.

Measuring environments on health issues

There is no shortage of data in most organizations on employee health. Companies track sick days, health care costs, turnover and employee satisfaction. The problem is that these reports are almost never used to guide and inform space design. The same is true of professional workplace surveys which tend to focus more on aspects of the job (i.e. salary, relationship to boss and coworkers, level of engagement, etc.) than they do on the office itself. The insight from our Toronto Salons is that these things are all connected and all contribute to employee health (or misery). They suggested involving Human Resources in setting goals for the project and having frank discussions about what makes people unhappy and why they leave the company.

Barriers to creating healthy offices

I expected the groups to tell us that increased cost was the biggest barrier but they pointed to “closed minds” instead. “Nobody is talking about this,” observed one participant, “and it’s a lot easier to understand the impact on physical wellness than emotional or mental wellness.” Making employee satisfaction a central part of early planning discussions is an important first step. Involving users during design is not only a good way to test concepts — it also helps to build excitement and buy-in.  Some organizations avoid engaging employees in the process because they are afraid it will create unrealistic expectations. My own experience, however, is that workers are delighted when they are included and understand that there will be compromises along the way.

Tish Kruse at IA Chicago told me last year that she believes wellness is the new frontier in interior design.  If that’s true it means that for now there are more questions than answers. Let’s consider this the beginning of our dialogue on the subject. To that end, I invite you to leave your insights and comments below.

| By Michael Fazio

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Quotable

“A mega-trend is sharing instead of ownership of workspaces. We can either all ride in coach or we can share a private jet.”

Chris Blackadder
Principal, Woods Bagot