Which aspects of workplace design are most important to personal wellbeing? 0

workplace designThere is no doubt that the UK’s office based knowledge industry is facing a crisis in the form of a ‘wellbeing deficit’. Both the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have reported record levels of absenteeism, with the latter attributing 23.3 million lost working days to work-related ill-health, such as depression, stress, anxiety and musculoskeletal disorders. A great deal is already known about the causes of the key issues of employee stress and demotivation, but more work needs to be done to establish how organisations can meet their corporate goals with regard to these issues, whilst still engaging, motivating and nurturing their workforce. A significant body of published research has identified that a sense of ‘personal control’ can have a hugely positive impact on employee wellbeing, but how can we engender that control when it comes to creating a productive working environment?

As part a consortium of workplace experts and academics, Kinnarps has been involved with an extensive research study, being led by the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design (HHCD) at the Royal College of Art in partnership with architectural practice Gensler. The project, which is now in its second year, aims to answer two key questions:

1. What aspects of workplace design are most important for boosting people’s wellbeing?
2. Does employee participation in the collaborative design processes (which shape new workplaces) give the sense of personal control that can help raise morale and productivity?

Professor Jeremy Myerson, of HHDC, summarises the knowledge gap that faces employers and which the Workplace & Wellbeing Study aims to fill: ‘In order to design nurturing workplaces, which reduce the causes of absenteeism, we need to understand the correlation between the individual’s personal resources (i.e. who they are and what they can do) and the demands of their employer (i.e. what the organisation needs employees to do and how it expects them to do it), and then find methods to develop working environments accordingly. To do that, we need to understand how deep or widespread participatory practices need to become.’

The study set out to discover what aspects of workplace design are considered to be important for wellbeing by employees, and whether a greater amount of participation gives a stronger sense of the ‘personal control’ considered to be so vital for morale. The research so far indicates that an optimum level of employee participation in the design process can deliver significant results in terms of motivation, but need not be as demanding of resources as employers might fear. Indeed, it seems that a little bit of design participation can go a long way, when it comes to motivating staff.

The first phase of the research was a Scoping Study that analysed the interview responses of employees in four large organisations, in London and the South East, which had been through varying levels of organisational change it the preceding three years. The study revealed a ‘snapshot of change’ characterised by an ever-shifting workforce, under pressure from a relentless squeeze on space. In essence, the employees saw this constant change as a threat to their physical and psychological wellbeing, and many felt excluded and alienated by the workplace design process.

The Scoping Study also identified the variables that most influenced employees’ sense of wellbeing. These were: feeling connected, a positive and purposeful environment, a variety of spaces to work in, and control over those spaces. Interviewees also reported that they felt better about work when they were invited to participate in the design and planning of their workplace, and far worse when denied a voice by being excluded from the decision-making process.

The second phase of the Workplace and Wellness study was a Participatory Design Project, conducted within one organisation and comparing the responses of three teams, each allowed different levels of design participation, (i.e. high, low, and no participation).

• Team 1, the high participation level group, was invited to co-design ideas and interventions in their workspace, and to be involved in their implementation.

• Team 2, with a lower level of participation, was invited to participate in identifying the aspects of the workplace design that were important to them, but were not involved in developing or implementing designs or interventions.

• Team 3, the non-participation group, was excluded from the planning and design process, but did receive the workplace interventions, developed and designed by the other groups, to test.

Quantitative and qualitative evaluation methods were implemented before and after the process, to measure the impact of the varying levels of participation on employees’ wellbeing.

A key intervention, designed by Team 1, was called ‘Life and Light’ and comprised of introducing hanging planters with salad crops, such as herbs and chillies, for employee consumption, along with the full retraction of window blinds to ensure maximum daylight. These initiatives were then introduced for testing to Team 2, which had helped to identify the salient aspects of design, and to Team 3, which had been given no say in the planning and design process.

Perhaps surprisingly, when evaluation was carried out after a four week period, everyone who had been invited to participate actively in the design process, even if they hadn’t taken up the opportunity, showed signs of increased wellbeing. Team 1 showed slightly higher levels of improvement than Team 2, but both showed a marked difference to the non-participating team that was excluded from the process.

These findings suggest that the ‘dose’ of participation in workplace design is not what makes the most difference to wellbeing; it is in fact the invitation to participate in the design project at all. This means that providing a more intense or prolonged participatory design process does not automatically increase the boost to wellbeing. It does, however, suggest that any collaborative workplace design project should be open to all employees, even if they don’t actually have the time or inclination to participate.

So, how do we know what the ideal level of employee involvement should be? Well, this may be where your organisation can get involved. During the course of the research, the team developed a conceptual model to chart and assess wellbeing needs in the workplace. The model illustrates that it is imperative to achieve a balance between the functional and psychological needs of individuals, and that this balance needs to be understood by their employer when it comes to developing and designing nurturing workplaces.

In order to develop a wellbeing evaluation toolkit based on the conceptual model, which can then be used by HR and FM professionals, the Workplace & Wellbeing team needs to conduct further research. If you are an FM or HR manager, with a group of employees (from 8 to 15 people) who would enjoy the chance to discuss their thoughts and feeling towards their workplace, and participate in a collaborative project that offers them a relaxed, calm and creative opportunity to socialise with their colleagues, please get in touch.

Your organisation will benefit from independent insight in to your employees’ thoughts and wellbeing, experience customised methods for engaging and collaborating with your team, and have access to the evaluation toolkit that we develop through the project.

The Wellbeing Deficit and the challenges of reducing absenteeism are climbing the workplace agenda. Why not join us in developing a toolkit that will help to identify the silver bullets?


Marc BirdMarc Bird is UK Head of Marketing for Swedish office furniture firm Kinnarps. Anyone interested in participating in the next phase of the research is welcome to contact Marc by email at marc.bird@kinnarps.co.uk