Joelle Jach of Gensler explores how the blurred lines between work and life could be causing employees to rely on the workplace for mental and physical wellness.
Call it a buzzword, call it a phenomenon: wellness, and everything that comes with it, is taking the workplace by storm. As organizations increasingly leverage their real estate to support, engage, attract and retain employees, “workplace as an asset” is more buzzworthy than ever. Through changes in technology, culture, and mobility, the boundaries of the office no longer stop at the front door. There are seemingly no rules for when and where work happens.
These blurred lines don’t just apply to the workplace – from dining to socializing, collaborating to exercising, conventional utilization patterns are shifting into something more blended. Research tells us that not only is work happening anywhere and everywhere, but other things are happening everywhere, too – and more often than not, activities other than work are coming into the workplace (Gensler Experience Index, 2020).
Can You See My Screen?
It’s a bit strange to consider technology’s everyday presence in modern life: for example, many people walk around with tiny “computers” in their pockets. Technology supports multitasking, working remotely, and posting Instagram stories from almost anywhere – provided there are no technical difficulties. The theoretical ease in which information can be accessed, shared, and edited has significantly influenced workplace expectations. Technology has trained users to anticipate the world, streamlined and accessible, within arm’s reach.
Of course, a workplace without its fair share of technological hiccups is probably a myth. Continued dependence on things like videoconferencing and docking stations, illustrates the broad scope of workplace change (Gregoire, 2016). While some organizations are pushing the envelope (and maybe even ditching the envelope altogether in favor of an eco-friendly email), change is neither uniform, nor instantaneous.
Regardless of users’ technical prowess (or access to game-changing technology), eagerness and willingness to embrace better-faster-easier says a lot about aspirations: everything should be happening, it should be happening quickly, and it should bring users the best – in the workplace and beyond.
Looking Out for Number One
Perhaps the best illustration of desiring to have it all, do it all, be it all is the overwhelming trend towards wellness. From self-care and do-it-yourself succulent gardens, to doing juice cleanses and namaste’ing in bed, it’s hard to overestimate the ways in which wellness has influenced pop culture. While mental, physical, and emotional well-being have certainly been commodified, the prominence of wellness in cultural consciousness highlights a thirst for something better – and not just when it comes to kombucha.
Rewind just a little, and it’s not surprising to see more people than ever scheduling Pilates around work: multitasking and staying busy are now the norm, thanks in large part to technology. While this technology can be the workplace’s best friend, it can also be its greatest enemy.
As lines blur, boundaries start to soften, too. It’s become all too common to take work home or check email after leaving the office. Since the workforce is accustomed to instant gratification and boundless connectivity, people are also putting pressure on themselves and others to stay plugged in (Beattie, 2016). After all, work happens anywhere and everywhere, so what’s wrong with answering emails from the grocery checkout or collaborating with team members from the comfort of the couch?
The quest for today’s workers to look and feel their best extends to the workplace. Even as the workforce becomes more mobile and approaches the capability to submit TPS reports from a roller coaster, many people spend most of their waking hours in the workplace, whatever that looks like.
Make no mistake, workplaces have come a long way from the likes of typewriter pools or high-panel cubicles, although many organizations still hold onto the classics (perhaps on the off chance that they’ll come back into style). While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the way things used to be, newer workplace models are helping to shake things up and bring new perspectives to where and how work happens.
With changing attitudes and expectations around technology and mobility (not to mention the generational shake-up as younger people enter the workforce), it’s only natural that new priorities have emerged around the workplace. Doing everything, everywhere means that there are a lot more demands for time spent in the physical workplace.
As the idea of the workplace continues to evolve, attitudes are changing, and oftentimes the workplace is expected to do a lot more to keep its employees happy. It’s no longer enough to clock in and clock out. Instead, people are increasingly relying on the workplace to provide some degree of happiness, career satisfaction, social stability, and perhaps even mental and physical wellness.
Luckily enough, the changing workplace is supported in part by a push for integrated wellness. The WELL building standard, a sort of little sister to LEED, is now a few years old and is just hitting its stride. The standard is fast becoming the go-to methodical approach for incorporating wellness into the workplace and beyond. Newer versions of the standard extend past the workplace into additional project types.
The emergence (and likely eventual ubiquity) of the standard and others like it, capitalizes on a great opportunity: as interest in wellness continues to surge, leveraging the “workplace as an asset” to facilitate health and well-being can be a great way to engage, attract, and retain employees (Bunch, 2016). This strategy also highlights an unintended consequence of increased technological integration: as technology contributes to rising expectations, that same technology makes wellness more necessary than ever.
Technology can be highly useful for allowing users to interact with wellness. Sensors provide adjustability and customization for everything from lights to temperature. Smart displays can make booking a conference room a breeze, and integrated screens can display real-time metrics and other salient information. A workplace that is technologically enabled can be responsive, human-centered, and user-friendly, increasing user engagement with a space (Sanders, 2018).
As technology becomes more portable, and connectivity becomes more cohesive, it’s becoming easier for work to happen virtually anywhere. The evolving workplace model takes this into account. Many workplaces are adopting mobility policies and planning alternative workspaces to support work beyond the traditional desk. Flexible furniture and on-the-go connectivity strategies support individual work and collaboration across a wide array of settings, suiting different workstyles, tasks, and employee preferences (Richmond, 2017).
While it can be freeing to take work away from the office, this dynamic shift has implications for the conventional desk-based workstyle. The traditional ergonomic model does not extend to mobile or flexible workspaces, so education and policies must address shifting work patterns (Winston). However, alternative workspaces also represent an opportunity to consciously incorporate movement and ergonomics. These spaces have the benefit of being novel and can create a sense of delight while also promoting physical well-being (Winston, 2016).
Along with increased technological integration comes a corresponding decrease in social engagement. While social media interaction remains high, face-to-face engagement has suffered in quantity and character. The intervention of personal technology devices and overall integration of technology into environments can have the unintended consequence of creating isolation, challenging environments to go above and beyond in pursuit of captivating, socially viable environments (Dornfeld, 2017).
Beyond the workplace, technology can also support truly remote work that is increasingly happening outside of the workplace environment. While remote work can be convenient (nothing beats working from the couch), a dispersed workforce has implications for workplace culture. Even if mobile work or telework happens sporadically, a distributed workforce can leave in-office employees feeling lonely and disconnected (Korkki, 2016).
When introducing wide-ranging mobility capabilities, organizational culture and employee interaction must be considered. While there’s nothing wrong with remote work policies and taking advantage of flexibility, the workplace must be engaging and supportive for those who remain in the space. The challenge for organizations will be to extend meaningful interaction across the physical workplace, and to ensure that employees not physically at work remain engaged.
The likelihood of decreased technological integration is slim. Technology will continue to enable work, shaping interpersonal interaction and decision-making in the workplace and beyond. The rapid pace of technological change will set the bar for organizations to evolve at their own pace, all while prioritizing their people.
The shift toward true digital integration may also drive interest in scaling back: some people view ubiquitous technology as invasive, and it will be up to each individual to set boundaries for the infiltration of technology in daily life. Just as organizations will have to consider technological enablement against social interaction, individuals must gauge their levels of social integration while taking advantage of technology-enabled wellness.
While technology has solved plenty of problems, it has also raised questions around privacy, interaction, choice, and control. Workplaces have continued to adapt to changes in technological capability, and it will be an extended challenge to address and mitigate issues introduced by technology’s prominence in everyday life.
Beattie, Andrea. “Tips on How to Reduce Stress and Boost Workplace Wellbeing.” Huffington Post Australia, 10 October 2016.
Bunch, Julie. As Baby Boomers Age, is Architecture Failing Them? Bisnow, 20 June 2016.
Dornfeld, Chris. 5 Ways Office Design Engages Employees (Even Remote Ones). Work Design Magazine, 2 March 2017.
Gregoire, Carolyn. “The American Workplace is Broken. Here’s How We Can Start Fixing It.” The Huffington Post, 22 November 2016.
Gensler Experience Index, 2020.
Korkki, Phyllis. “Telecommuting Can Make the Office a Lonely Place, a Study Says.” The New York Times, 2 January 2016.
Richmond, Jason. Put the “Pro” in “Productive”: Balancing Traditional & Nontraditional Practices in Workplace Culture. Business.com, 9 June 2017.
Sanders, Ann. Millennials Pave the Way for a Green Revolution in the Workplace. Blue and Green Tomorrow, 10 May 2018.
Winston, Anna. Ergonomics not evolving quickly enough for the modern workplace, says Haworth. Dezeen, 11 August 2016.