How workplaces can shift towards holistic wellbeing ahead of returning to work

Stepping up to the plate: How to shift to prioritizing health for returning employees.

Wellness is finally becoming top of mind for workplaces and people alike. Perhaps this is a silver lining of COVID-19. The idea of wellness at work was historically focused on benefit plans or meeting the needs of one’s physical health. But today we know that is not enough. As we begin to come back to the office, it is critical that organizations establish trust. This means stepping up to do more than just mitigating a virus, but also taking action to support holistic wellbeing.

In May 2020, The Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than half of Americans reported the current pandemic was harming their mental health. The impact and fallout of this is still yet to be seen, but workplaces have an opportunity to act now. Recognizing the impacts of emotional and cognitive health will be just as important as addressing those associated with physical health.

Design with empathy

The physical environment has a significant impact on how people feel in a space. Imagine the different emotions you feel walking into a crowded stadium versus the feeling of walking into a cozy coffee shop. Scale, proportion, color, density, lighting, and planning all impact our mental and emotional state. We need to remember that not everyone will be excited, or without fear, in returning to the office.

Designing quiet corners, private focus rooms, and areas of respite that reduce outside stimuli will be of critical importance in easing that transition back to work. These spaces should reduce ambient noise, provide a calmer light level, and use natural material palettes to signify it is ok to breathe, focus, and relax in these spaces. As well, providing a variety of furnishings to support different postures and workstyles will support the effort to meet a wider variety of people’s needs. Encouraging teams to come back at their own pace and communicating with them the changes in protocols and the physical space will re-establish trust and mitigate fear.

Equitize daylight and views

Access to daylight and views is the number one requested employee amenity, according to Future Workplace, an HR Advisory and Research firm. Providing this for all employees requires a strategic and thoughtful planning approach. While it may be easier to mitigate a virus with a plethora of plexiglass screens, this approach could evoke feelings of isolation, or working in a fishbowl, and may not be a setting many will rush to come back to. Instead, consider spacing out the workstations and orienting them in ways that do not create people sitting face-to-face all day. For private or enclosed spaces, utilizing demountable glass partitions does not impede views; and keeping these areas held to the core of the building will allow the light to penetrate the workplace.

Access to daylight has proven impacts on physical health. Sunlight provides a natural source of vitamin D, which reduces the risk of heart disease, weight gain, and other physical ailments. It is also recognized to ward off depression and improve sleep patterns.

Maximize your indoor-outdoor space – or create some

Outside spaces are currently the safest place to congregate, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO). If you already have these spaces, furnish them in ways that provide opportunity for both formal and informal meetings; as well, consider adding power and WIFI to make them useable. If there is no established exterior space, consider creating one, and making it useable yearlong with temporary and permanent structures. Heating or cooling mechanisms in these spaces, depending on your region, will maximize your investment in holistic wellbeing.

Leverage biophilic design in your space

Biophilia is an innate human tendency to be connected both directly and indirectly to nature. In design we have an opportunity to use biophilia to positively impact physical, cognitive, and emotional wellbeing.

Recent research from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that showed significant improvements in all physiological measures –  blood pressure, heart rate variability, and SCL (the body’s physical reaction to stress) – of people using spaces featuring such design elements. It was also shown that the biophilic spaces were preferred by most participants and improved creative cognitive functions.

There are 14 biophilic patterns that can be leveraged and layered in design to maximize the impact, and ideally 50 percent of the space has some biophilic influence. Opportunities to bring direct connections to nature exist within daylighting and views, plantings, and water features. But one green plant on a desk will not capture the environment you are trying to create. Instead imagine spatial dividers made of green walls, or planters; rock gardens or water features within amenity spaces that already exist, like work cafes or informal lounge areas; perhaps bring in trees or plantings to anchor social spaces in an open floorplan.

Additionally, benefits of biophilic design exist when using natural analogues, or manmade materials, that replicate things found in nature. Selecting finishes that use these biomorphic forms and patterns is an easy way to bring biophilia into your design. Flooring materials, wallcoverings, ceiling accents, lighting, and color palettes can all work cohesively to bring a biophilic concept to life.

Personalize the workplace

Gone are the days of one-size fits all workstations, seat assignments based on hierarchy or department, and mandatory morning start times. Work and life have become increasingly intertwined, and choice and personalization remain a leading approach to engaging your current team and attracting new talent. In fact, a Future of Work survey found that 78 percent of people list ‘flexible scheduling and telecommuting’ as the most effective non-monetary ways to increase retention. But this involves more than just enabling choice. We need to foster choice AND respect boundaries. Are your employees getting up early to work out and make a healthy breakfast before commuting to work? Are they taking a lunch break, or an afternoon walk? All these healthy choices support their holistic wellbeing, so how are we encouraging those behaviors?

The workplace should provide choice for when and where work is done. In the workplace, spaces should realize the opportunity to change in ways that improve all aspects of wellness. Encouraging teams to have a stake in the design, protocols, and culture shifts of both the office and remote work policies keeps them invested in the outcome. Smart Technology integration allows regular building functions like lighting and temperature, which have a direct impact on emotional wellbeing, to be personalized. Flexible seating spaces can be reserved on an app to make the experience in the office efficient and easy for teams to connect. Smart Technology apps can also be designed to integrate into other health and wellbeing initiatives you may offer, like mental health resources, EAP programs, coaching, or mentoring.

Spaces that support your people

A recent survey of the drivers for returning to work found that the top two reasons for employees wanting to come back were face-to-face collaboration and social interaction. This shows how strong the desire is for human interaction, which we already know is critical to innovation. Creating spaces that feel safe, healthy, and supportive will become increasingly more important moving forward.

The shifts borne from this pandemic are inspiring companies to live their values in new and meaningful ways. It is no longer enough to create workplaces that work. We need to create workplaces that truly support the people who will choose to come to them. The reality is we are asking our teams to innovate, collaborate, and create the future – and in order to do so we must provide them with a different set of tools than just a desk and a computer. Supporting holistic wellbeing means integrating health into all aspects of your business, including physical space. Spaces that are designed with empathy, biophilia, and choice will be critical in keeping teams engaged.

At the center of each workplace is its people, an organization’s most important investment. Our biggest expense lies in their salaries, professional growth, and benefits – and our biggest risk exists if we do not support their holistic wellbeing.

Images are courtesy of Stantec.
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