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Creating an office environment that will drive engagement

A conversation with wellness architect, Pippa Lee.

Capita announced last weekend that it would be shedding a third of its office space in the UK. Google has told employees that they can work remotely until the summer of 2021 and Square has announced that everyone can work from home permanently.

With companies around the world declaring that remote working is here to stay for the foreseeable future, what does this mean for the traditional office?

If you want to create a living brand in your organisation, a brand that inspires loyalty for both consumers and employees alike, one of the core tenets is the importance of creating the right physical environment. Those companies that fail to create spaces that are aligned to their brand risk alienating their people. Yes, having the right tools and technology to fulfil our roles is critical, but employees also need a blend of communal and private spaces that really bring a company’s brand and culture to life. Failing to consider this in the right way, particularly in the world we’re living in, can be irreversibly damaging.

UC spoke to Pippa Lee, a wellness architect who focuses on designing healthy spaces, to get her take. Pippa has been blazing a trail for years so we stole ten minutes of her time to better understand how the COVID crisis is going to change office design forever.

Employee wellbeing and the subject of wellness have been creeping up the corporate agenda for the last few years but have been accelerated by the crisis, and many businesses forget that the physical space is a critical part of the equation.

How can businesses ensure their work spaces are as healthy as possible for their people, beyond creating COVID-19 safe spaces?

Wellbeing in the workplace goes far beyond creating a virus-free environment. Even before the global pandemic, a lot of focus was given to finding ways to increase employee health and wellbeing in the workspace. We know that healthier and happier workspaces lead to improved morale, productivity, employee satisfaction, engagement, reduced rates of absenteeism and higher levels of employee retention. 

So, designing the workspace with wellness front of mind means re-thinking the traditional way of doing things. I was fortunate enough to work for a wellness real estate company in NYC and have experienced many of these design strategies first-hand. They definitely led to a more vibrant, happy and enjoyable workspace. I am talking about: 

·      Active work stations (sit, stand, walking desks etc.)

·      Biophilic design (view of nature, indoor green wall / plants, graphics of nature) 

·      Sound masking systems / soundproofing 

·      Advanced air and water filtration

·      Adaptable workspaces

·      Circadian lighting / natural lighting / task lighting

·      Thermal comfort for individuals (we all run at different temps!)

·      Places for nourishment (kitchens and breakout lunch spaces)

·      Wellness rooms (meditation, massage chairs, time outs)

·      Women's rooms (breastfeeding / pumping)

·      Employee volunteering programmes

·      Employee social programmes (sports / meditation etc.)

·      Benefits such as gym memberships, Fitbit’s etc.

·      Inclusion of more walkable spaces (making stairs front and centre of the design and easily accessible, rather than only focusing on the elevators). 

Employers don’t need to implement each and every one of these ideas to see an improvement and depending on the stage of a workspace (pre-design / construction / retrofit) there are many different design approaches that can be implemented on a case-by-case basis.  

It’s highly likely that we’re going to see a big shift in how people are using their spaces generally and office re-designs will inevitably follow as people start to adapt to a new normal.

What do you think companies should be thinking about to create the right environments for their teams to entice them back into hubs? 

As someone who worked from home prior to the recent pandemic, I was already investigating the need for a hybrid ‘office’ space that I could use more like a meeting and / or showroom space for the company I work for, as I have found I can do most of my job from my laptop at home, but do need a more professional space to hold meetings, collaborate and show our product (home wellness technologies). 

As many employees have been forced to work from home, and employers have seen that productivity has (mostly) stayed the same, I think we will absolutely see employers looking to adapt commercial spaces to become a more casual ‘meeting space’ with hot-desk setups, meeting rooms and other breakout spaces for those people wishing to break up their routine by coming into an office. 

Most existing office spaces will need to be redesigned to allow for greater social distancing between employees, which will in turn see the number of employees able to fill a space reduced; so this hybrid hot-desk / casual desk setup will become more common - given most employees can work off a laptop - as long as there is power!

So, what do you see being created?

When I think about the office of the future, I think of an environment like Google. A place that essentially offers employees options, benefits, a more ‘casual’ approach. Work spaces will be relaxed, bright, open, vibrant and connected to nature if possible.

The word on the street is that open plan office spaces are on the way out – what’s your take? Do you think we’ll all retreat into small single offices again? Will we see a resurgence in cubicle culture? We hope not!

I think we will see a mash-up of a traditional office with traditional meeting rooms that will provide people with breakout spaces to meet and enable them to be creative, take calls and work on tasks that need quiet. But I don’t think we will go back to the traditional single office setup - if only due to cost! 

What I predict we will see is better distancing between employees (implementation of cleverly designed antimicrobial shields), better soundproofing (no one wants to hear a colleague on the phone), better individual lighting (natural lighting) and thermal control, but I don't believe that will be via a private office, but rather a series of pod-like designs that can be used flexibly.

And one final thought, if remote working does take hold in the way it’s anticipated to, what can we all do at home to ensure that we are working in the best possible environment?

This is a great question and one I have been asked a lot lately given the increased time we are spending at home!

I know of friends that have rearranged their entire home, invested in home office set-ups and one who actually moved apartments after realising the natural light inside her home is just not sufficient given she is there all day - so this ‘new normal’ is having real world consequences for a lot of people and we’re approaching our home spaces more mindfully as a result. 

In terms of what we can do for our indoor environments at home (short of moving!):

1. Set-up your office in the room with the best natural light. Exposure to natural light during the day helps to regulate our circadian rhythm which in turns has huge consequences on our mood, hormone levels, anxiety and more. If that is not an option, good task lighting at desk level is also important, anything to reduce eye strain is very helpful (and can reduce those headaches). I also like to use blue light blocking glasses after sunset which helps to reduce glare from the screen and block out artificial blue light - I find when I use these I can wind down and fall asleep much easier. 

2. Look at your air quality. The easiest and cheapest option is to open a window! Following that, I like to introduce a HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) air filter for the space. These are very effective filters that trap very fine particles that are invisible to the naked eye. Generally, they can trap at least 99.95% of smoke, mould, dust, odours and VOC’s (if you chose a 3-stage filter with carbon filtration) and other fine particulate matter. These are sized based on room volume so make sure you check before you buy. There has been an explosion of ‘HEPA’ filters on the market, and the term HEPA is still unregulated so make sure to do your research before you purchase.

I like to keep indoor air quality at an optimal level by: removing shoes at the door, using non-toxic cleaning products, vacuuming with a HEPA vacuum, keeping the space as clean and clutter free as possible and introducing indoor plants (this is more a visual biophilic response but it works wonders on your mood!)

Thanks, Pippa!

We may be seeing a very gradual return to office spaces, particularly in the UK, but with most only able to accommodate anywhere between 20-40% of their full occupancy, the hybrid work environment is here to stay. So, it’s critical that organisations set their people up for success wherever they choose to work.

The need for a space to collaborate and innovate won’t disappear. We still need opportunities to build relationships, to interact with others and for communities to form and storm. And that can’t happen entirely online. It’s also more challenging to bring a brand to life for people if they are not in your physical offices. But the spaces we choose to work within do need to be rethought so that they are set-up for the new way they’re likely to be used in the future.  

Things aren’t going to go back to the way they were. But is that really such a bad thing? People will be more purposeful about the time they spend in the office and productivity will be a big focus if we are gathering in-person less frequently. We still need to build up that social capital in the workplace, but some need a better work-life balance, too. If our work environments are more carefully considered and are more aligned to the brands we work for, then we’re more likely to support this blended approach.

More than ever, what people really want is choice and confidence that their employers are doing all they can to support their health so that they can do their best work. They want to be trusted to choose to work in an environment that’s right for them depending on the task at hand.

Stay tuned for more in our Work Remastered series.