The links between workplace design and the health and well-being of employees has come under an increased spotlight.

From office air temperature to natural light to the configuration of furniture, designers are under mounting pressure to deliver successful spaces that work to create impactful workplaces that maximise performance, productivity and happiness.

While many workplaces are taking the cookie-cutter approach of “injecting fun” into their spaces through the likes of beanbag areas or foosball tables, there is actually a lot more more to it according to B + H Architects interior designer Deanna Hayko.

Hayko describes it as “Workplace Ecology,” a term coined to describe the connection between design, productivity and well-being.

In a recent article on REMI Network, journalist Michelle Ervin details a session Hayko conducted at this month’s National Summit on Corporate Real Estate.

Hayko revealed the three questions she asks her workplace clients:

  1. Does performance actually matter in the workplace?
  2. Should today’s workplace really be user-focused?
  3. Can happiness truly affect the company’s bottom line?

She also noted that while “workplace ecology” isn’t an exact science, it does require significant consideration. Hayko further predicted that choice and flexibility will continue to rule, as a means of ensuring  health and well-being for employees will be “front of centre” of workplace design by 2020.

A growing body of research shows that a vast amount of employee dissatisfaction, including low engagement and productivity, is linked to the workplace itself.

For example, Gallup recently completed a 142-country study, State of the Global Workplace, surveying approximately 180 million employees to find that a mere 13 per cent of employees worldwide are engaged at work.

“At the regional level, Northern America (the U.S. and Canada) have the highest proportion of engaged workers, at 29%, followed by Australia and New Zealand at 29%,” the study stated.

When it comes to performance, Hayko says it’s about encouraging engagement, with everyone from the business owner to the real estate community to design professionals playing a role.

In terms of the design professional, Hayko describes it as a “shift from uniformity to variety, with fewer assigned spaces and more collaborative spaces such as cafes, lounges and telephone rooms.”

“The workplace square footage really isn’t changing a whole lot,” she adds. “It is decreasing slightly, but what’s far more important is how it’s being assigned and unassigned,” she said.

Many Australian projects are delving into what are known as “hierarchy neutral spaces”.

Sydney firm Those Architects recently completed a commercial fit out for Ansarada, a financial company which provides virtual data rooms for businesses.

The project secured first place in the 2014 Australian Interior Design Awards for transforming a historic wool-store into a modern, technology-focused workspace.

Hierarchy Neutral Spaces at Ansarada's head office

Hierarchy neutral spaces at Ansarada’s head office

At the heart of the workplace is the staff-focused design that sees every employee from the CEO to the receptionist sitting at the same desk. This allows for easy collaboration between peers and facilitates a move away from highly compartmentalised offices to ones that foster a more democratic way of thinking.

The design also includes a fitness area and suspended swings to allow for thoughtful conversation in a way that helps reinvigorate staff in the high demand workplace.

This leans into Hayko’s next question, responding to “the user focused” workplace.

Hayko describes the need for choice as key and outlines its three different aspects: privacy, the work style and collaboration.

“There’s a direct link between choice and wellbeing, she said. “Especially if we spend 36 per cent of our time at work…we better know how to provide choice,” she said.

This was also highlighted in recent research by global architecture and design firm Gensler, which highlighted choice as something that consists not only of where staffers physically work but also of their ability to control their individual environment.

“Personal control of storage, lighting levels and HVAC functionality vests each worker with a sense of ownership and gives them the ability to achieve their own level of optimal comfort,” said Kirsten Ritchie, PE, LEED AP O+M principal at Gensler’s San Francisco. “Making sure a workspace has a variety of settings, from desks to private focus rooms to larger meeting rooms, also lets people choose when and where to get things done.

Hayko cites workplace happiness as a direction, referencing the estimated $300 billion cost in lost productivity due to workplace stress in 2010 in the US as reported by Worldcrunch.

“It’s not about indulging individuals with all kinds of means of space by giving them (the) ability to do yoga, or ability to have their meetings outside, or providing them an outdoor tennis court or indoor swimming pool,” she said. “What’s the culture?”

In terms of what makes an employee happy, Energy Project founder and CEO Tony Schwartz lists four core areas of need: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

Schwartz’s recent blog post on Why the ‘Best Places to Work’ Often Aren’t, he challenges results from Glassdoor’s and Fortune’s recent list of the best places to work.

He believes the results demonstrate the low expectations of employees who may be rationalising their choices, learning not to expect more from their employers.

Schwartz also believes the lists don’t measure the quality of employees’ lives, where time and energy are key to performance and happiness. Google is regularly on these lists for its innovative workplaces, many of which other organisations try to replicate instead of looking at the culture of their own employees.

Google has been first on Fortune's list and also secured 2014, "Most Unexceptional Company to Work For"

Google has been first on Fortune’s list and also secured 2014, “Most Unexceptional Company to Work For”

“Energy is our most precious resource,” Schwartz writes. “In physics, it’s defined starkly as ‘the capacity to do work.’ Higher demand in the absence of sufficient rest and renewal means less energy. Less energy means less capacity.”

Schwartz advises employees to create “work environments that enable and encourage all employees to regularly refuel and renew themselves, both on and off the job. That will make them capable of bringing the best of themselves to work.

  • The answer to all three questions posed in the article is an emphatic yes – good workplace design is conducive to higher levels of employee morale and productivity. Your workplace should be a physical space which you are happy to enter, not one which you feel resembles more of an eight hour prison.

    That said, whilst I generally like the idea of open plan spaces, which I feel breaks down hierarchical barriers, I do feel a complete move toward this open space would be a mistake. Some people are more productive when working in their quiet space, which is also subject to fewer disruptions.

  • I have to admit I didn't quite appreciate the role of design in workplace happiness until I experienced it first hand. I work in a tower that has recently undergone a refurbishment. There have been different firms involved in the designs of different work floors for different companies. There is definitely a lot of envy / pride dependent on what floor / company you are part of. I am not saying where or on which side I sit!

  • Nice points. I personally love working in a space that bring in lots of light, with the low background noise of what's going on outside. It makes me feel more energized. More energy = more inspiration = better output. Right now, our office space isn't exactly conducive – but that's because we're making major changes. Not exactly like Google of course (nothing fancy), but workplaces should also reflect what the company stands for.

  • Proactive ergonomics programs can support smart design to optimise employee engagement, health, and well-being.

  • What a conundrum this creates not just for the individual advantages , but the total social benefits on offer from such a 'simple solution' – in my mind there are no doubts that the majority of us would produce more with better outcomes if we were in a happy, loving environment. The conundrum is not what (and as I've already mentioned the why), our real challenge is the HOW ?
    I'm unaware of any CEO, Employer or Coach, that claims they 'Do NOT WANT the best for their employees, or that say their 'people are their greatest asset', yet see them invest in a Workplace Designed for Performance and Happiness. Having read not only this article, but many other similar themed statements, I feel we lack the leadership from the top down to implement even a third of what is described in this story, hence my question of "…HOW?" If any one has a few ideas on moving away from our current 'adversarial' low performing unsatisfying workplaces, please keep this challenge alive. Bob Hawke once (or twice) said this Country is (or could be) a Clever Country, so why are we lagging and not harnessing of few of Tony Schwartz core areas of need where time and energy are key to performance and happiness?

  • This subject is one I've been looking at lately. I include the home office as well. I totally believe in "designing for happiness" at home AND work.