While many workplaces have a come a long way in happier, healthier, more human designs, WELL is a new performance-based system gaining popularity for taking the guesswork out of healthier spaces and uncovering common design pitfalls that may be disrupting sleep, slashing productivity, stunting cognitive functioning, and leaving employees isolated. While WELL provides a robust road map to scientifically proven concepts that measure occupant well-being, below are a few practical, budget-friendly interventions to help spot and correct the most common mistakes in workplace design.
1. Air Quality
“I can’t think—I need to get some air.” This common phrase is more accurate than one might expect. As carbon dioxide (CO2) levels build up in an enclosed space—perhaps in a closed conference room—it impairs our ability to think clearly. Studies show that performance across nine cognitive functions increased an average of 101% in environments that had improved rates of ventilation. Energy Recovery Ventilator systems and CO2 sensors can increase ventilation and respond to changes in air quality while using less energy than conventional systems. Choosing low volatile organic compound (VOC) materials and introducing greenery and plant life can also help remove toxins from the air.
The sleep deficit epidemic is a vicious cycle. Borrowing from your sleep bank account withdraws from the rest the brain needs to form new connections and organize information from the day, as well as affects behavioral and emotional well-being and hormone balance. A lack of sleep interrupts repairs on your cardiovascular, nervous, and muscular systems and is linked to higher risks of obesity and diabetes.
But better lighting could help. Attention to the color, quantity, and temperature and synchronizing indoor lighting to instinctive physical and psychological rhythms can better align the workplace to the body’s natural circadian rhythm—appropriately cueing the mind for alertness and rest.
Start the morning with warm dim light that becomes brighter as the day’s routines begin. Don’t work the entire day in low light levels; instead, take breaks in bright natural light or work early into the afternoon facing an exterior exposure. In the later hours, opt for lower light levels, and avoid harsh light on work surfaces. Lighting should also be matched to the task at hand; shades and individual task lights allow employees to customize their lighting to their work without disrupting the entire department.
Research confirms people prefer to be in a natural space rather than a built environment—so what do you do when the average employee spends 90% of his or her time indoors?
Biophilic design brings the outdoors in to respond to the deep connection between humans and nature. By adding greenery and plants, increasing natural light and providing access to outdoor spaces, choosing naturally inspired materials, and incorporating nature-inspired artwork, companies can tap into the power of nature to directly and positively impact employee health, engagement, and performance. The correlation between nature and health is so profound that even design elements that simply evoke the feeling of nature—sounds, for example—can speed psychological restoration by 37% after exposure to a stressor.
4. Eating Alone
Eating alone, or dining al desko, proliferates unsanitary bacteria and unsavory odors, which creates added stress; promotes overeating; and, perhaps worst of all, leads to feelings of isolation. Feeling excluded can be more detrimental to employee well-being than being harassed or bullied, but often, the issues are disguised as employees being too busy to step away from the desk.
Building strong relationships at work helps manage work-related stress, increases motivation and engagement, and simply makes the office a more enjoyable place. A destination kitchen encourages social bonds and connectivity and puts community on display. Remember that not everyone is an extrovert. Opt for circular elements like a pendant fixture over a large round table or informal stools around a “campfire” to equalize participation. Quiet nooks next to windows and views of the outdoors or small balconies and rooftop gardens offer inviting moments to find balance and step away with friends to refresh and recharge.
Technology, while opening up a world of possibilities in connectivity and collaboration, could be leaving employees disjointed, disorganized, and disengaged. In fact, the plugged-in culture may put people’s physical and mental well-being at risk. New research is calling bluff on multitasking and revealing that our productivity plummets by as much as 40% when we rapidly switch between tasks. Distraction from an e-mail or call can drop your IQ by 10 points alone. Chronic multitasking disrupts cognitive control and the regulation of emotion and causes weaker memory, stress, depression, anxiety, reduced relationship satisfaction, and a decreased ability to prioritize correctly. So, what does this mean for the future workplace?
Consider a range of settings or “micro-zones” dedicated to supporting different activities throughout the day—small group collaboration, one-on-one conversations, or focused individual tasks. It’s also important to strike the right balance between “we” and “me” spaces. Research shows that proximity and placement of these spaces are key. Keep “me” spaces, such as individual desks or wellness rooms, comfortable and near collective work areas to encourage their use; keep them front of mind, and make it easier to step away without feeling completely disconnected. Creating a “neighborhood” concept allows employees to organize tasks while making connections between different responsibilities and activities.
Small Steps Toward a Big Impact
With so much employee time spent indoors, workplace design provides a strong opportunity to improve overall mental and physical health, engagement, performance, and satisfaction. A more human-centric design approach, the WELL Building Standard adds meaningful value to enhance the human experience. With the advent of this new standard in healthy design and a growing demand for workplaces that care for the well-being of employees, even small steps and interventions can add up to a big impact in a measurably healthier design and culture.
Lauren Whitney, RID, IIDA, LEED AP ID+C, WELL AP, is an interior designer at Corgan, an international architecture and interior design firm, and has earned national recognition for her expertise in corporate interior projects. She is a WELL-accredited professional who works with her clients to develop a strategy for sustainable solutions that improve the office environment. Whitney also helps clients navigate dramatic workplace transformations with a combination of creativity and attention to detail. She believes in using these tools to create human-centered designs that support business goals. Whitney is also a proud graduate of the University of Oklahoma.