Karen Cook: wellbeing-friendly workplaces have commercial benefits too

Karen Cook, founding partner of PLP Architecture, describes how integrating wellbeing into workplace design has vital commercial advantages

For some decades, office buildings have been designed and measured against certain building regulations and workplace guidelines. These standards have served to reassure funders, remote from the design process, that their speculative commercial real estate will meet institutional tenants’ needs. Architects, meanwhile, have long complained that these rules are an inflexible rod, preventing design from addressing human values, and resulting in characterless places.

Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, a rebellion has been underway. The individual rebels against the idea of lifetime working for a large company in which unique personalities are swallowed into a homogenous workforce. In parallel, funding for speculative commercial development now often comes from pension funds rather than banks. These investors are represented by individuals who are closer to the design process than their predecessors, and who bear responsibility for a long-term, stable, investment. This outlook leads smart investors to consider qualitative characteristics of a design, if a value can be demonstrated to justify increased capital outlay.

Designing for wellbeing means addressing mind, body and spirit; it gives architects an opportunity to reintroduce fundamental architectural qualities such as good daylight, spatial hierarchy, craft and art. Technology makes it possible to work from anywhere, so why bother going to work in an office building? Increasingly, our work is not individually focused, but interactive. We meet with clients and colleagues, formally and informally.

Despite much talk about young people driving this change toward mobile working, the Leesman Index — which measures how workplaces support the employees they accommodate — reports that statistically the under-25s are more sedentary than their elders. The more complex the work, the greater variety of activities, accompanied by a need to move about to find the best setting for a particular work activity.

Technology already enables employees to work in different locations across the office. In use, the culture of the employer’s organisation needs to support flexible working, by offering a variety of work environments. Some employees have only to experience the liberty that a choice of settings can offer to realise their own potential for greater effectiveness.

Offices designed for wellbeing are visually appealing, leading to a common misunderstanding that the end objective is publication in the architectural press. Make no mistake, the benefits are commercial, or savvy developers would not be leading the way.

Craig Knight and Alexander Haslam, researchers at the University of Exeter, have explored key concepts at the heart of workplace management, drawing on insights from the social identity approach to organisational life, applied to the study of office space. Their research concludes that ‘empowered offices’ — in which workers can choose and influence their working environments — can increase productivity by 25% or more. In 2014, the International Well Building Institute launched the WELL Building Standard, for buildings, interior spaces and communities seeking to implement, validate and measure features that support health and wellbeing.

The physical fabric of PLP Architecture’s project 22 Bishopsgate, for AXA IM Real Assets and Lipton Rogers Developments — the first WELL-registered tower in Europe and due to complete in 2019 — addresses wellbeing by offering higher clear heights, greater daylight transmission, better quality staircases, faster lifts, art and craft externally and internally. A tall building is large enough to be able to dedicate some space to a variety of stimulating and relaxing uses outside its primary use as offices. On five floors spread across the tower, the community of 12,000 employees and their visitors can escape the office to find a food market, incubator hub, fitness and wellbeing centres. Stimulation or repose, group activities or retreat, a variety of needs as well as basic conveniences are met. The idea is that small tenants can offer these amenities to their occupants, thereby competing with larger tenants to attract and retain top talent.

Designing holistically with wellbeing in mind is here to stay. Work is no longer about performing repetitive tasks efficiently. Robots can do that without us. Our society will only remain competitive globally if we excel in creative work. Creative people want to enjoy work. The work environment needs to change to support how people work, rather than expecting individuals to adapt to a lean workplace.

The design process requires greater collaboration between the occupier, the architect and the client, to analyse the way the occupier works, and synthesise those needs into design. The buildings will become more particular — but commercial developers should not fear a loss of flexibility. On the contrary, if buildings are designed with better circulation and better daylight, it should mean that in future they will be more adaptable to evolving uses.

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