Well-being in the workspace

It's not just hierarchy, it's the expression of power and the status of the space you inhabit - whether you have your own office. We are working with a City law firm at the moment. It's not the most hierarchical or status consciousness, but they tell me stories like: "When you make partner you get to choose the exact shade of leather of the furniture in your room." One of the things [contributing to stress] has to be the expressions of physical power in a building.'

Theresa Dowling
Theresa Dowling

For example, Pomeroy referenced the many businesses that might have a large office building looking on to a supermarket on one side, with better views on the other, and no view or natural light at all in the middle. The places where people sit in that office space will be directly linked to status, even before you get to providing gyms or pilates studios.

So what can designers do about this, to clarify what might need to change within a client's organisation, even before the designs are drawn up? Anna Breheny felt very strongly that it is the designer's responsibility to draw attention to these issues: 'Absolutely, that's our job. I think you have to start at the bottom and understand the culture and look at the culture they want to create...and work out how can we help do that from a design point of view. You have to give them this as a complete package. We have to get everyone involved. It' has to be holistic. You have to look at absolutely everything if you want to make it work. It's a combination of the physical, the political, the emotional.'

FX editor Theresa Dowling felt this was going into dangerous territory for designers, who may not have the skills or experience to re-engineer a work culture. But Breheny insisted: 'You have to find the line that's appropriate for that client. You have to be responsible and not give them something they've insisted on even though you know it's not going to work. You have to find that balance maybe by suggesting: "That's a great idea but it's not going to work and this is the reason why." That's one of the biggest challenges of being a designer.'

Penson declared: 'You have to be part marriage counsellor. If you are going to go in and sell an idea, if you try too hard it doesn't work. If you go in, sow the seeds, then walk away, (usually) after three months they come back to you and suggest it as if it's their idea... that's how I help an organisation go from A to B. It works really well. It takes a year to change them like this. And then, because they feel that it's their idea, [it] comes back as a rounded, considered idea, so it becomes deliverable.

A lot of the time things are being pushed on to companies that aren't deliverable. Everything has to be deliverable or it doesn't happen.'

One of the biggest assets to a designer at the early stages of proposing major cultural and physical change is a way of demonstrating the cost of ill health and stress. Said Penson: 'You have to demonstrate to a business that all these things add up to a strong business case; they save money. Otherwise it doesn't happen.'

The whole group was agreed that the next generation of workers will definitely be driving the workplace-wellbeing agenda. Chris Jenkins said: 'Younger people expect more in terms of flexibility. Less in terms of workspace furniture; [it's not about desks], but chairs or beanbags. And they demand good connectivity.'

Ben Hopkins
Ben Hopkins

Anna Breheny said: 'I think the war on talent is a huge driver at the moment. It's so fierce. With Generation Z [currently those at school] we don't even know what they're going to be doing yet. But they're moving so quickly with technology...Already Generation Y [20s] say: "I'm going to the place that pays the best, that looks the best, has the best benefits. I can choose whatever I want because I'm a genius. I know more about IT than you will ever know." ... I think their [attitude] is: "What have you done for me lately?"'

Penson agreed that Generation Y 'has sussed out the whole mobility thing [so that they can work anywhere, and want a choice of spaces]. The generation gap is a big thing now, and it's becoming more and more obvious. We have sat with clients in massive canteens and you see one generation eating steak and kidney pie and chips with loads of gravy and then it's suet pudding and custard. So they're serving up 500 portions of that lot.

And the younger generation is there with their homemade salad boxes. We did a desk utilisation study for an organisation with some 6,000 people. This [older] lot...had a food coma at their desks two hours after lunch. The other generation was buzzing, [moving] all over the place. The statistics were completely clear. So what we did for that organisation was we designed them a lovely space but said you need to get a culture going where the younger generation teaches the older generation about food and nutrition and how to get mobile. And it's worked.'

So the message to designers is clear - the ball is in your court: arm yourself with some strong facts and figures about workplace culture and sickness; conduct some meaningful research into company culture before you get to the drawing board; develop a great line in diplomacy, and set your design skills to work for the benefit of all the present and future workers.

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