How happy are you at work? A Gallup Report found that a shocking 85% of people are not that thrilled to be going to work every day – they are either not engaged or actively disengaged in their job1.
The reasons are varied, but not necessarily related to their commute, their boss, or their salary, but often due to the design of their physical and sensory environment. For example, a survey conducted by the Leesman Review, found that 76% of office employees list noise as an important workplace consideration yet only 30% are satisfied with the noise levels in their workplace2.
Eight hours a day in a stuffy, cluttered office space, with poor quality acoustics or bleak views outside can make it hard to concentrate at work. So, what design considerations matter and how can workplaces be better designed for employee wellbeing?
Image: World Green Building Council “Building the Business Case: Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Green Offices”
A comfortable environment is key
Healthier offices have fresh air, daylight and good acoustics. Not only do people feel more comfortable to work in spaces with these attributes, but they can even make employees better at their jobs. Studies carried out by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that among other benefits like improved attentiveness, people’s cognitive function test scores doubled in office workspaces with better than typical indoor environmental quality3.
Some of the wellbeing benefits carry on even after workers have left the office, including getting a better night’s sleep and fewer reported symptoms of illness which impacts overall wellbeing. Better design of office environments can make people more productive and feel better doing their jobs.
Image: COGFX, “The Impacts of Green Building on Cognitive Functions”
Healthy environments improve productivity
Even small improvements to an employee’s sense of comfort, wellbeing and productivity can mean a huge difference to a company’s bottom line. A 2014 report by World Green Building Council (WGBC) found that when considering lifecycle costs over time, cost associated with recruiting, paying, and training staff make up 90% of typical business operating budget4. Investment in the design of work environments to enable better engagement and productivity makes good business sense5. Numerous studies show that noise is the top source of complaints about the work environment and 70% of employees report that their productivity would increase if their environment was less noisy6 so this needs to be prioritized in office design.
Image: World Green Building Council (2014)
Designers have long known that quality environments can make people feel happier, be more socially connected, and improve our interactions with one another. Kåre Stokholm Poulsgaard, Head of Innovation at architects GXN and 3XN in Denmark, says their office pays particular attention to creating welcoming lobby spaces, and designing meeting areas that encourage positive interactions and views through the building. They incorporate wide, social staircases where people might meet and chat as they move through the building. In addition to formal and spatial features, a good work environment requires specifying high quality, natural materials and considering how to create a great sounding space and experience in various workplaces, not just in typical offices.
Image: Bella Sky Hotel, Copenhagen, 3XN
Optimizing buildings for indoor comfort
For example, at Bella Sky Hotel the building is optimized for people visiting and working. The hotel is a major employer and is the largest in the Nordic region, with more than 800 rooms and numerous meeting and activity spaces. Sustainable design features include a green living wall in the lobby bringing nature indoors, a ‘lazy’ social staircase to encourage people to walk and explore the building rather than always opting for the elevator, and a high performing building envelope7.
Poulsgaard explains natural materials are critical to promoting people’s wellbeing in the building: “There are no synthetic materials to be found in any of the rooms. Carpets are in wool, bed sheets in high-thread count cotton, and there is a common use of natural materials such as smoked oak and leather found throughout the décor.” Studies show people feeling better surrounded by natural materials that not only look benign, but that are proven to not harm our health. Materials and finishes with low VOC are shown to positively impact our cognitive functioning3.
Interiors around the building utilize natural materials, like the multi-functional ROCKWOOL stone wool insulation, which is used in many 3XN projects due to its insulating, natural, and recyclable qualities. Good sounding spaces that reduce unwanted noise and promote privacy when needed are important in meeting, dining, and relaxation areas at Bella Sky for people that work and stay there. 3XN used Rockfon acoustic panels in the rooms, but also in more public areas of the hotel because they are a natural, and fully recyclable material.
Reducing noise for fish and humans alike
Nearby to Bella Sky, 3XN also designed the Danish National Aquarium, a visitor attraction and workplace located by the city’s airport. For all users of the building, the designers had to address a specific performance and comfort issue relating to noise. The building required high quality insulation to block out noise from the airport, and keep the focus on the aesthetics and experience of the organic swirling form of the building, which is visible to people in the air taking off from the airport. 3XN used ROCKWOOL insulation to achieve a high indoor environmental quality so that the outdoor noise doesn’t bother the people --or the fish -- inside the Aquarium.
Image: Danish National Aquarium, Copenhagen, 3XN
Whether typical office spaces or other kinds of environments for working or learning, employee wellbeing and comfort must be prioritized. Kåre Stokholm Poulsgaard says designers should consider how technology can be harnessed to improve the design process. Designers in his team are looking to utilize more of the building and environmental data collected on a project as feedback into the design process connecting building performance and sustainability more clearly to employee wellbeing.
“We need to know more about how the buildings we design actually function in use, and we also need to ‘close the loop’ in using the massive amounts of data we collect during the design process as feedback”, he says. Digital tools for measuring, modeling and simulating sensory qualities like sound, light, and air, are becoming more widely used in the industry8. We know that these parameters have a huge impact on health and wellbeing, as well as productivity and learning ability. The challenge for the building industry is to put in the time and effort at the earliest design stages to create work environments for people that are inspiring and promote engagement, where they can be excited about going to work.