Workplace Wellbeing is a Matter of Leadership Through Design

Workplace design

Lee Day, director of workplace concepts, discusses how to improve wellbeing in the workplace.

Wellbeing has become one of the key initiatives behind workplace investment and a hot topic of conversation for the design and construction industry.  While some may still be sceptical as to whether this is just the latest trend, there’s plenty of evidence that improving wellbeing in the workplace not only has strong historical roots, but is also really effective in improving productivity.

As far back as the 19th century, employers were having much the same conversations they do today about the changing nature of work and how to keep employees productive by making them feel valued.  The most famous result of these conversations was Bournville, the workers’ village established by the Cadbury family in Birmingham.

Change ‘village’ for ‘campus’ and you can see how modern workplace pioneers like Microsoft and Google are revisiting and refining ideas about wellbeing that stretch back over a century.

Cadbury’s made the connection early between social values and economic benefit and it’s still true today that a contented workforce is key to a successful business.  Salaries account for 85% of an employer’s long-term costs.  That vastly outstrips construction and other infrastructure requirements, so it makes sense to maximise the return on this investment by attracting – and, crucially, retaining – the best talent.

Partly this is about physical and mental health.  An employer that considers the physiological and emotional needs of its workforce will impress potential candidates, especially the generation emerging from today’s schools and universities where in-house wellbeing counsellors are common.

A generation ago, companies had to significantly improve their office I.T. to meet the expectations of graduates used to the highest standards of technology.  Today, there is a similar ‘wellbeing gap.’

There’s a benefit to productivity as well – a healthy, happy workforce means a reduction in absenteeism and staff turnover.  The UK population is 20% less active than 50 years ago.  In just six years, there has been a 24% increase in the number of days lost to stress, anxiety and depression.

So what can employers do?  There’s already a shift towards a wellbeing standard similar to ISO health & safety standards or Investors in People status.  The WELL Building Standard is granted based on seven diverse metrics: air, water, light, mind, comfort, fitness and nourishment.  Area is proud to be a WELL Accredited Professional.

The other area where employers can make a difference is through effective leadership.  The WELL standard’s combination of environmental elements with more subjective factors is a reminder that wellbeing is as much a cultural shift as a physical one.  Changing the layout of an office isn’t enough on its own.  It also requires employers who can inspire their workforces with a strong vision. 

Winston Churchill, who knew something about leadership, said, “we shape our dwellings and thereafter they shape us.”  You can see the same philosophy at work if you visit the Victorian workspaces in Bournville or the forward-thinking campuses on the West Coast.

Through a holistic approach to workplace design, Area has helped dozens of businesses achieve better standards of wellbeing and cultural alignment in the workplace, both through the creation of inspiring office environments as well as by advising on successful change management programmes.

This blog is an abridged version of Lee’s presentation at the Smart Buildings Hub, part of UK Construction Week, on 10th October 2017 at the NEC.  To learn more about how Area can help you with wellbeing in the workplace, take a look at examples of our work.

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By Lee Day, Director of Workplace Concepts