How companies are fostering wellbeing in the workplace

Office design has a big impact on how employees feel about their job and how they manage their daily workload.

July 17, 2017

Meeting deadlines and dealing with difficult situations is all part of office life yet the space in which employees get the hard work done can have a real impact on how they manage their workload.

Introducing nature into the office and creating spaces where employees can take a break from their computer screens are just some of the ways companies are fostering a sense of wellbeing in their employees. Indeed, many companies are putting their own twists on these concepts.

Staff in the Wisconsin HQ of healthcare software maker Epic can hold meetings in the treehouse conference room, located in the midst of black cherry trees and red pines. At Sky’s new head office in London, broad flights of steps were designed to encourage staff to linger and converse. And universities from Berkeley in Los Angelesto Edinburgh are following the example of Ben & Jerry and Zappos in introducing quiet zones and sleep pods.

“Employee health and wellbeing needs to be ingrained into the vision of the organization – and creating positive experiences in the workplace will require companies to rethink their real estate and strategic direction,” says JLL’s Ana Stanojevic, Associate Director, Workplace at JLL. “Today’s workplace is more than space; it’s where people and organizations achieve their ambitions.”

Hubs, quiet spaces and yoga classes

The emphasis on wellbeing is feeding into the workplace from research in two particular areas. As Stanojevic describes, wellbeing is seen as a way of supporting creativity and productivity. It is also a means of tackling mental health issues – and it is no coincidence that some of the pioneering employers are in the healthcare sector. In Scotland, for instance, the Healthy Working Lives project is encouraging the National Health Service (NHS) and other employers to recognize that stress, depression and anxiety are reported as the most common reasons for staff absence.

Companies are starting to take action. NHS Glasgow and Clyde, for example, has introduced yoga classes and weight management sessions for those employees that want them. In Australia, the new Melbourne HQ of health insurer Medibank offers its staff a choice of more than 26 types of work settings, ranging from indoor quiet spaces and collaborative hubs to wifi-enabled balconies and places to stand and work. Features including the sports court, an edible garden and the presence of 2,300 indoor plants are specifically aimed at supporting productivity, engagement and collaboration.

So are these steps just nice ideas or are they having an effect? Medibank is clear about the results. Four months after moving into the new HQ, it surveyed employees – and found that 70 percent said they were healthier and 66 percent reported they were more productive, while its call center wing had seen a 5 percent fall in absenteeism.

Stanojevic is sure that more employers will take this route. “The issue is not about finding physical space,” she says. “It is more of a cultural one.” Take napping at work, for example, which is widely accepted in the Far East. “In Japan, more companies are encouraging employees to sleep on the job, convinced that it leads to increased productivity. In the West, sleep pods are becoming more popular but are still quite rare”

How trust pushes engagement

The provision of wellness facilities helps make employees feel more engaged, says Stanojevic. She notes that both engagement and performance rise as staff are given some choice over how and where they spend their time and the freedom to operate from different work settings.

“When they are trusted, employees feel they have a sense of purpose at work and are empowered to work in the best possible way,” she adds. Las Vegas-based shoe retailer Zappos also makes this point when it says that its head office design and perks — including 17 kitchenettes, a gym and a massage chair — are important ingredients in strengthening ’employee morale, engagement and retention’.

Elsewhere, large corporations, such as Google, HBO and Deutsche Bank, offer meditation programs for their employees – a move which can be a cost-effective way to reduce stress. “We are seeing a lot of space now being used for mediation, allowing people to breathe and reflect,” Stanojevic says. “Mindfulness is being recognized as a way of enhancing cognitive capabilities and overall wellness. Recent research on naps, meditation and nature walks reveal how mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories and encourage creativity.”

Plants around desks and indoor gardens in communal areas have long been popular with numerous studies showing them to have a positive effect on stress and health and on productivity. Pets are also becoming an increasingly common feature of the modern office – not just at Google. “In the future, we will see even more dogs being allowed into work. Bringing your dog to the office is a great way to get people to be more social, more active and reduces staff stress,” Stanojevic adds.

As wellbeing rises up the corporate agenda and corporate space is being designed in a more flexible way, it is not particularly difficult to change its use. “We are going to see a new emphasis on having a diverse range of settings in the workplace,” says Stanojevic. “The physical environment is increasingly being seen as a tool for both attracting and retaining talent. Many organizations are investing in having spaces which not only encourage but actively promote a sense of wellbeing.”