Does Design Make A Difference to Workplace Wellbeing and Productivity?

In light of Covid-19, whether it’s returning to the workplace or continuing to work remotely, workplace wellbeing remains important but tricky to maintain. Challenges abound ranging from the blurring of boundaries and poor ergonomics around physical space in the home, to restrictions that need to be in place if employees are returning to the workplace.

In this interview I caught up with Eileen Donnelly, Business and Wellbeing Lead with What Works Centre for Wellbeing. This independent collaborative Centre brings together pioneering thinkers from across government, communities, businesses and other organisations.

We shared ideas around what makes a successful workplace wellbeing programme, how wellbeing in the workplace can be measured and where workplace design fits within a holistic approach to mental health, wellbeing and productivity.

What role does workplace design play?

At What Works Centre for Wellbeing, we believe that workplace design can contribute to the drivers of wellbeing in significant ways, BUT that it does not solve all problems. It’s about how you can work with what you have and get the best out of it.

A report from the World Green Building Council entitled “Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices: the next chapter for green building” highlighted promising evidence that making changes to office layout may improve wellbeing. It also showed that in some cases this may improve performance.

When it comes to the home environment, Ben Channon, Head of Wellbeing at Assael Architecture has done interesting research into how home design can impact our mental health. He found for instance that control (or even perceived control) of our environment is crucial to our wellbeing.

We would love to further review the current evidence, look closer at the true impacts of hot desking, standing desks, etc, and then translate this evidence for business use and implementation.

How do you currently measure wellbeing in the workplace?

To measure wellbeing, it is critical to have visibility of how people are doing. The Centre has created a questionnaire which is based on the evidence-informed 5 key drivers of wellbeing: Relationships – Health – Purpose – Environment – Security

  • Environment includes both the physical workspace BUT also cultural environment
  • Security relates to safe work conditions as well as security in job role
  • Relationships, which are the biggest driver of job satisfaction, can be enabled through good design. Our review ‘Places, Spaces, People and Wellbeing’ considered whether social wellbeing relations and community wellbeing can be improved through better community infrastructure. Whilst it relates to public spaces, there are key learnings that can be applied to the workplace.

How important do you feel it is for people to be in the correct job for them?

We know from our own research that job quality really matters. Being in a job is good for wellbeing. Being in a ‘high quality’ job is even better for us.

By high quality, we don’t mean a certain skill level, type or industry. It’s about what makes a job worthwhile for us. Things like:

  • How secure it is
  • The social connections we have
  • The ability to use and develop our skills
  • Clear responsibilities
  • Opportunities to have a say in a supportive workplace.

What other aspects do you feel should be considered to improve wellbeing and performance?

There are four key areas to focus on:

  1. Giving people training – to develop personal resources, skills, or problem solving, so they are able to make their own jobs better – may have positive effects on wellbeing and in some cases may improve performance.
  2. Changes to ways of working, such as office layout or job design, alongside training, may improve wellbeing and in some cases may improve performance.
  3. Organisation-wide approaches that improve job quality and a range of other employment practices may improve wellbeing – provided one objective of the change programme is to improve worker wellbeing. In some cases, this may also improve performance.
  4. The Centre also featured a blog which looked at natural versus human-built beauty and its impact on our wellbeing. We know that beauty and a nice environment can increase positive emotion daily and the same is the case with green/blue/natural space.

Earlier this year the Centre published What Works For Health And Wellbeing In The WorkplaceWhat can you tell us about it?

This was a systematic review that was conducted to identify, appraise and synthesise all relevant studies. It provided insight into the factors that influence the effectiveness of wellbeing interventions. Key findings were:

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Factor 1: A positive workplace context can be an enabler, but a negative context is not necessarily a barrier to successful implementation.

Workplace health and wellbeing programmes are more likely to succeed in favourable internal contexts, including those where the following conditions apply:

  • There are positive social norms and attitudes towards health and wellbeing by front line workers, middle and senior managers, occupational health and human resource professionals.
  • Making positive and tangible changes can lead to shifts in attitudes and improved capabilities.

It’s worth keeping in mind that where there is an adverse external context, such as takeovers, economic recessions or freezes in public spending, this nearly always derails or prevents implementation of workplace health and wellbeing programmes.

Factor 2: Appropriate and good quality systems can be combined with the capacity for the programmes to learn and adapt as they go.

A combination of the following factors is necessary but not sufficient for the success of the workplace health and wellbeing project:

  • Appropriate governance structures (structures that are inclusive of all relevant stakeholders and responsive to their concerns)
  • Good learning processes (surveys, workshops, focus groups)
  • A planned sequence of activities (including needs/risk assessments)

Factor 3: Beyond good intentions and rhetoric, activities and programmes need to make tangible changes to workplaces and to how people work.

For example, group health promotion activities can intentionally boost healthier lifestyles and lead to better social relationships at work if they involve group activities and improve social interaction.

Finally, the review outlined five practical principles for employers that can be derived from the findings.

  • Communication: Regularly communicate about wellbeing to bridge across initiatives.
  • Coherence: The coherence of workplace initiatives helps to provide front line workers and managers with a consistent narrative on the importance of wellbeing.
  • Commitment: Persevere, adapt and learn through continuous consultation and bringing various stakeholders on board.
  • Consistency: Consistency is about ensuring compatibility between a wellbeing programme and the existing ways of doing things. e.g. graft onto current practices and current indicators.
  • Creativity: Challenging existing ways of working when these are inappropriate to health and wellbeing.

Even though the coronavirus pandemic has thrown up many challenges and changes, these five key factors are still hugely relevant.

I came away from our conversation with a firmer understanding of what’s needed to create real impact when it comes to workplace wellbeing. A holistic approach is clearly essential and workplace design can be a significant contributor in many different ways. But there is still more to be done when it comes to measuring impact.

About the author

As the founder of obo ( Gary Helm’s focus is on the physical and emotional wellbeing of people in the workplace. Through collaboration and co-creation with a coalition of experts across the supply chain I am able to deliver solutions that shape the changing workplace. Workplaces that allow talent to flourish and for company cultures to be reflected. Places that provide commercially sustainable, long-term people focused solutions.


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