Wellbeing is one of those tricky words that we often hear but rarely stop to think about, what is wellness and wellbeing anyway? Co-Founders Steve and Adam were delighted to share their thoughts over a coffee with Cognitive Scientist Kristina Barger.
Here’s what Kristina gleaned from their conversation… perhaps we’d best start with some exploration of:
what workplace wellbeing actually is?
The answer may lie in what psychologists call “individual differences” and designers call “bespoke” or “customised” design. In other words, best-in-class workplace wellness is contextually specific. Great workplace design isn’t something you can buy off the shelf or pluck out of a book, because great workplace design defines, communicates and supports a company’s own unique culture and community. It is the physical manifestation of each company’s unique ecosystem.
Steve - Workplace wellbeing is when a company embraces the importance of putting the people working there first. With regards to the design of the built environment, all aspects are considered, from natural light and lighting, acoustics, clarity of space/proximity to others and air quality. When these go hand in hand with business directives and company culture, it likely results in a workplace that not only has health benefits for those working there, but also economic ones too.
People work in different ways. They all have different characters, ambitions and tasks they’re required to perform. Some are always on, some like down time, especially offline downtime. Many have kids or other family issues they need to balance. We all know that obligations on our time, attention and energy, or our cognitive capacity, are often far too high. And, that wellbeing is often about balancing all of the needs we have to meet, while still making time to relax and recover from the pressures of modern life.
Modern life, particularly the ‘always-on’ lifestyle, demands a lot from most of us. Balancing work duties and social conventions will often pressure us as well. But, when we design spaces and services, we have the opportunity to structure psychological impact and to design for greater variation and choice.
Some people prefer liveliness and a buzz in the atmosphere, whilst others need quiet, low stimulation environments. Many people want the ability to move around during their day, to interact with colleagues at times and to drill down into a task at others. Still other people need a sense of sameness and familiarity, and an emphasis on predictability, because it gives them a sense of stability in life. Sometimes too much variation and dynamism can be frustrating or distracting to certain roles or personality types. The trick is to balance a range of needs within an organisation, keeping some areas predictably static and unchanging, while providing other spaces that support more varied individual preferences and role fluctuations.
Supporting the health and comfort of employees seems like an obvious win for any company, but in fact this is a more recent trend. In the older industrial and corporate models, work was somewhere you showed up to regularly and exchanged your time and efforts in return for a package of financial rewards and incentives. There was no expectation of having your comfort or preferences catered to, because it was all very top down. The individual was expected to fit themselves into the larger framework of the company and its needs.
However, technology has played its part. With the advent of the internet itself, and the internet of things (IoT), we’ve been conditioned to expect on-demand delivery of hyper-personalised services that offer us everything we’ve ever wanted, often before we even knew we wanted it. As a result, we all now expect more of what we want, when we want it, throughout the built environment. This has already dramatically changed the nature of relationships between companies and consumers and is now also changing what employees expect from companies.
The other really interesting thing about technology is that it generates an enormous amount of data. It is now possible to identify and categorise the conditions that people want, as well as the ones that make people happier, healthier and better performing. And, if we can identify what those conditions are, of course, we can reproduce them. The monitoring of air quality will now be undertaken by all of us via our phones, for example….
Designing for workplace wellbeing is about more than just wellbeing.
Steve rightly points out that it doesn’t make too much sense to focus on wellbeing in a vacuum. “I wouldn’t go out looking to design a workplace for wellbeing. In the same way I wouldn’t look to design one to solely embrace biophilia. Great workplace design consists of so many different parts that all need to come together in order to finish the picture.” People, place, tech, etc and the fine balance of them all.
Without this holistic approach to design, creating a harmonious workspace becomes a near impossible task. Instead, we are left with a distracting and “noisy” environment, full of unnecessary visual, aural or physical stimuli. Ultimately, this type of environment leads to something called cognitive dissonance, which can strip away productivity and wellbeing.
Cognitive dissonance is an idea that has migrated over from social psychology into other disciplines including consumer and workplace psychologies. In a nutshell, it describes the feeling we have when our minds are forced to struggle with competing demands. It’s the opposite of harmony, “congruence” or that feeling of calm we get when things are in sync and we are in flow states.
“Clean house, clean mind” isn’t just woo-woo, mumbo-jumbo then. “Noisy” environments inadvertently pull your attention to and fro, forcing you to expend precious time and mental energy engaging and deciding. Even if you decide to ignore the interruptions, you’ve already been momentarily knocked off the task you’ve chosen to focus on, requiring you to mentally “task shift” back to where you wanted to be. And, research tells us that task shifting does more than just waste your time, it causes you to make more mistakes and also makes work more tiring and frustrating.
But if workplaces are full of different people with different roles who need different things, how do you design spaces that support different needs at different times while maintaining a sense of congruence and balance?
Apparently, it all comes down to asking questions, undertaking research, listening and synthesising. Taking in the whole experience, from the moment employees or customers walk in the door, allows designers to really understand and conceptualise a full complement of needs and impressions. Focusing on the users and really centering design on their experiences allows you to express implicit details that you might miss.
Adam - “We do a sort of taking the temperature when we walk in. We instinctively categorise the types of work being performed in each space, and model user group types, which we then use to understand and shape how people behave. Buildings shape behaviour. The best interiors manifest behaviours within the space.”
There is also a gradation of culture which companies express in multiple ways. You can get a feel for the values and behaviours that are important to the brand by looking at their website, advertising or book on culture before you even walk in the door. Staff interviews can reveal a lot about how the actual experience on the ground aligns to the company's established brand ideas, values and aspirations. Often there is a distance between the two, and some companies are more open to bridging the gaps than others. BJ&B try to meet in the middle, and build congruence between what the brand promises consumers and delivers employees.
What factors do you consider when trying to balance so many perspectives? Are there any that are more important than others?
According to Steve, company culture is key. “If the culture isn't aligned to have the people’s health and happiness at the top of the agenda, then no matter what we do to the workplace aesthetically, it won’t get better.”
If you are looking to create an amazing place to work, one that attracts the best-in-class, then it has to be built on trust and autonomy. Top-down processes or wellness programs based on squeezing more productivity out of workers lack authenticity and show up in the ways that they restrict rather than truly empower. Employees need to be trusted to make their own decisions about what they need to be happy and healthy. This can start with the design process.
One of the most important factors to successful workplace design is, unsurprisingly, communication. Good communication is the best way to get great design. But, it’s not all pitching and persuasive delivery. On the contrary, communication, from the perspective of the designer, is often more about listening and asking good questions than about coming in with big, preconceived ideas and solutions.
Many design methodologies can actually bias results before they start. There are lots of different ways to do design, but as in all research projects, designers also have to be careful not to impose their own preconceived ideas on the outcome. According to Adam, this is especially true of Western design methods, where someone comes in to pitch a big idea based on a brief of what is assumed to be needed.
Blindly following a big idea, or picking culture off the shelf, regardless of the unique needs of the client, makes truly user-centred design impossible because it cuts out the majority of voices and needs from the get-go. It forces the design into much more of a top-down process that risks imposing ways of working rather than supporting them. The design then builds on an assumed interpretation of the company, rather than building on the actual needs and preferences of the company and the people who are its lifeblood. Coming in with a big idea means you’ve already locked out 80% of options. Too much focus too early risks dampening the inspiration to discover what delivers for individuals and the designers ability to find the value of the unique culture itself.
Designing for workplace wellbeing is about "inside out design".
If great workplace design isn’t just a big, glossy idea brought to life, then how do you know if you’ve achieved it?
According to Steve, it seems like congruence comes back into play again. If there is a match between the way the company presents themselves outwardly, the way they interact with their customers, and the way they design for their own employees, then chances are there is a real commitment to workplace wellness. Business data, such as productivity rates, staff turnover or churn, as well as attraction and retention rates, are often indicative of well-designed and smoothly running workplaces.
Companies like WD-40, that clearly invest in great workplaces for their employees, are ideal to work with. Some other companies that have a shiny, well-designed client-facing side contrasted with working environments that are more utilitarian, or just not so human-centric are a bit more of a challenge. The mismatch can be a clue that the human aspect of the work environment isn’t really a priority to the company and that it’s perhaps more profit driven.
Steve - “If your goal is to have a healthy workforce to increase productivity then I guess your starting point and direction may not be the best. If you are looking to create an amazing place to work, one that attracts the best people, is built on trust and autonomy and the by-product is an increase in productivity, then maybe you will see that bottom-line heading in the right direction.”
It seems that great workplace design is about synergy between the built environment and the needs and experiences of the humans who rely on it. But, as technology seeps into more and more areas of our lives and more of our time, attention and interactions occur on-line, we become increasingly disconnected from the present moment and the built environment surrounding us. Perhaps the built environment has a role to play in bringing us back to the present, in making us more mindful and able to connect with the world around us.
Turns out, BJ&B’s got some great ideas from all the research they have done to date. And, it’s no surprise that it preferences the human side of things. Say you’ve read about the benefits of nature on wellbeing and you’re looking to incorporate nature into your workplace design. You could get more plants, but you might be better off building on trust and allowing employees to go into actual nature and talk a walk when they need it. Or, maybe, you’ve heard that loneliness is a key issue in modern society, particularly in London. Do you install ping pong tables and get cold brew coffee on tap? Maybe. But, my favourite idea from this whole session was Steve’s idea to bring back the “tea lady”. It doesn’t have to be a “lady”, of course, but it’s a great way to bring some human contact back into our daily lives. Hopefully, it would nudge us all to take a friendly break and remind us that great workplaces are designed by humans for humans.