We tend to think we’re in the know when it comes to the impact that office environments have on employee physical and mental health. But are our assumptions correct, or just the latest office design fads? Here, we look at a new study that could blow the door wide open – and two recent stories that question received wisdom on office design.
Last year, scientific journal Nature reported on a breakthrough scientific collaboration between two US research firms; Mayo Research Clinic and Delos, a design and technology firm based in New York City.
In May 2016, several employees in the Mayo Clinic medical-records department packed up their belongings and moved into a brand new office space located in the heart of Minnesota. They made themselves at home; setting up photo frames of loved ones on their desks and settling into the daily rhythms of their working life.
Then, the researchers began to mess with them. They cranked up the thermostat and changed the colour temperature on the overhead lights; played irritating sounds through the speakers and adjusted the desk height.
They were human guinea pigs in an ongoing, large-scale research project called the Well Living Lab, developed in an attempt to fill the knowledge gaps on the impact of the built environment on our physical and mental health.
The scientists hope that the long-term experiment will allow them to produce practical, evidence-based recommendations for creating healthier indoor spaces; ranging from offices to homes.
“We spend 90 per cent of our time indoors,” explains Brent Bauer, the Well Living Lab’s medical director. “If we don’t optimise that, we’re going to have a hard time optimising wellness as a whole.”
What we think we know about office health and wellbeing
Working indoors can pose various health risks that can have a big impact on how we behave and how productive we are.
Studies have shown that higher air temperatures can curb calorie consumption; that employees take more sick leave when they work in open-plan offices; and that children in daylight-drenched classrooms progress faster in maths and reading than do those in darker rooms.
The program aims to look at all these studies together to ascertain where the research may conflict when placed in real world scenarios. There have been many studies on a single aspect of the indoor environment, such as light or sound. But in the real world, these variables operate in ways that haven’t yet been measured – until now.
For example, while the researchers reported that office workers scored higher on tests of cognitive function when their office was better ventilated (often, this translates to ‘more open’), many studies have also found that background noise impairs cognitive performance.
They’re hoping, eventually, to arrive at an optimum office environment. For example, “an office with plenty of natural light, a thermostat set to 21 degrees celsius and a modest hum of background noise” produces the happiest employees, who respond to emails quickest or enter database information most accurately.
Next year, a member of the research team specialising in ergonomics will investigate whether standing desks improve health in workers. Research thus far has shown that using a standing desk can slightly increase the number of calories burnt, but the evidence for broader health benefits is limited.
The biggest takeaway for HR? That received wisdom is no match for lived experience. Individual organisations with unique working practices and staff should not make assumptions; rather they should make decisions based on the needs and experiences of their employees.
Does hot-desking encourage creativity?
Hot desking can make employees feel like the “homeless people of the office world,” says researcher Allison Hirst.
A hot-desk environment often employed in tech companies, promises a ‘more dynamic’ workspace and ease of collaboration as well as a reduction in space costs for the employer. Hirst found that, in reality, the set up benefits those who are able to ‘settle’ into the best spots in the office. While the hot-desking concept is supposed to encourage engagement, in fact it often adds to precious office hours as employees search for a free spot, or are forced to constantly build new relationships with relative strangers.
Can office design drive a corporate culture re-brand?
Melbourne-based law firm Moores believes that it can. Moores used a move and office redesign as an opportunity to re-set their corporate culture, as well as consolidate their objective of distinguishing themselves from other legal practices.
The result? An office design that seeks to create ‘an office in a garden.’
While the need for privacy and confidentiality means that open-plan offices are generally shirked in the legal profession, the resulting floor plan reflected the firm’s ‘culture shift’ towards more open daily collaboration and communication.
They also aimed to maximise the idea of fluid indoor-outdoor spaces into office design. Textural carpet tiles and warm timber joinery are offset by thick greenery installed within a central hot desk and collaborative spaces, imitating the western park views.
The idea for the new office was to “create an office for the team and firm to be unified and work more collaboratively,” says Martha Rand, senior interior designer of Consulo Architects.