What a strange month April was. Working from home has really put us to the test, both as businesses and individuals, and we’ve all had to adjust to being cooped up indoors without the ability to socialise or communicate face-to-face with colleagues and friends.
But between watching my houseplants grow new leaves, enjoying the colours that my new wall prints have added to my home, and discovering the incredibly soothing music of Ella Fitzgerald, I’ve learned to tune in to the little details and really appreciate some of the more personal aspects of my home ‘office’.
Despite the many frustrations, there’s definitely something to be said about this new routine, not least the freedom and control over our immediate environment, along with the comforts of our own space. These are issues designers and architects will undoubtedly need to consider as we begin to reimagine the office (and indeed the home) for the post-COVID-19 era.
Control fosters calm
Personalisation and control (perceived or actual) over our work and environment are shown to be key drivers of positive mental health and wellbeing, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management and a report by Mind.
Interestingly, this is part of the reason why hundreds of pedestrian crossing buttons were kept in service in New York, even after it was revealed that the majority didn’t work. People crave that small perception of control over their environment, and if we want our workers to come back post-lockdown calm, focused, and ready for action, then we need to reflect similar ideas in our office design.
At home, we have the benefit of changing the thermostat, opening the windows for some fresh air, choosing the colours and artwork that don our walls, and where we want to sit and work. This can be harder to replicate in an office, where each employee has a preferred way of working. But upon our return to our normal workplaces, companies may have to be prepared to create a more adaptable environment, informed by the current impromptu home working situation.
Of course, company culture has a role to play in this but, through design, architects and designers can create spaces that provide the perception of control and flexibility that we have become used to. Offices need to be adaptable, with flexible lighting, good heating and ventilation. In fact, the WELL Building Standard v2 recommends a temperature difference of 3°C across open plan floorplates, with workers granted ‘free address’ to work in whichever part of the office suits their internal thermostat best.
Personalisation and productivity
And perhaps most importantly, offices need to provide a range of workspaces and environments to choose between. While open plan may remain important and necessary for both social and work communication, phone booths and team meeting rooms can be useful for those in need of privacy and quiet. I fully expect to see a greater range of space types emerge from this situation.
But, although hot-desking has been the preferred trend in design recently, we shouldn’t underestimate the value of private offices and dedicated desks. Allowing employees the space to adorn their work stations with desk lamps, plants, pictures of their friends and family – organised in a way that suits them – can bring familiarity and a sense of control over their small corner of the workplace. As we know, personalisation of spaces has been shown to improve productivity and staff happiness.
Benefits for the bottom line
It’s true that fewer desks and the reduced space that hot-desking permits means less overheads for companies, but the high levels of mental wellbeing that autonomy and control bring are intrinsically linked to productivity and company worth. The Centre for Mental Health found that in 2016/17, mental ill health cost UK businesses a total of £34.9 million in sickness absence, presenteeism while at work, and staff turnover.
The American Psychological Association also argues that when workers have more job-related control, their stress levels are lower. Clearly, the cost of mental ill health can be vast for employers, but through instigating small design features that allow a worker to personalise and control some part of their working life, companies could save a lot from their bottom line.
Like any change in routine, returning to work once the lockdown is over will be a challenging time for many, and companies will have to fight hard to earn back their lost revenue. But it may also be seen as an opportunity to rethink their office space with the help of architects and designers, to create spaces that ensure their happy and healthy workforce are raring to go.
For more content on mental wellbeing, click here.
Ben Channon is Head of Wellbeing at Assael Architecture. For more of Ben’s content for Work in Mind, click here.
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