ExclusivesThinkingWorkplace wellbeing: Creating safe office spaces

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the healthy building movement. So how can we create safe spaces, where people actively want to work? The UK’s top workplace design experts explain… By Sophie Barton
Sophie Barton Sophie Barton5 months ago15 min

It’s safe to say, 2020 has been a year like no other. COVID-19 has destabilised our personal and professional lives, and forced us into unanticipated ways of working. The associated fear, worry and uncertainty has inevitably impacted our emotional wellbeing too, with far-reaching consequences for our mental health.

But what does all this mean for the places in which we work? While we face many uncertainties, one thing is clear – the pandemic has prompted a radical rethink about the office. It’s more important than ever that we can provide healthy spaces, where people can feel safe and flourish.

Wellbeing in focus

“COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on workplace wellbeing,” says Work in Mind founder Joanna Watchman. “It’s forced a rethink about the relationship people have with their workplaces, and what we can do to make everyone feel safe within those spaces.

Joanna Watchman, Work in Mind Founder
Joanna Watchman, Work in Mind Founder

“Ultimately, getting people back into offices matters. Humans are sociable animals and we need human company and collaboration. Without it, I believe there will be devastating consequences for our productivity, performance and mental health.

“And, for the sake of their mental health and productivity, people need to know that their wellbeing is a priority. Indeed, it’s no accident that on Glassdoor.com, employees are now judging workspaces on how safe they feel within their environment.”

The office is alive

Architect Jon Eaglesham believes that far from spelling the end of the office, the pandemic is accelerating a willingness to accept the need for healthier buildings. He is managing director at workplace design experts Barr Gazetas, which counts the headquarters of the UK Green Building council and One Heddon Street for The Crown Estate amongst its clients.

“Offices aren’t dead,” he tells Work in Mind. “They are hugely important places, but they need to become healthier spaces. And while the pandemic may be a disruptor, there are positives to it too. It’s given people time to reflect on the issues we were all trying to talk about, and there’s less resistance to healthier buildings. It seems daft that it’s taken a pandemic to speed up a required shift in thinking, but that just proves the power of the times.”

So, how is the pandemic influencing office design? And how can we use design to create safe spaces, where people actively want to work?

“Healthy buildings are now being championed by everyone,” says Jon. “We start two new office design projects a month and top of the agenda now is what’s the right benchmark for this project and building. It’s part of the brief and the pandemic has made retrofit briefs more aspirational.

“Clients are now recognising that there’s no point in delivering a building that isn’t going to be healthy and hygienic. People need touch-free access to their desks, an increased volume of air flow and improved filtration too. Plus, we need more air quality monitors, so employees know that the air they are breathing is clean.

“Instead of urinals and communal washing facilities, we’re now including fully enclosed super-loos with a toilet, hand dryer and bin – plus much more extraction. In the 90’s we were asked to move cleaning cupboards to the basement, but our enhanced cleaning routines mean that no longer makes sense. Now, we’re incorporating them on every floor. And we’re seeing improved occupier facilities too, such as showers, to cater for the fact more people are cycling or running to work. In the common areas we’re also trialling lights that contribute to killing germs.”

Creating a refuge

Of course, in these uncertain times it’s more important than ever that our buildings feel like a haven from the chaos of the outside world. Psychologist Deborah Wilder tells Work in Mind that many people are genuinely fearful about using public spaces. And for employees to embrace the office again, carefully thought-through design is a must-have.

“Without the right attitude and reassurance, people won’t return to the office,” says Deborah, who is head of research and strategy at workplace design experts, Interaction.

“The temporary set-up for getting people back has often been led from a health and safety perspective, but that often involves red and white barriers and taped off areas, which look unwelcoming and unnerving. It feels like you’re entering a disaster zone. Likewise, safety signage often uses colours like red, which shout danger, and dictatorial language.

“Instead, we’ve been creating social distancing and handwashing signage with softer language and calming colours. We’ll often use a brand’s own colours, and we take the same approach with desk stickers and floor arrows too. We also try to avoid Perspex screens, because being boxed in makes people fearful. It reminds them that there’s a need to keep safe. Instead, we might do a temporary redesign to space out employees.

Psychologist Deborah Wilder
Psychologist Deborah Wilder

Creating supportive spaces

“Decent daylight or biodynamic lighting is an absolute basic too. Softer lighting can really change how people feel, and it’s often overlooked. Ultimately, workplaces need to make people feel supported in doing their jobs, instead of stressing them out.”

Claire Stant, creative director at Office Principles, agrees that lighting has a vital role to play in the post COVID workspace, as do ergonomics.

“Lighting is hugely important,” she says. “In the past, every workspace had the same level of brightness, regardless of its purpose or positioning. But what makes people feel well and happy is a balance of biometric light that changes throughout the day, with specific lighting zones that may be brighter or more atmospheric.

“Ergonomics are important too. This year, lots of people have worked long hours on bench seats or with a laptop on the sofa and we’re seeing a rise in muscular skeletal issues as a result. Now, our workplaces are being ergonomically designed to address this and to counter burnout. We’re also hungering for a variety of texture, colour and planting that many of us have missed while locked in our boxes.”

Calming colours

Gurvinder Khurana, director and co-founder of workplace specialist designers align, adds that colours will play an increasingly essential role in creating soothing spaces.

“When it comes to colour, there is a move to a more calming palette of soft greens and pinks and warm earth tones, aimed at reducing heightened anxiety levels,” she says. “Coupled with this, there will be the splashes of bright colour. People are desperate for a bit of fun and cheer.

“Furniture can be used to create subtle wayfinding directions too. I like the idea of old-fashioned modesty screens in beautiful new fabrics to create visual interest, help with acoustics and softly navigate people around a space.

“Both designers and the environments they create are going to have to be prepared to flex to meet a more complex and changeable future. What lies ahead is a suite of more creative and human-centred ways to make people feel safe and happy in the workplace. The biggest damage the pandemic has wreaked for those of us who have escaped being seriously ill is psychological – and this is what design must now address.”

Gurvinder Khurana is a Director and Co-founder of multi-award-winning workplace strategists and designers align
Gurvinder Khurana, director and co-founder of workplace specialist designers align

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Featured image credit: Multi-award-winning workplace strategists and designers align 

Sophie Barton

Sophie Barton

Sophie Barton is our Features Editor. She a journalist and editor with 17 years’ experience in the national media, specialising in wellbeing and lifestyle.

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