ThinkingOffices of the future: Designing for wellbeing

What does it take to bring employees back into workspaces and sustain the return to office? Sam Peters, co-founder of Planted, explores the universal shift in designing for wellbeing.
Content Team3 weeks ago14 min

While many assumed the shift towards remote working and the accompanying focus on workplace wellbeing would pass with the easing of pandemic lockdown restrictions it is now clear they are here to stay. 

The shift is a universal one, with even major financial institutions in the UK and North America, those most traditional of establishments, waking up to a 21st century reality where employees require more carrot and less stick when it comes to fostering loyalty and a sense of belonging.

‘Rather than sending threats and monitoring staff, managers need to think about other ways of encouraging workers back to the office,’ Mark Mortensen, associate professor of organisational behaviour at Insead business school, recently told the Financial Times.

Employees demand better design inclusivity and hybrid working

While many businesses had already identified the commercial value of designing aspirational and collaborative office spaces, others have adapted during and since the Covid pandemic. Perhaps most notably, the needs of neurodivergent staff, estimated to be around 20 percent of the overall workforce, are increasingly being catered for with distraction-free workspaces and stimulating community areas.

Meanwhile, collaboration and meeting zones, an already established trend in office design, are becoming more intimate, designed for smaller groups aimed at encouraging one-on-one conversations.

Colourful single booth chairs are scattered around the room for varied working options
PearsonLloyd Edge Single Booth for Modus

With research by Scoop, which tracks hybrid working, showing 93 per cent of British finance companies now offer hybrid working, compared with 87 percent of their US counterparts, it appears whichever side of the pond you are employed on, and in whichever industry, employees now expect hybrid working options to be available.

But while companies may be willing to offer flexible working packages, many remain heavily invested in office spaces. For some, there is a fear these spaces could become permanently underpopulated.

Those organisations keen to lure their staff back into the office, often on a part-time basis, need to demonstrate their values and commitment to them through empathic design, catering for their post Covid needs including childcare, pets and other lifestyle changes. Essentially, employees need to show they care.

According to a 2023 by Aflac, a US based insurance company, employees are experiencing higher rates of burnout than during the height of the pandemic with nearly six out of 10 employees reporting at least moderate burn out last year. Businesses who do not address this by providing, among other things, more holistic wellbeing programmes and better designed office spaces, risk being left behind.

Offices of the future, it seems, will need to be designed considerably more empathetically, cater for a more diverse range of employees, to make investing in office space worthwhile.

A variety of chairs showcase different styles to suit different body types and ergonomic sitting options
Balance chairs by Modus

Making the business case to design for wellbeing

With more and more studies showing a direct link between wellbeing in the workplace with staff retention and an increased productivity, the commercial case to design spaces accordingly is increasingly clear.

Thankfully, some smart companies were ahead of the curve when it came to workplace wellbeing, and now find themselves perfectly positioned to service the dramatically increased demand.

For two furniture manufacturers, modus and Teknion, who recently announced a new partnership aimed at facilitating growth into new territories, hybrid working is as welcome as it is overdue.

‘I’ve long since believed in the social element of work and designing office spaces which are empathetic and appealing to the workforce,’ said Jon Powell, co-founder of Modus.

‘Around 2014 we began to shift our product range towards softer colour palettes and a less masculine, more inclusive design. Office spaces should be welcoming, not places to dread. That penny is really dropping now. Ultimately, architects and designers are insisting on this now because the end client, the public, is demanding it.’

A room that has multiple working locations, including private booths as well as tables and couches. The colours are muted and create calming atmosphere
Teknion Privacy on Demand Pod

Office furniture, as well as design, can facilitate wellbeing with softer colour palates and more empathetic design creating less overtly masculine, more inclusive and collaborative atmosphere.

This ethos can be seen in both companies’ products with Teknion, whose POD (Privacy on Demand) range helps to create a workplace environment where office workers feel comfortable and connected.

Meanwhile, Modus’ ergonomically designed Balance chair creates a soft and welcoming aesthetic that is ideal for collaborative environments.

Architectural certifications such as WELL, along with business certifications including B-Corp and JUST, are increasingly being viewed as indicators that businesses care about the health and wellbeing of both people and the planet.

For Teknion and modus, both businesses who place the wellbeing of their own staff at the forefront of their strategic thinking, the shift towards longer-term, more sustainable thinking, is welcome.

‘Staff retention is increasingly hard for employers so getting the design of your workspace and office culture right is more important than ever,’ said Modus Head of Sustainability Lucy Crane.

‘We like to practice what we preach at modus, offering private healthcare and 24-hour mental health support for all our workforce. There’s a water fountain in the office, run club, pizza and skittles nights and numerous social events.

‘It’s so important people feel at ease in the workplace with opportunities for both privacy and collaboration. Flexible working with more collaborative spaces is here to stay.’

A private pod offers space for employees to take calls or work in quiet
Teknion Privacy on Demand Pod

Teknion too have sought to demonstrate their belief in the benefits of workplace wellbeing and collaboratively designed office spaces through the layout of their own offices and product offering evolution.

Meanwhile, the Teknion cafeteria design seeks to provide an antidote to the 20th notion that any time away from the production line was necessarily a negative as ‘you weren’t working or making profit for your employer if not at your desk or active on the production line’.

New concepts are being embraced with more emphasis on diversity of spaces, zoning, wayfinding, adaptable environments, acoustics and finishes all important considerations to encourage a more diverse workforce.

Meanwhile biophilic design, recognising the human need to feel connected to the natural world and the mental and physical benefits this brings, is seeing nature integrated more in the design process.

Looking ahead: Office design to focus on supporting people’s needs

According to research by Gensler, ‘As more organizations understand that the workplace landscape has permanently changed, the focus will shift less on how many people come into the office and more on what the future of work looks like to support their people’s needs.’

Google, Under Armour and the Abu Dhabi Government Office in the UAE (designed by Agata Kurzela Studio) are just examples of industry-leading office spaces designed with wellbeing in mind.

At a small scale, more and more businesses are recognising solutions such as adjustable chairs, dimmable lighting, moveable partitions and breakout nooks afford employees a greater sense of control and ‘ownership’ over their environment.

‘We are no longer designing the environments—we are designing the experience.’ Said Kay Sargent, director of HOK’s global workplace practice.


About the author

Sam Peters in the executive director and co-founder of Planted, a unique marketing platform promoting nature-based businesses and organisations through sustainable events and media.

With an engaged nature and design loving community of more than 25,000 subscribers and a proven track record delivering high-calibre events and editorial, Planted showcases businesses who place nature and sustainability at their core.

Content Team

Work in Mind is a content platform designed to give a voice to thinkers, businesses, journalists and regulatory bodies in the field of healthy buildings.

Subscribe to our newsletter