Wellbeing is the word echoing through the boardrooms of Fortune 100 companies vying to recruit and retain top talent. From the rock climbing wall at Google’s New York headquarters to Red Bull’s reception area that transforms into after-work bar, innovative office designs are radically transforming workplaces and the way workers perform their jobs.
Several organizational psychology and office design studies have found that offices of the cubicle age—orthogonal rows of partitioned cubicles with swivel chairs and the customary water cooler tucked in the corner— have been detrimental to employee health and performance. Illness, turnover, absenteeism, presenteeism (when people come to work sick), disengagement, and limited opportunities to interact with coworkers and engage creatively, these studies suggest, have adversely affected workers and the bottom line.
Thankfully, traditional office models are quickly giving way to something different and better: social, playful spaces that encourage movement and are designed to boost productivity and workplace happiness. The best of these offices embrace what we’ve long known: play and movement are not an addendum to our lives; they are essential to our wellbeing. Here we look at four trends transforming office design for the better.
The oft-used phrase, “sitting is the new smoking,” is hardy an exaggeration. An article in Men’s Journal by Lisa Marshall titled “Sitting: The Most Unhealthy Thing You Can Do,” reveals that sitting too long comes with serious health repercussions: slower blood flow resulting in clumping of red blood cells in the legs; up to a 20% drop in “good” cholesterol; heart disease risk soaring up to two and half times greater. It is not just sitting itself that is bad; its the prolonged slouching posture that cuts off oxygen and blood flow.
There are all kinds of standing desks on the market. The simplest are essentially tall tables of podiums. More sophisticated models rise up and down on a sliding frame or offer telescoping computer and keyboard platforms that sit on top of existing desks. These allow for intervals of standing as a break from sitting, which most experts agree is the ideal balance for the body.
The corporate push to promote movement in the workplace goes beyond the option of sit-stand desks. To encourage employees to take breaks and move through the workplace, companies are introducing everything from yoga studios, to bike parking and on-site showers and changing stations, to ping pong tables. People are more alert, studies show, after taking a walk or having conversation with a colleague.
At Google’s new Chelsea office in New York, there are ladders connecting floors; brightly colored sofas, lounge chairs, and ottomans for employees to chat or relax; and hammocks hanging beneath the gym’s skylight— perks designed to encourage movement and divergent thinking, while adding a sense of playfulness to the workplace. Also included in the fluid interior design by Interior Architects are wool-felt upholstered seating niches, LED panels embedded in acrylic wall fins, and a double bedway steel slide (resembling Goric’s hill slide), which descends from an office studio to the second floor. All of this spells reduced absenteeism and more clear-headed thinking.
Biophilia references the idea that, as human beings, we have an instinctive kinship with nature and natural surroundings. Applied to office design, it can manifest in all sorts of ways: access to natural light and outdoor views, the use of bamboo wall dividers, wood tables or grass-like floors, or the selection of vibrant organic colors. The goal is often the same: to improve employee well-being and concentration and inspire creativity.
One of the largest and most daring examples is the design of Amazon’s newly opened Seattle headquarters by the architecture group NBBJ, which resembles a giant greenhouse in the geodesic shape of Epcot Center’s Spaceship Earth. Formed of three interconnected glass spheres, rising nearly 100 feet tall, the complex features 40,000 plants of 400 species. There is a treehouse meeting room and a four-story wall covered in cloud-forest plant species cultivated at the The University of Washington and Atlanta Botanical Garden. Elevated timber walkways are designed to allow employees to move through the space naturally and have chance encounters with fellow employees —perhaps as a break from a work culture known to be demanding.
Open, collaborative spaces
Open layouts aren’t a new idea in office design, and over the years they have had their detractors—including introverts who complain of the difficulty of working amid noise and distraction. What has changed is how these spaces are being integrated into the larger office structure. In some of the latest designs, these rooms exist as partially enclosed breakout spaces with softly cushioned seats, large white boards, and screen sharing capabilities.
Occupying these spaces, there is a feeling of being invited to participate into the discussion, a mood and atmosphere that is distinct from what one experiences seated at a stodgy wood-grained conference table. Even more innovative, are so called, “Third Spaces,” nooks and corridors, where you can plug in a laptop and get work done on a sofa or cafe table. The idea is that the workplace has options for different work modes and styles, and within this structure, people can socialize and engage different areas of the brain.