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Wellness on the Corporate Campus 

Confidential energy trading facility. Photographer: Tim Griffiths

Recently I've been involved with a number of efforts to marry the traditional fitness center with a larger notion of well-being across the corporate campus and its 24/7 workplace life. In North America the idea of a corporate campus can vary: a single tall building or a cluster in an urban setting, or a suburban campus of lower rise buildings. Both have the single purpose focus of supporting collaborative teams whose “full work/life needs” are designed to be close at hand. This all-encompassing environment, a hallmark of these 21st century “company towns,” entails both wellness and fitness imperatives.

A traditional corporate fitness center. Photographer: Ryan Gobuty

Traditionally, conversations about wellness on corporate campuses would focus in on fitness centers. The easiest way for corporate leaders to understand fitness was to associate the function with a physical space, almost like a department, where self-motivated staff go to get fit. The process of designing and constructing a fitness center was often dictated by procurement possibilities, facility limitations, human resources targets and even clinical aspirations. Each of these factors was strongly influenced by the divergent perspectives and viewpoints of departmental silos within client organizations. It all came down to creating a single place – a matter of assembling equipment, and offering some training or coaching to instruct employees on how to use it.

Kohler Headquarters. Image courtesy Kohler.

The larger implication of wellness in every venue of the work day, often inextricably linked to behavior modification (a concept often held with some discomfort), was perceived as difficult. It was seen as something that’s not easily programmed, funded or staffed. The funny thing about this “squishy” concept is that wellness in the workplace has a much bigger and faster payback applicable to entirety of the corporate staff not just the self-motivated “fitness buffs.” Today, more and more corporations in the technology sector get this; others don’t, including a surprising number of healthcare campuses.

Clearly the best opportunity to align well-being initiatives with campus design is when a campus is being built or going through a major repositioning. During the programming phase of a project, we can identify physical space, and align it with active design and well-being strategies.

It's when we have to retrofit or otherwise carve program elements out of existing facilities to infuse them with wellness initiatives that our design talents are really tested. Stories abound of companies investing in treadmill desks or encouraging workers to compete at lunch in stair-climbing—both of which are good ideas for wellness weeks or other periodic efforts. But long-term objectives should integrate well-being initiatives into our everyday lives, and into the way we organize our thinking. And frankly this applies to any workplace campus, old or new.

Ogilvy & Mather New York. Image © Gensler

Everyday wellness can entail something as simple as lighting levels and temperature control of your workspace, or access to daylight and views to the outdoors. LEED identifies and documents these design-supporting wellness steps as Indoor Environmental Quality. Gensler Workplace Strategists have further identified 10 key factors that are particularly appropriate in this corporate environment:

  • Activity – encourage low-intensity movement in the work day.
  • Water & nutrition – provide convenient access to water and fresh food.
  • Restorative environment – create places of facilitated relaxation.
  • Ergonomics – enhance all things physically supporting the human body.
  • Autonomy and user control – offer people the ability to control their own workspace, specifically with regard to the amount of light they need, access to temperature control and/or fresh air, and the ability to manage noise.
  • Interaction with nature- provide access to natural light, fresh air and views to the outside. Other strategies include incorporating internal green spaces like vertical gardens or roof gardens, and incorporating strategies inspired by biophilia.
  • Air quality – partner with engineers to offer appropriate levels and access to fresh air indoors.
  • Lighting – offer appropriate, responsive levels of lighting for varying human needs. In other words, offer different levels of lighting for different activities, and also manage and mitigate glare. Consider lighting levels, direction and contrast.
  • Acoustics – manage noise distractions to facilitate focus.
  • Motivators/Feedback Loop – offer people access to building performance metrics so they can make informed decisions and choices about how to interact with the built environment.

Ultimately, we’re not talking about what the work place does but rather what people are doing in the workplace. We’re looking to make a positive impact on how people use space, and to create workplace environments that feel safe and offset some of the stresses of work. Shifting perspectives on how we think of health and wellness is a big step toward laying the groundwork for a new focus on human productivity, and in doing so fostering intelligent, engaged employees.

Rives Taylor is an architect and educator in the wilds of Texas. As principal at Gensler, a leading global design firm, he helps lead the firm’s sustainable design practice. In his spare time, he lectures as an adjunct professor at the University of Houston and serves as a visiting Professor at Rice University, teaching architecture and sustainable design. Currently he’s working with the City of Houston and other cities to develop more livable neighborhoods and sustainable water management strategies that support growing urban areas. Contact him at rives_taylor@gensler.com.

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