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Reinventing the Workplace: Being Well, Working Well

What if this was your workplace? Scottsdale Healthcare Healing Garden Project. Image © Gensler.

Reinventing the Workplace is a recurring blog series in which Gensler designers predict how the workplace will evolve over the next decade. You can find all the entries in this series here.

“What if you could leave work healthier than when you arrived?” That question challenges the very notion of what we expect from the workplace, but it’s a question with far-reaching implications for health, wellbeing, and productivity. Research indicates that “people with high career wellbeing are more than twice as likely to be thriving in their lives overall,” according to authors Tom Rath and Jim Harter in their recent book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. Seen in this light, the reimagined workplace has the power to sustain employees not only economically – but holistically.

Rath and Harter go on to say that wellbeing is about “the combination of our love for what we do each day, the quality of our relationships, the security of our finances, the vibrancy of our physical health, and the pride we take in what we have contributed to our communities.” Most importantly, they write, it’s about how these five elements interact.

Using these principles as a springboard, our Minneapolis based team has developed a design strategy for workplace we describe as “Being Well, Working Well.” It envisions the workplace of 2020 as an essential contributor to workers’ wellbeing and a contributor to the vitality of its’ surrounding community. The approach incorporates design at many scales – from the urban scale down to the control of task lighting on the work surface.

Mid-century suburban office parks are a potential setting of workplaces that promote well-being. Image © Gensler

To ground our ideas in a real life situation, we applied our approach to a conventional mid-century suburban office park – a setting that is weakening economically as vacancy rates climb above those of competing urban sites. Often surrounded by residential subdivisions and car-centric retail districts, the once-pastoral and isolated office park provides an ideal place to study strategies for repositioning and eco-reinvention. As we envision it, the office park – once associated with sprawl - is poised to become tomorrow’s transit and community-connected, multi-use, walk-able workplace.

Step one in the process is to create an active campus. An urbanized low impact development retrofit will incentivize knowledge workers to walk to nearby amenities, alternative workplaces, or simply step outside to enjoy the landscape. Ecologically friendly landscape and planning strategies will bring vibrancy to these underutilized gray fields. An added benefit to employers: People who spend time in nature dramatically improve their higher-level cognition, according to the article “Get More Done” in the April 2013 issue of Inc. magazine.

An office park can be transformed into an active campus with infill development that increases the building density; by relocating cars to the edges of the site in structured parking (which improves campus walkability); by introducing bike sharing programs and bike boulevards; and by eliminating surface parking lots and reducing the amount of paved roadways, replacing them with walking paths, pervious paving, landscape, and wetlands.

The current demand for co-working settings may, in fact, set the stage for office developments of mixed uses. By shifting outdated suburban campuses to multi-tenant occupancy mixed with non-office uses, such properties can find new life. Beyond market positioning, however, these transformed campuses can lead the way for a new generation of office parks where wellness and wellbeing are key priorities.

The potential is extraordinary, with more than 60 percent of U.S. metropolitan office space now located in the suburbs. As Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson wrote in Retrofitting Suburbia published in Urban Land, many of these suburban campuses have been leapfrogged by development that has taken place since World War II, placing the office parks in more centralized locations. Tied to mass transit, these older campuses can be retrofitted using lessons learned in the intervening 50 years. We see the potential to update outdated building enclosures, systems and configurations to increase sustainable performance and provide higher quality interior environments with greater connectivity to the exterior landscape. All these improvements support human wellbeing.

Image © Gensler.

Greater movement is a key to wellbeing, with the American Journal of Epidemiology reporting that “people who sit more than six hours a day are up to 34 percent likelier to die in the next 15 years than those who sit less than three hours a day.” Our vision of the future workplace encourages people to get up from their desks and move, resulting in greater health for bodies and minds and the bottom line.

To do this, we propose buildings that incorporate both vertical and horizontal routes. These activated paths are critical design features that drive the placement of adjacent amenity, support and collaboration spaces. Providing amenities such as phone rooms within offices give people places to conduct private conversations, while also requiring them to get up and walk. Low or no-tech meditation rooms can provide a calm place to reduce stress and or do heads down focus work. More active areas for ping-pong tables or rooftop tennis courts only up the ante when it comes to raising heart rates for wellbeing.

Movement can also be integrated into policy and work practices – suitable alternative spaces for collaboration must be partnered with mobile technology policies. Think of small groups of people choosing to stand while they meet and carry their digital work with them, or to pedal while they talk outdoors. Providing dedicated and active collaboration options paves the way to innovation while providing ready opportunities for individuals to keep moving.

Focus work has its place in the world of wellbeing too, because “people who have the opportunity to use their strengths are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life,” write Rath and Harter. Focusing and completing a task efficiently give us a sense of accomplishment, which elevates our overall wellbeing and reduces stress.

The advent of a mobile workforce also means that people can frequently do their work in their most comfortable setting – their homes or favorite places. Being able to take your personal things with you, easily, to the place you work best, when you work best, is comforting and feeds social wellbeing. Emerging technologies such as holographic work boards will allow for a mobile existence while maintaining a comforting sense of place. Where, how, with others or alone – work seen in this way synchs productivity, health and wellbeing.

By up-cycling the suburban office campus we transform these latent resources into vital buildings, community assets and the vibrant workplaces of 2020. The being well, working well strategy fundamentally embraces the interrelatedness of places, things, people, time and actions. The workplace and our communities will be redefined by the changing nature of work and how it impacts our whole life.

Team members who contributed to this work: Kate Levine, Courtney Armstrong, Beth Kalin, Tamar Ribnick, Doug Larson, Amy Barthel, Jack Kennedy, Jennifer Stumm, Jennifer Mergen, Aaron Whittkamper, Erik Lucken, Jon Buggy, Betsy Vohs, and Bill Lyons.

Marcy Schulte is the design director in Gensler's Minneapolis office. She leads multi-disciplinary design teams in the conceptual design, design development and implementation of projects for a broad array of project types and scales. Contact her at marcy_schulte@gensler.com.
Megan Gorden is a senior interior designer in the Minneapolis Office, focusing on workplace interiors. Contact her at megan_gorden@gensler.com.

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