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Does Wellness Translate Across Culture? 

Differing cultural norms make it challenging to bring the wellness concepts taken as gospel in Western countries into Eastern countries like China. But that doesn't mean Chinese workers don't value wellness. Above: a yoga room at Gensler's Shanghai office. Image © Gensler

The word wellness can be loosely translated into Chinese as 养生 (yǎng shēng), which literally means “nurturing life.” It implies a very gentle, well-rounded approach to a wholesome lifestyle. It calls to mind a sexagenarian doing tai chi at dawn or sipping herbal tea in the afternoon.

“It’s not a perfect translation,” said Cathy Gu, a Gensler design strategist in Shanghai. Because while the pursuit of longevity has a long standing tradition in China, workplace wellness is just starting to gain traction. “This is why we’re doing the research, because there isn’t a perfect translation,” said Keiko Toishi, a practice area leader for health and wellness. The two are part of a design strategy team in Shanghai dedicated to translating the wealth of knowledge in Gensler’s Workplace Performance Index for the Chinese market.

While workplace wellness has been a steady topic in North America, Chinese employers are just beginning to appreciate the value of an environment to nurture wellbeing. And as the Chinese workforce begin to transition from labor-intensive manufacturing jobs to sedentary knowledge work, they’re beginning to pay more attention to the eight or more hours workers spend at their desks.

Providing accessible fitness facilities is a step in the right direction, but does not constitute a comprehensive approach to wellness at the workplace. Image © Gensler

In the U.S., workplace wellness is about having standing desks, bike racks, and fitness facilities that support active life styles. The Chinese have a very different approach to health, and our research team thought Gensler’s Shanghai office, with its mix of local and international employees, made for a great pilot test subject.

A customized WPI survey was launched in English and Chinese. Employees were surveyed on workplace noise, lighting, air quality, nutrition, interaction with nature, and activity levels. Regionally-specific questions were added, and the vocabulary was streamlined to cater to respondents with English as a second language. The survey data was accompanied by in-depth interviews to record more anecdotal wellness practices in China.

With the initial responses, the team was able to compare preferences between East and West on everything from work hours to dietary habits. The team’s preliminary research found that local and international employees tend to have the same demands when it comes improving their workplace. The differences lie in their tolerance level of these nuisances. So finding the happy medium between a热闹 (rè nào) or a lively open plan that is also conducive to focus work will likely require a multimodal solution.

The younger generation of Chinese have been more exposed to Western approaches to wellness, and fitness centers are popping up in tier one cities. Bicycling is evolving from low-cost transportation method to hip hobby, with custom fixed gear bike shops sprouting around Shanghai and Beijing. But moderate exercise still trumps vigorous activities. “The expat colleagues will go to the gym during lunch, but the local employees would rather take a nap or take a walk around the park after lunch,” said Toishi.

Napping presents a unique design challenge. It is a well-worn habit for most of East Asia that begins in school, where you’ll find most students sleeping on their desks between 12-1 p.m. It’s not uncommon to see a napping pillow or a neck pillow in a Shanghai office cubicle. But designing a workplace that’s professional enough to serve a globalized clientele will require some creative thinking. “We work with furniture designers who develop special reclining seats,” said Gu, while Toishi suggested that convertible banquet seating can also serve this purpose.

Varying work hours also demand different solutions. Many Chinese technology and professional service firms tend to log a lot more overtime hours, even over the weekend. One solution is to designate a centralized area for those working over the weekend. This minimizes energy drain, and has the added benefit of improved security.

Even something as simple as water dispenser placement is a part of the discussion. “It depends on the client’s overall strategy. A call center looking to maximize handling rates should have many water points, so that employees can quickly return to their tasks with minimal distraction. But a creative agency may choose to group all amenities in one area to increase chance encounters and spark conversations between different departments,” said Gu.

Recreation rooms get employees out of their chairs and on their feet and encourage the kind of socialization that's an integral part of mental wellbeing. Image © Gensler

At the end of the day, company culture matters. “Our design solutions will need support from our client’s policy,” said Toishi, and change management and wellness education for the employees are two crucial factors in successful workplace wellness design.

This research initiative is only halfway complete. Further data is needed to create a design toolkit tailored for the local market. In 2016, Gensler will launch a new round of surveys around the globe, which will incorporate the expanded and more culturally diverse set of questions. Because while the meaning of the world wellness may still get lost in translation, the desire for more healthful living is universal.

The Workplace Performance Index, or WPI, is a Gensler-developed pre and post-occupancy survey toolkit that generates workplace effectiveness score.

Cathy Gu is a design strategist at Gensler Shanghai. Gu has an expertise in materials that lends itself to ensuring design integrity from concept to execution. She has been conducting quantitative and qualitative studies to investigate end user needs as part of the workplace consulting team, translating data into design solutions. Contact her at cathy_gu@gensler.com.
Keiko Toishi is a workplace interior designer, and the Asia Regional Health & Wellness Practice Area Leader, based in Gensler’s Shanghai office. She has been with Gensler for two and a half years in New York, and five in Shanghai, producing tailored workplaces in the U.S., Korea, Japan, and China. She believes good design boosts employee satisfaction and productivity, reflects organizational culture, and contributes positively to a client’s bottom line. Contact her at Keiko_Toishi@gensler.com.

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