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Designed for wellness: how a wellbeing focus could reshape the workplace

What drives the growing focus on workplace wellbeing? And how might this focus redirect workplace design? An event by Milliken and WORKTECH Academy put the wellness trend to the vote

Current interest in workplace wellbeing is set to grow and this upsurge will lead to a radical rethink in office design.

That was the result of a survey of design professionals taking part in an interactive seminar, Designed for Wellness, in London on 26 September 2018. Three-quarters of the audience thought interest in wellness would expand – with far-reaching consequences for design. Only a quarter thought interest in wellness would plateau or fall away.

The debate, hosted by floor coverings company Milliken in partnership with WORKTECH Academy, asked design professionals to name the biggest driver of wellbeing in the workplace. The millennial generation topped the poll with 40 per cent of the vote, leaving wellness standards (29 per cent), clients and the media (both 12 per cent) lagging behind.

Panel of provocateurs

The seminar kicked off with an all-female panel of provocateurs chaired by Professor Jeremy Myerson, Director of WORKTECH Academy: Dr Kerstin Sailer of University College London, Alison Webb of Lendlease, Susanne Mayer of architects BVN, and Anastasia Bekiari of Perkins + Will.

Panel: Dr Kerstin Sailer of University College London, Alison Webb of Lendlease, Jeremy Myerson of WORKTECH Academy, Anastasia Bekiari of Perkins + Will and Susanne Mayer of BVN.

Anastasia Bekiari focused on materials and the need for certification so that specifiers can compare materials like-for-like; Kerstin Sailer dismissed many of the superficial tokens of wellness, such as gyms in the workplace, calling instead for exercise and wellness to be embedded in buildings; Susanne Mayer was keen to see wellness develop in a more nuanced and tangible way; from Alison Webb’s perspective, the wellness movement is client led so owners and developers need to provide buildings that people want.

Spaces for relaxation

Asked to identify what impact a growing focus on wellbeing is having on workplace design, more than half of the audience voted for ‘incorporating spaces for exercising and relaxation’ and ‘more emphasis on natural light in space planning’. Surprisingly, only 27 per cent pointed to ‘greater emphasis on choice of natural materials’ and a meagre 14 per cent opted for ‘outdoor spaces’.

However, clients are cagey when it comes to investing in design to boost wellbeing: two-thirds of participants admitted that, in client briefings, ‘wellness is considered but subject to budgetary scrutiny’. Only 10 per cent reported that ‘wellness is understood and a priority irrespective of client budget’.

Green haven and oasis

Just as the era of efficiency in workplace design adopted the metaphor of the machine, participants were asked to define a new metaphor for the era of wellbeing. Answers included ‘balance’, ‘green haven’, ‘oasis’ and ‘organic network’. Asked to give some examples of well buildings, the audience named Bloomberg, Sogeprom, Google and Lego, among others.

While the Designed for Wellness seminar took a quick straw poll of current attitudes and opinions, it nevertheless tapped into a mood of growing conviction among workplace designers on the panel and in the audience that big change is on the way.