Well-Designed: Effect of Workplace Design and Employee Wellbeing


It is common knowledge that we are what we eat. It is not very difficult to see how the food we eat get converted into the materials that make up of our bodies. It is also easy to see how what we consume eventually affect our physical and mental wellbeing. Eat junk and you are literally going to have junk for a body. “Mens sana in corpore sano” says the Romans. That is Latin for saying “a healthy mind in a healthy body.” In other words, a healthy body will lead to a healthy mind.

But it seems our wellbeing is affected by more than just what we consume. More and more studies are showing that where we spend a chunk of our time—our surroundings—also has an effect on the way we feel and the way we act. It has been found that the more aesthetically-appealing our surroundings, the better we feel and the better we perform. And since, we spend a chunk of our waking hours in our places of work, it is feasible that the design of our offices and workplaces has an effect on our physical and psychological wellbeing.

The effect of architectural design on health and wellbeing is something that has been widely studied. A study of more than 500 hotel employees in the United States confirmed that the design of the workplace had an effect on the wellbeing of employees. Titled, Workplace design and well-being: aesthetic perceptions of hotel employees, the study was published in an October 2018 edition of the Service Industries Journal.

The availability of spaces where employees can interact as well as the presence of other facilities that makes the stay of the employees a little more enjoyable goes a long way in sustaining the mental and physical wellbeing. A PhD study presented in 2016 at the Queensland University of Technology also produced results indicating that indoor design attributes such as acoustic quality, ventilation, lighting, privacy and natural outdoor spaces have an effect on satisfaction levels of employees. This, in turn, led to an improvement in the physical and mental wellbeing of employees.

Even without scientific confirmation, it is not out of place for one to enter a space and have a certain feeling about the place. There are places that people would refer to as being “heavy” whilst there is another place that people will say has a great feel about it. These are commonplace observations that people make of places, even without knowing the reason for such feelings. Many people will attribute these feelings to some unnatural or spiritual forces. However, from the ongoing, it is clear that a place can feel haunted even without the presence of evil forces. Just the design of the place can make one feel weird.

The importance of interior design to the wellbeing of occupants is underscored by the dedication of an entire field of study to the subject. Biophilic design is the name and it is concerned with designing buildings and interiors in such a way that people get to connect more with nature. The word “biophilic” itself means, “love of nature”. Biophilic designers and advocates are of the view that due to humanity’s natural link to nature and our common agrarian ancestry, we are hardwired to connect with nature.

Therefore, in designing places, biophilic designers fall on three basic concepts. The first concept is integrating natural elements into a design. For instance, an office building or reception area can be designed in such a way that the place opens up into a natural view. A waterfall can also be designed in to blend seamlessly into the exterior or interior of the office. This concept can also involve the placing of scented natural plants within the office space.

The second way by which biophilic designers work is to replicate nature within the design space. This is what is referred to as Natural Analogues. Floors and walls can be designed in such a way that they look and feel like things in nature, such as tree barks or rock surfaces. This also involves designing a place to look and feel just like the local environment in which the property is located.

Another way Natural Analogues can be employed is in using nature as a template to design certain aspects of the interior. For instance, a designer can decide to use the veins in a leaf as a template to paint an interior. These self-repeating patterns found in leaves, flowers and on fruits are referred to as Fractals.

The third concept employed by biophilic designers is to design places in such a way that these spaces feel just like nature. For instance, an office space can be designed with an open space that feels like the African savannah, wide and open. It has been argued that since humans, in all likelihood, migrated from Africa, there is a certain connection between people and wide open spaces. A place can also be designed to feel like it is offering some sort of refuge for its occupants. Cozy office spaces or reading rooms fall within this category.

There are certainly many more ways by which biophilic designs are employed. The few that have been discussed are meant to give readers an idea of what biophilic designing is all about. However, no matter the mode and method employed, all biophilic designers are meant to serve one purpose—connect occupants to nature and by so doing, enhance the wellbeing of the individual.

From the discussion, it is clear that setting up an office or workplace goes beyond just putting in furniture and bringing in employees to begin work. Some thinking and work must be put into designing the place so that it aids the wellbeing of employees. Those who believe in biophilia believe nature-inspired design is the way to go.

It is said that when people feel good about their environment they tend to feel good about themselves.  When this happens the body releases two chemicals that are associated with happiness—dopamine and serotonin. The former is referred to as the “feel-good” hormone. There have been several research studies to show that when people feel good about themselves, they are less likely to fall sick and tend to live longer.

There has even been a study that shows that people who feel good have better skin. Yes, better skin. According to researchers, the skin is the most sensitive organ with regards to the way a person feels. People who are happy tend to have “happier skins” as their skins tend to receive optimal blood and no excess sweat.

There was another interesting finding from that study involving the hotel employees which should be of great interest to anyone interested in the quality of customer service provided by an organisation. It was discovered that employees who are not at the front line say they experience less pleasure from the aesthetics of their surroundings. Back office employees also report lower levels of well-being than front line employees. If office design is related to wellbeing, then it stands to reason that most back offices are not as well-designed as front offices.

It is not very difficult to see how the back office will not be as well-designed and well-decorated as the front office. The fact that customers will hardly see those parts of the workplace makes it easier for the organisation to skim on the design and setup of the back office. The ongoing discussion means that in designing the place of work, care is taken to ensure that the places were the eyes of the customer will not normally get to are also as well-designed as the front office.

All the attention must not be focused on just the front office or visitors’ reception are alone. The same care and thought must go into designing the back office as go into the design of the front office. Yes, the customer might be the King, but those who serve the King need not live like slaves.

As the year 2021 takes off this week and with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions ongoing, it is certain that many more businesses will begin to operate at pre-pandemic levels. This means that employees will be coming back to their offices. From what we have learnt so far, it is clear that it will take more than observing COVID-19 protocols to bring out the best in employees, especially those operating from the back office. The aesthetics of the office space is definitely having an effect on the wellbeing of staff. And coming right after a year ravaged by a pandemic, health will continue to be at the forefront of people’s minds during this New Year.

The best gift a company can therefore give to its employees in this New Year will be the gift of a well-designed office space. That alone could make a big difference for the company—a difference between happy employees, who go out of their way to give customers great service or cranky employees who cannot wait to get out of the office. The office space should be so well-designed that employees would feel so at home in the space—so much so that they will not be in a hurry to go home. In conclusion, one can safely surmise that great customer service does not just happen; it must be well-designed.

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