Could wellness be the reason we return to the office in 2023?

Employers are waking up to the benefits of wellness focused workspaces, says design writer, Riya Patel. Here’s why one of ours could help your business

The concept of “wellness” – the daily practice of habits for better physical and mental health – has skyrocketed in public consciousness as we attempt to protect ourselves through times of continued social, political and economic upheaval. Research by McKinsey shows 79% of consumers believe wellness is important, and 42% consider it a top priority. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies have increasingly been taking responsibility for staff wellness. Both to attract and retain talent but also regroup colleagues who have become physically and emotionally detached. With better understanding of how the spaces we work in make us feel, will wellness be the reason we return to the office in 2023?

If you had a laptop in the pandemic, you were sold wellbeing as working from home,” says clinical psychologist Dr Stephanie Fitzgerald. “But we know it’s not nirvana. There are complications, distractions, Amazon deliveries.” There are also two small dogs at her feet as she talks from home over a video call. As a corporate health and wellbeing expert, she’s worked with dozens of companies on wellbeing strategies and thinks that what people really liked about working from home was choice. “In the drive to get people back to the office there’s been very little flex,” she says. “Going back somewhere dingy, noisy and distracting is not going to wash for a lot of people.”

Instead, she recommends a “landscaped office” made up of areas with different furniture, lighting and atmospheres for different tasks. These might support concentration, focus or collaboration. Other ways a physical workplace can promote wellbeing include the sense of belonging to a community, a range of amenities that help us make the most of our day, the offer of healthy food, and a clean and comfortable setting that is well lit. Research on workspace for neurodivergent employees is also informing best practice. “[Neurodiversity] is often seen as a separate mental health issue, but all our brains are wired slightly differently,” she says. “Research shows everyone benefits from spaces that match various tasks, moods and fluctuations in energy.”

It sounds simple on paper, but even companies with the best intentions get wellness wrong. Common pitfalls are making token efforts or getting bogged down in trying to address each employee’s individual happiness. “Designing for cognitive wellness is an art form,” says Fitzgerald. “You have to know what you are doing and have to have lots of flex in your plans.” With wellness now a $1.5tn industry, we’re also becoming more astute to shallow marketing and attempts to “wellwash” us. Employers need to show proper intent – a considered strategy that goes far beyond business as usual with the odd bowl of fruit or yoga class thrown in. Those that get it right can enjoy gains in productivity and higher rates of staff satisfaction.

“Landlords see the benefit of including wellness features to set their building apart,” says Will Procter, director at Forstå Projects. “Over the last five years, that drive is not only from the landlord but tenants and businesses strategically targeting workplaces that positively impact their employees’ health and wellbeing. This improves their absenteeism and staff turnover rate, but also strategically aligns with companies' ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) strategies.”

Forstå Projects works with businesses and properties to achieve the WELL Building Standard. Around since 2014, the method assesses buildings on no less than 10 categories of performance: air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind and community. “When it comes to using the WELL standard, it’s important to note that it is informed by programmes of scientific and medical research and peer-reviewed studies related to the impacts of the built environment on human health,” says Procter. “Given that the standard uses measured evidence in the form of metrics, we can visualise its effectiveness and then compare and relate the impacts of the environment on the overall wellbeing of the occupants.” WELL-certified buildings have been shown to drive a nearly 30 per cent increase in occupant satisfaction, 26 per cent increase in wellbeing, and 10 per cent increase in mental health.

When TOG’s forthcoming Work Space Chancery House opens in early 2023, TOG is aiming to join the roster of 34,000 WELL-certified buildings worldwide. As the group’s largest office, there is plenty of scope and space to embody principles of wellness and incorporate current research. Lead architect Sophie Werren describes a mix of interventions large and small: “Heaps of collaboration space such as office breakouts, meeting rooms, a café, roof terrace and lounge areas designed to boost productivity, while the library and snug to help relax and reset.” The flow of the building has been planned to keep people walking, talking and exploring different settings. The choice of art, she says, “has a huge role to play” in helping building users feel uplifted, while tactile objects and surfaces have been carefully considered to enhance comfort.

The cornerstone of the approach at Chancery House is a bespoke wellness offer developed by TOG and Manor Gyms. It reflects a current trend to make fitness facilities more inclusive and prioritise mental health as much as physical. “Over the last year we’ve worked closely to make the proposition more accessible,” says Charlie Enstone-Watts, Manor’s founder. Private workout booths are an invitation to hesitant gym-goers, featuring alongside “a fully kitted out gym, wellness studio with reformer Pilates, and on-site physio clinic.” Watts says: “We’ve also included infrared saunas in the changing rooms which are great for aiding recovery, mindfulness and reducing cardiac disease.”

Fitness amenities usually get all the attention in a wellness-focused workspace, but the basics are critical too. “It could be showers, or locker storage,” says Fitzgerald. “If we do want to encourage people to spend time in the office, what are the kitchen facilities like? The toilets? That matters to people. Especially people who manage chronic health conditions.” What makes us feel well might also be less visible. The opportunity to talk through a problem, get a dose of fresh air, learn something new or give back to the community can all remove stress and counter feelings of disengagement and isolation. The UK government estimates the cost of loneliness to the UK employer as £2.5mn a year.

The good news is we know wellness can go far in healing the fractures of past few years. “[Approaching wellness] can be very challenging, especially while respecting an appropriate separation between work and personal lives,” says Tapia. “But evidence shows us that well-designed buildings improve wellbeing and the chances of staff returning.” Flexible offices are already ahead of the game on this highly personal matter, because they are designed for the needs of a vast range of users that change by the day. Basing your workforce in a wellness-focused office can spark wider conversation on the topic, revealing insights that act as a springboard for creating new ways of working. “People can get caught up in thinking this is how we do things, rather than thinking this is how we could do things,” says Fitzgerald. “Businesses that take flexible space have almost a blank canvas.”

To learn more about Chancery House, click here

Illustrations are by Michal Bednarski