18 Aug 2020

The Coronavirus pandemic provides an opportunity for us to reset the dial on workplace wellness

 
Photo: Jimmy Tompkins



Like so many others, the office sector has spent the past five months focusing on the physical threat posed by COVID-19. Social distancing, one-way queuing systems and an endless barrage of reusable masks have quickly become crucial elements in our line of defense to make sure we protect people’s physical health and get Britain back on its feet, safely.

But as time ticks on, it’s important we don’t let mental health drop from the agenda.

With most of the UK working from their kitchen tables, colleague contact reduced to weekly Zoom or Teams calls and natural development opportunities largely stagnated in a newly virtual world, protecting mental health in the workplace is more important than ever.

As the UK begins to think more seriously about a return to the office, the sector is faced with a new opportunity to reinvent the way we build for, and manage, mental health in the workplace. In 2018, the BCO published a seminal piece of research called ‘Wellness Matters’ – that began to shape what practice wellness really looks like – but two years on, the world is a very different place, and it’s even more important that we take this opportunity to really embed these principles into the heart of our office designs.

As remote working continues to soar in popularity, employers face pressure to go beyond the typical wellbeing gimmicks – gym discounts and the odd free banana – and look to add a real sparkle or wow factor that helps to reassure workers that their wellbeing is being taken care of. The Flourish Model was a principal part of the framework introduced in the Wellness Matters Report. The ‘wow’ factor is an important ingredient of The Flourish Model, focusing on aspects that aren’t traditionally evaluated but still remain important – such as natural light, views out on nature, colour and green landscaping in the office.

It’s these enticing elements, combined with greater social interaction, that make a return to the office a relishing prospect.



See The Light

It’s no secret that natural light and fresh air have an enormous impact on worker wellbeing.

Natural ventilation is preferable in the office or home, hence the importance of many windows to let daylight and fresh air enter the building. For buildings in cities this is a challenge and also requires a good match between the building form and internal layout to allow a flow of air to be effective for the occupants.

And while home working is attractive for some it carries limitations for others. A lack of space, natural light, poor ventilation, noisy distractions or social isolation mean it is more likely than we need a more flexible and blended approach to arranging our working lives.


Reconnect with nature

Having spent months limited to one daily outdoor allowance, many of us have become quite accustomed to being at one with nature and enjoying the views of our local green spaces for some mental relief. A moment in nature can inspire creativity, particularly when physical human interaction isn’t available.

The Flourish Model begins to unpack both why and how office buildings should aim to provide a similar multi-sensory experience The senses need stimulation to keep the brain performing at its best. Atmospheres that lack good air quality, natural lighting or personal temperature control, for example, can sap workers' energy and dry up any chance of creative thinking.

Green landscaping is easily implemented in offices no matter their shape and size and goes far beyond scattering potted plants across desks.

The emergence of biophilic design through vertical gardens, green walls, or architecture built specifically to make a statement can be given more soul by indoor landscaping and this can make people feel less stressed and more creative.


Active working

Remote working provides more opportunities to be active throughout the workday. Whether it’s enjoying daily exercise during a lunch break or regular stretching in between online meetings – such movement allows workers to break up their daily schedule and prevent musculoskeletal problems building up in the body.

Moving around is essential for health and wellbeing and should be incorporated into work life – wherever we are. When in the office, workers should be encouraged to take meetings in local parks, weather permitting, for example. Likewise, privacy booths are becoming more common and allow us to get our daily dose of quiet mindfulness, which the brain needs to replenish the mind.

All in all, it’s clear COVID-19 will change the way we plan and design workplaces. If we are to create environments that are healthy, have low infection risk and help people flourish, we need to consider all the elements in the Flourish Model, as shown in the BCO Wellness Matters Report, so that we can inject life and resilience back into our office workforce.

Derek Clements-Croome, Professor Emeritus at Reading University

Derek’s new book Buildings for People: Sustainable Liveable Architecture, will be available to purchase in late October.

#BCOvoices is a series of blogs by the BCO. We’ll look at the impact of Covid-19 on the commercial property industry, along with broader topics. If you would be interested in contributing, please contact chane.scallan@bco.org.uk.

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