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Design for life: Rethinking the office to promote activity

Today’s workplaces are increasingly being designed with movement in mind to help promote employee health and boost productivity.

July 18, 2019

Office life has traditionally been sedentary, but as more companies and their employees prioritise healthier lifestyles, workplaces are finding new ways to get people moving. 

From locating desks further from printers to providing shower rooms for runners and cyclists, adjustments to workplace facilities and culture can help make employees more active during the working day.

It can be a fruitful investment: research suggests that active employees tend to be healthier and more productive. A 2017 University of California study, for example, found that participating in a company’s corporate wellness program increased worker productivity by four percent on average, while reducing absenteeism.

A study from Finland’s Tampere University suggested that walking during lunch breaks could help to improve concentration and reduce stress levels in the afternoon.

Laying the foundations for active spaces

More modern office buildings are being designed or redeveloped with movement in mind. Placing stairs in more prominent locations and hiding lifts around the corner is one way. Giving basement areas over to bike storage rather than cars is another.

“Amenities for cyclists and bike security are increasingly commonplace, along with locker spaces, dry rooms, shower facilities and changing areas,” says Gordon Byrne, Creative Lead Designer with JLL. “It’s a way for companies to promote the wellbeing of their employees through encouraging cycle to work schemes and is seen as a workplace perk to help attract and retain staff.”

Office layouts are changing, as with the rise of flexible space prompting companies to rethink how they can better create workplaces that get the best both from the building and their employees.

“We’re seeing formal meeting rooms give way to more flexible, multi-functional spaces that can be used for wellbeing and activity-based functions, such as lunchtime yoga sessions,” says Byrne.

Modern office furniture

While many desks are still designed for sitting and typing, new models have introduced alternatives in recent years. Sit/stand desks and their attention-grabbing cousins, treadmill and cycle desks, have gained a following in some offices in recent years, although the extent of the benefits of spending more time standing varies significantly between studies.

In some offices, desks are decreasing in size to open up floor space. “Smaller desks leave more space for staff to circulate – even on skateboards and scooters,” says Byrne. “One tech client has a rack of personalised skateboards for staff members on their reception wall and designed the flooring and the space plan to enable staff to skate from desk to desk.”

However, some initiatives, such as cutting back on the number of desks to create more active working environments, can backfire.

“Some employees prefer their own desk and storage space, and can feel decentralised without one,” says Byrne. “It’s important to understand your office demographics – to recognise how individuals work best – not just the younger generations – and tailor the environment to support that, rather than imposing new trends on everybody.”

Swings and slides, for example, are seen as gimmicky, says Byrne. Instead, creating amenity points, such as stand-up snack bars providing free healthy food and drink options, can get people away from their desks at regular intervals, while ping-pong or pool tables can get employees on their feet at lunchtime. 

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Leveraging technology

Technology can further boost activity. The popularity of wearables such as Apple Watches and Fitbits that track steps and calories is already raising awareness of activity levels – a trend employers can buttress with in-office innovations.

At the Delos offices in New York, for example, sensors in the stairs record how many trips employees take, adding a drop of water to an electronic “waterfall” display with each journey.

“Trackers can also provide information on desk and meeting room usage, and the time people spend in different areas of the office,” says Byrne. “Such data can free up real estate, and improve the quality of office layouts and design.”

A social future

With employee expectations of the workplace changing and companies putting an increasing focus on humanising their office space, many active design principles lend themselves well to more collaborative and flexible way of working.

“Desks will always have a place, but they will become less important,” says Byrne. “Instead, offices will become more like hotel lobbies, by breaking down boundaries and offering different, more social ways to work.

“Done well, it can make for happier, healthier and more engaged employees.”

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