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Workplace & Wellbeing

Designing work environments for individual needs

How can organisations better identify and design for the needs of their employees, to increase their sense of control and wellbeing at work?

In 2014, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recorded that on average British people in full-time employment were working just over 42 hours per week, one of the highest numbers in Europe. In the same year, it was also found that 23.3 million working days were lost because of work-related illnesses such as stress, depression, anxiety and musculoskeletal problems. 

The increased recognition of the importance of employee wellbeing was a catalyst for the Workplace & Wellbeing project, which began in 2015 through a partnership between the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and architectural and design firm Gensler, bringing together people-centred design research and global industry experience. The project recognises that one important element to maintaining a high level of employee wellbeing is through a positive working environment. This project – now in its second year – is supported by RBS, Kinnarps, Bupa and Milliken.

Site-specific Research
Last year the team spent time gathering employee insights by visiting four different offices that had gone through different levels of change to their workspace environment in the last past years. Through this employee engagement the research team found evidence to support their hypothesis that an important factor of good mental wellbeing in the workplace was having ‘a sense of control’ (for example, over the configuration of the office space, or autonomy in where and when they work to acknowledge their other commitments). The need for a sense of control was evident in both the design of the working environment and in the culture that prevailed in the organisation or within  a specific department – meaning that  both the functional and psychological  needs of employees must be understood and considered by the organisation in order  to most effectively make changes with  the intention of improving wellbeing.

The research team then worked with one London-based office to see to what extent changes might be made effectively with more input from employees. Three office teams were offered different levels of participation in the generation of ideas for the office space through engagement and co-design workshops. This resulted in employee-led initiatives such as their own plants and a declutter day. The researchers could see that the groups who were invited to participate to a small or greater extent in the design process felt significantly happier after the initiatives were put in place than those who were not involved (but who were recipients), because they were able to contribute to improving their workspace.

Simple Changes for a Healthier Workplace
Now in its second year, the research team are developing an evaluation tool to capture where an organisation’s employees see the greatest opportunities for improvement in workplace environment and culture. This tool, supported by guidance on communication, engagement and feedback, will help organisations to focus their workplace design strategy to better meet the needs of both employer and employee.

See previous year's project

Research Associate: 
Andrew Thomson
Senior Research Associate:
Gail Ramster

Work Futures Research Leader:
Prof Jeremy Myerson

Research Partners: 
Gensler, Bupa, Kinnarps, Milliken, RBS, Shell