Designing for Wellbeing in the Workplace

The last couple of months have been unsettling, to say the least. We’ve all had to endure enormous stress – from disruptions to our daily habits, to anxiety over our job security, to worrying about the safety of friends and loved ones.

And yet, this moment is presenting us with a unique gift – the opportunity for deep reflection. In simply pausing to notice the fundamental flaws and fragilities built into the current status quo, we are offered a choice. Do we concede, or do we take the reins in actively designing difference into our lives and our workplaces?

At Anthemis, we were honoured this week to have been recognised as a centre of Excellence In Wellbeing. At the heart of this is a deep commitment to challenging the status quo and consciously designing for inclusion, adult-to-adult interpersonal relationships, psychological safety, flexibility, fulfillment and wellness.

One area that’s all too easy to neglect in times like these is our own health and wellness. And yet, studies show that at this very moment, one in four of us will be suffering from some form of mental illness, up to 68 percent of adults will be actively disengaged at work, over 200 million workdays will be lost ($16.8 billion in productivity) due to mental health conditions each year and the workplace is now the number one source of life stress.

Phew. That’s a lot. And yes, it’s complex. But with hardline relationships between stress, workplace dynamics, productivity, engagement and wellbeing, unequivocally it’s now the responsibility of workplaces to do better to impact these statistics positively. So where to start or build from?

Research shows that the five interconnected elements of wellbeing – career, social, financial, community and physical – affect everything from job performance to health status. Developing an integrated and multi faceted wellbeing approach, which is hardwired into culture, is key.

When designing for our ‘new normal’, it’s also entirely possible that pandemic-era experiences have reshaped views of the workplace – from how people want to interact, collaborate and connect to how much flexibility they expect. The balance of power is shifting, which will have significant implications for those organisations who are not designing actively across three key dimensions: the virtual environment, the physical environment (where it exists) and underpinning norms, practices and ways of working.

1. The virtual environment

The virtual workplace – either a hybrid or entirely remote model – is, of course, not new, with practice leaders such as Buffer having shared regular insights, pre-COVID, on the state of remote working and GitLab open sourcing their famed remote work manifesto.

But never before has there been such widespread adoption of remote working. In this process, many long-held views about the world of work have been challenged. Many workplaces have needed to give greater consideration to individuals’ non-work priorities and have gained insights in the process. Although many have embraced new technologies to enable remote work, few have changed their cultures successfully and practices to counter the bias towards face-to-face interaction. Further, teams can quickly be at risk of feeling disconnected from their colleagues and so emphasis is needed to replicate or augment the informal social interactions and experience of collaborative work, in a virtual setting.

Practice considerations:

  • Foster greater connection through setting up regular ‘virtual socials’ or ‘virtual coffee drop-ins’ to enable free-flowing, informal, opt-in style connections, which mimic the conversations that would otherwise happen around the coffee machine or shared kitchen.
  • Look to combat burnout and the challenges of unplugging in a remote environment by offering a monthly ‘mental health day’.
  • Over-index on transparency and frequency of whole team connections. These touch points facilitate alignment and help to alleviate stress and uncertainty in the current environment.
  • Survey your teams for insights into their current experiences so that you can build a custom wellness program, start here for 10 easy wellness program ideas for remote workers.
  • Normalise physical and mental fitness: build virtual mediation, mindfulness and physical exercise into the work day, sending a strong signal that it’s a legitimate activity, which is valued as part of your workflow.
  • Make the face time count: it is a popular myth that remote-based teams never come together physically. Not so. In a ‘business as usual’ (BAU) environment, healthy remote cultures still find ways to come together face-to-face and when they do, they focus on the things that build culture and connection into their operating rhythm.

2. The physical environment

Any space that you have can act as a powerful tool for wellbeing. Adaptable, flexible workplace designs make efficient use of the space, whilst also increasing productivity, creativity, and promoting wellbeing. Modern workspace design consciously augments habits to achieve greater wellbeing outcomes. In a distributed world, this means more immediately supporting your team to create a space for productivity at home, and then as the world opens back up again, turning your attention to the physical office space (where it exists), to ensure it is thoughtfully adapted.

Practice considerations:

  • Design the workspace intentionally for different types of work: deep concentration, free from distraction requires a different setup to that needed for highly collaborative work, such as ideation. Zone areas with smart noise absorption and kit out spaces to promote flow.
  • Conjure up the feelings of home: now more than ever, a homely office design which includes dedicated spaces to unwind and destress is paramount. Dedicate space to a private wellbeing room, which can be used for anything from mediation, yoga, reading and aromatherapy to praying and breastfeeding.
  • Encourage healthy habits: the inclusion of bike storage and showers can encourage cycling to work and in some cases, lunchtime running or out of the office exercise.
  • Promote movement: sit-stand desking solutions promote less sedentary working, as does designing your kitchen, bathrooms and shared spaces to be away from the desk area. Invest in an occupational physiotherapist to undertake an ergonomic assessment of desk setups to prevent repetitive strain and injuries.
  • Incorporate Biophilic design: European, Middle Eastern and African (EMEA) office workers who engage with environments with natural elements such as greenery and sunlight report 13 percent higher levels of wellbeing. Consider making a ‘greening provision’ available to your teams for home office spaces as well.

3. Underpinning norms, practices and ways of working

Whilst there are easy actions you can start taking today, designing for wellbeing is not a ‘one and done’ task. This is where the real work comes in. Companies that want to improve wellbeing at work need to adjust their strategies.This means investing in the work of weaving wellbeing into your ways of working and cultural operating system. Clue: this is not an ‘HR’ or tick box activity, it is nuanced, so the strategy must be multi-faceted and reinforced over time.

The key here is culture. Building a dedicated wellbeing room or an on-site gym wont drive impact unless, ultimately, your culture reduces stigma and empowers people to engage.

Practice considerations:

  • Design from a place of trust: how would your current people practices need to shift if your starting assumption was an adult-to-adult relationship, which presupposes that people are inherently motivated, capable and want to improve?
  • Consciously design for inclusion: if you want to level up your diversity, equity and inclusion practices, think about ‘belonging’ as a force multiplier. Build awareness of intersectionality to appreciate differences in experience and ways in which some groups encounter additional challenges in the workplace. Reinforce practices that encourage everyone to speak up and know that their voice is heard and valued; celebrate difference and diversity in all of its forms; and invest in strong allyship training. Check that your inclusion practices cohere across the entire colleague experience – from sourcing, hiring, and onboarding, to reward and recognition, growth and development and so on.
  • Destigmatise mental health: talk about it, support your teams to name, normalise and navigate tough conversions. Equip them through dedicated Mental Health First Aider training. Model vulnerability and disclosure as strengths and not weaknesses – starting with the CEO – and reinforce this behaviour by making it everyone’s responsibility.
  • Nurture psychological safety: Whilst recent events have challenged the way we work significantly the notion of psychological safety and its value in relation to wellbeing, productivity and team performance has only heightened in importance. Not only is trust the cornerstone of any healthy relationship, it’s also one of the most important aspects of successful, high-performing teams. Measure it. Run surveys on psychological safety and other team dynamics routinely.
  • Invest in training and tools: in addition to allyship and Mental Health First Aider training, invest in training and awareness building on unconscious bias and privilege for the whole organisation. Move beyond or supplement traditional Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services with tech-enabled platforms like Spill, an all-in-one mental health support through Slack; access 87% to help maintain positive mental health; or Span, a platform that delivers continuous support from clinicians for lifestyle, nutrition and mental wellness.

While there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to creating a healthy workplace, research shows that organisations with effective wellbeing programs outperform the market. Leaders at all levels can benefit from understanding the passions and needs of today’s workforce and exploring strategies that optimise the colleague experience.

There is a unique opportunity to design consciously for the kinds of workplaces we all want to be a part of. What will you do with this moment of opportunity?