Issue 61

Steelcase 360

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Check out the latest information on workplace research, insights and trends that will help you understand how people really work and how creating great space can make a difference.


The time has come for workplaces that support wellbeing.

People in workplaces around the world are ready to let out a seismic scream. If they don’t fall asleep or call in sick first.

Just when creativity and innovation are more critical to business survival than ever, knowledge workers are plagued by stress, fatigue, ailments, illness, and burnout that impede their productivity, engagement, and basic day-to-day sanity.

What’s gone wrong?

Increasingly mobile technologies mean that, like a dog on a leash, work now follows workers wherever they go. Globalization is stretching the workday across time zones into both nighttime and sunrise, and routine business travel is often globetrotting in coach class with just one carry-on. The need for more collaboration makes it easier to get things done together, but can often squeeze time for focused work. Economic recession in North America and Europe has reduced headcounts and budgets, turning productivity into an imperative. Meanwhile, in developing countries, expanding opportunity and competition mean needing to prove yourself every minute of every day, not just to your employer but also to the world.

No wonder it’s the yawning of a new era, according to many recent studies. In North America managers report worker fatigue is a bigger problem than ever. And at least 40% of U.S. and Canadian workers of all ages who participated in a 2010 Workforce Management survey say their jobs make them depressed. In Europe, too, the work environment has begun to spread beyond the office, and the transfer of information and transitions between spaces is anything but smooth. In Asia, hectic commutes and blurring boundaries between work and life are disrupting the harmony that’s crucial to their cultural definition of wellbeing.

At the same time, many employers are seeing poorer health among their employees, and it’s driving up costs dramatically and unsustainably, especially in the United States where spending on health care is twice as much as on food and more than Chinese consumers spend on all goods and services. Beyond the costs of health care, a recent study found that presenteeism — when employees are present at their jobs but unable to perform at capacity — creates an even bigger drain on productivity, and hence profitability, than employee absences. With everything factored in, depression, obesity, arthritis, back/neck pain, and anxiety now top the list of costly conditions.

Worldwide, knowledge workers are affected by a new reality: due to converging changes in the marketplace, technology and work itself, their lives are more chaotic than ever and stress is taking its toll. Without wellbeing, it’s hard to produce the kind of breakthrough work, ideas, and solutions that are essential to success in an interconnected world.

Employers and designers alike realize it’s more important than ever to support worker wellbeing, and the workplace can either help or hinder that goal. Environments that support wellbeing can be highly desirable oases where people are less stressed, more productive, more creative, and healthier.

They’re the workplaces of the future, not the past.

As author Richard Florida has put it, companies of all types, including large established ones, are striving to create the kinds of workplaces that are amenable to what knowledge workers need. “In this, they have no choice: Either they will create these kinds of environments, or they will wither and die.”

Brady Mick, senior project manager at BHDP Architecture in Cincinnati, says essentially the same thing in a different way: “A company does not breathe, eat, sleep, sense, or think on its own. When the group of people who combine and collide together throughout a work day go home and the lights go off, there is nothing there of interest.”

In other words, people matter — more than anything else. A great workplace is simply a tool to bring out their best, which starts and ends with wellbeing. But it’s not as simple as it sounds.

What is Wellbeing and Why Should Employers Care?

Understanding wellbeing has kept philosophers busy for centuries and has evolved significantly over time. In recent decades, wellbeing has moved into the realm of science. In the mid-1940s, psychologist Abraham Maslow achieved acclaim for his “hierarchy of needs” model of human motivation that put basic body needs first. Since then, a growing body of research is contributing to a deep understanding of the factors that influence and create wellbeing.

Though opinions still vary about the fine points, today there’s widespread agreement that it isn’t just about being happy and it’s not synonymous with wellness (though good health can certainly contribute to wellbeing).

In its broadest sense, wellbeing is about having a sense of personal purpose and fulfillment. Experts say the degree to which people have supportive relationships and a sense of connection with others is also vital.

Social scientists and authors Tom Rath and Jim Hartner in their 2010 bestseller, Well being: The Five Essential Elements, say: “Well being is about the combination of our love for what we do every day, the quality of our relationships, the security of our finances, the vibrancy of our physical health, and the pride we take in what we have contributed to our communities. Most importantly, it’s about how these five elements interact.” Their book is based on a global study that the Gallup organization conducted in 150 countries over the course of several years.

Providing yet another view, neuroscientists and psychologists put focus on cognitive wellbeing. It’s what happens when the brain is performing at capacity.

However employee wellbeing is defined, employers used to think that it was a private matter, and really none of their business. Today, a growing number see a clear connection between employee wellbeing and organizational performance. High levels of wellbeing mean that people are more able to respond to difficult circumstances, innovate, and constructively engage with other people and the world around them. They’re healthier, too, which reduces illness-related costs.

There’s a well-founded trend underway worldwide to address worker wellbeing in the workplace more comprehensively. It’s based on a fundamental recognition that people are physical, cognitive, and emotional beings. These three dimensions, co-dependent and inseparable, can profoundly affect the productivity of individuals and teams, and that can quickly affect the health of an organization’s bottom line.

Body is Basic

In the Western world, experts ranging from environmentalists to ergonomists to psychologists say wellbeing fundamentally starts with the body.

There’s a direct and important correlation between healthy buildings and healthy workers. With tens of thousands of chemicals in use today, eliminating toxic materials from buildings has been a fundamental platform for sustainability efforts ever since the “sick building syndrome” came into the spotlight in the 1980s. However, 48% of workers — including 51% of those working for companies with revenues of $1 billion or more — don’t believe they work in a ”green building,” according to a 2009 report from GreenBiz. Responsible companies put priority on materials chemistry, examining the chemical makeup of materials used in products, packaging, and production. Steelcase has so far assessed more than 600 categories of materials, down to 100 parts per million, against 19 human and environmental health criteria, and the work continues in an ongoing partnership with McDonough Braunguart Design Chemistry.

“Supporting human and environmental health is fundamental to product performance requirements and people’s wellbeing,” says Angela Nahikian, director of global environmental sustainability.

Steelcase research ergonomist David Trippany agrees that user wellbeing is an important performance requirement for workplace furnishings.

“Physical wellbeing impacts cognitive and emotional wellbeing,” he says. “To have the brain fully firing, the body needs to be supported and comfortable. ”

Remember when an adjustable chair was the big deal? It’s still a vital component of worker wellbeing, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Simple ergonomics isn’t so simple anymore. In workplaces all over the world, people are straining their eyes, fingers, hands, arms, neck, shoulders and backs by sitting in relatively static positions at computer screens for long hours. Or they’re away from their desks in hours-long collaboration sessions, perched on stools, stackers, benches or guest chairs that were never intended to stand up comfortably to that much sitting.

The cardioconference room at Life Technologies

The cardioconference room at Life Technologies is a great alternative to a traditional conference room for team meetings. Walkstations, which combine individual worksurfaces with low speed treadmills, bring movement to the workplace, while the custom built table in the center provides a place to put larger equipment or additional documents.

Meanwhile, laptops have become exactly that, as mobile workers hunch over them in airports, lobbies, and parked cars to grab some precious working time on the go. Adding devices like smart phones and tablets to the mix means new repetitive-motion injuries like “texting thumbs” and “tech necks” just waiting to happen if people don’t take the right steps.

As if all of that isn’t creating enough bodily assault, there’s a growing pandemic of obesity, especially in North America. Obesity in the U.S. is now more than 32% of the population compared to 20% globally. Today’s workers are increasingly unfit and overweight, causing rising risks for diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease, along with more robust needs for supporting bodies at work. It goes way beyond  bariatric seating. It’s about getting people out of their chairs.

Adding more opportunities to move within the workplace has become more important than ever. Research from experts and institutions around the world is establishing a connection between long periods of sedentary postures and chronic illness such as diabetes and heart disease.

Because employees spend so much of their time at work, it can be an ideal venue to address sedentary habits. By intentionally providing a combination of sitting and standing environments that encourage “sharing the load” among muscles and ligaments, workers can actually leave healthier at the end of a long day. Seating that encourages alternative postures and “fidgeting” are great ways to build in movement, as are worksettings that encourage people to stand up for part of the time every day. Not only is movement good for the limbs, it keeps blood flowing to bring a steady stream of oxygen and glucose to the brain, and that keeps it functioning efficiently.

Movement as an integral component of wellbeing has center stage at the Carlsbad, CA., headquarters of Life Technologies, a global biotechnology company. In a special “cardio conference room,” 12 Walkstations, which combine workstations with low-speed treadmills, bring movement to the workplace in a new way. The room is fully equipped with audio and projection capabilities from laptops, so it’s a great alternative to a traditional conference room for team meetings. Between use by teams, individual workers can drop in anytime for an energizing “pick me up” to get their blood flowing without having to leave work behind. “The space is so well utilized, it’s hard to get time in there,” reports Erica Shortsleeve, global wellness program manager. “Employees tell us it makes them feel more alert.”

The cardio conference room at Life Technologies powerfully represents the company culture, which places high value on wellbeing. “Our quest is to shape discovery and improve lives. Our employees can’t do that unless they’re feeling good themselves,” says Shortsleeve.

Similarly, at TELUS, a leading telecommunications company in Canada, workplace wellbeing started out as a program that’s become a core business strategy, says Janet Crowe, director of health. “It’s part of who we are,” she says. “We want to inspire our people to live a healthy life.” Workplace design is a very important part of the TELUS approach. One shining example: their new facility in Toronto includes many “extras” that go beyond an onsite gym and staff of wellness professionals who encourage employees to make physical activity part of their workday. The facility includes a full kitchen intended for teambuilding activities as well as a place to make your own lunch, and video conferencing spaces to easily connect with remote team members. Even more pervasive is the overall ambience of the space that’s awash with natural light and striking views of Lake Ontario. It’s punctuated with a variety of shared social areas for people to spontaneously interact, as well as focused areas where people can relax or do heads-down work, all important components of work and overall wellbeing.

A July 2009 Steelcase research project confirmed that as new technologies and more collaborative work unchain people from their desks, there’s more opportunity to move around in the workplace as well as away from it. On the positive side, that’s healthy. On the negative side, it means people may be working in places and postures that can literally make them “a working stiff” the next day.

The workplace can make a big difference for the better, for both mobile and resident workers by supporting bodies in these ways:

Pay attention to product content and consider third-party sustainabity certifications: Cradle to Cradle™ product certification by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, Indoor Advantage™ by Scientific Certification Systems, Life Cycle Assessment (the International Organization for Standardization has established a LCA framework in ISO 14040), and others.
Select task seating that allows dynamic movement and has an intuitive range of adjustments so workers can easily fine-tune the fit to their own bodies.
Prioritize supportive comfort so people can be productive at whatever they’re doing.
Add adjustable or standing-height worksurfaces so people can stand and move around while they work.
Choose seating designed for collaboration so minds can meet for hours without cramped bodies.
Invest in tools — keyboard supports, articulating montitor support arms, etc. — that make it easy for workers to bring their work close without strain.
Take time to train workers so they understand the ergonomic features of their work environment and why it matters. It shows you really care about them, and it can help avoid expensive problems later on.

When a workplace offers solid ergonomic support across the spectrum, it’s a good place to be. Healthier bodies, more energized minds, less fatigue, and stronger connections to the workplace and each other add up to a great return on investment.

The iBrain Factor

Call it attitude: people are less tolerant than ever of things that don’t work on their terms. With everything from fast-food to smart phones to daily news feeds now customizable, workers expect their environments to adapt to them too, providing an appropriate place for accomplishing whatever they need to do. This shows itself in all sorts of ways, from wanting space for family pictures in a compact call-center bench application to routinely escaping the isolation of an individual workstation for a blanket of surround sound that you can wrap yourself into for focused work in the café.

A collaborative Bix™ workbooth at TELUS.

Natural light, comfortable seating, a place to gather with colleagues, in a collaborative Bix™ workbooth at TELUS.

If an important part of wellbeing is controlling your surroundings to achieve a desired state of mind for complex processing and decision-making, then many of today’s workplaces are hazard zones. Reassuring patterns of predictable workflow have been replaced by the stress of the unknown, with interruptions as common as paper clips and multi-tasking an expected norm. The average worker switches tasks every three minutes, is interrupted every two minutes, and has a maximum focus stretch of 12 minutes, according to one recent observation-based study. Despite the fact that neuroscientists are now saying that multi-tasking is a myth and the brain simply can’t process two high-level cognitive things at once, workers all over the world keep trying.

Cognitive overload is a fundamental problem in today’s workplaces, says Beatriz Arantes, a psychologist and Steelcase researcher based in Paris. In some ways, today’s knowledge workers resemble air traffic controllers, processing heavy loads of information under high stress. “There’s a lot of noise,” says Arantes, “and the more we have to pay attention to unnecessary details, the more cognitive resources it takes.” The workplace can make a significant difference in how well people are able to process information and be engaged in their work. Research reveals that people are better able to solve problems when they’re exposed to upbeat versus upsetting stimuli, she notes.

Engagement makes people more productive, and it even can make a difference in their health. Rath and Hartner’s work showed that people that were actively disengaged in their careers were twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression. Another study they did showed that as employees’ levels of engagement in work increased, their total cholesterol and triglyceride levels significantly decreased.

If people are cognitively coupled to their environments and every worker is different, can a workplace really work for all? Behind all the nuances of idiosyncratic preference and workstyles, Steelcase researchers have indentified some common principles for cognitive wellbeing at work. All are based on providing more control and choices for how and where to work.

Support a range of tasks: Every worker wants some control over how they work. Some prefer a sequential approach, others work more laterally. Achieving personal flow with little effort is the ideal platform for productivity. Superior connections and support for technology, plus adequate array space can transform even a small footprint into an appealing, effective space for work.

Support an easy switch among the modes of work: An enclave nearby, seating around the corner for quick collaboration or mentoring, an onsite café or library that provides the ambience of a third-place but with the resource amenities of the workplace — adjacencies of settings make it easier for workers to tap into the vibe they seek and transition between work modes.

Support expectations for collaboration and privacy: In yoga practice, people are instructed to breathe deeply enough so they can hear their own and their neighbors’ breaths, but not so deeply that their neighbors can’t hear themselves. It’s an apt metaphor for privacy in offices. Although people tend to think of privacy in terms of other people bothering them, it’s really both an input and output problem.

Providing for adequate privacy levels continues to be one of the most challenging aspects of office planning. There are different kinds of privacy: visual, acoustical, territorial, and informational.

The core of privacy is the ability to regulate the flow of information. Needs run the gamut, especially in today’s multigenerational, multicultural workforce. Some can do focused work only in settings that are optimized for concentration; others work most effectively in social settings. And sometimes preference is simply a matter of mood on a given day. Having choice and control are important, even if it’s as basic as putting on ear buds to block out noise or having a space at hand for personal phone calls.

People need and want both focus and interaction — i.e., spaces that “open up” easily for collaboration and provide adjustable levels of privacy for individual work.

Support eye-to-eye: As business collaboration becomes more virtual, the easier it is to get “up close and personal,”
the better. It’s important that people can quickly become productive in virtual meetings by allowing all participants
to contribute their ideas equally, quickly, and seamlessly. High-definition video can totally reshape the collaborative experience. Recent studies show that up to 93% of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues — gestures, eye movements, overall body language,
tone of voice, etc. Those cues just can’t come through in emails or conference calls.

Make common spaces an instant fit: Intuitive adjustments and easy technology connections make common spaces uncommonly supportive for on-the-move individuals and teams, enabling them to be efficient right from the start.

The Vibe that Binds

As recently as 10 years ago, people came to the office for network connectivity, meeting rooms, and because they were expected to be there. With today’s workers increasingly mobile within and away from the workplace, given a choice they’ll go where they want to be. And a funny thing is happening on the way to the coffee shop: many workers are coming to the office instead because it can provide better support and especially a better vibe.

Despite having more options than ever, many workers will choose to come to the office when it supports their work and gives them a feeling of belonging in a way anonymous third places just can’t. A well-designed workplace can be more than just someplace to go and instead become the place to be.

For architect Brady Mick, workplaces are all about the relationships built there. Seen any other way, they’re just sculpture. “Place affects people by the way they bump into each other and meet. Relationships are built in spaces. There’s a lot of latent energy there, even if it’s virtual space.”

Janet Crowe at TELUS agrees. At the new Toronto facility, the holistic and calming design approach underscores the sense of wellbeing and equanimity in the space.

“The physical environment of space is a very important element of employees’ wellbeing. It’s not the impersonal cubicle you hid behind in the past. Today it’s the community you’re part of. Transparent and equitable spaces make employees feel valued,” says Crowe.

Even small increases in social cohesiveness can result in large gains, according to a study conducted by MIT researchers of workers who wore badges that monitored their movements and conversations. Even what might be considered idle chit-chat often aided productivity, the research showed.

Rob Koenen, vice president and general manager for CAT® footwear, a division of Wolverine World, says that’s been true for his company, too. This year, Wolverine moved its product designers for eight diverse brands, ranging from Patagonia® to Hush Puppies®, into Grid70, a new urban space in downtown Grand Rapids, MI., just 15 minutes and yet worlds away from their suburban corporate headquarters. They made the move to increase communication, collaboration, and innovation across the brands, and knew that improving worker wellbeing was an important part of the equation. Moving from a facility where workers for each brand were siloed from each other and isolated in cubicles,
the open plan “workbench” environment of their new space, enhanced with media:scape® collaboration settings throughout, was initially a little intimidating, says Koenen. But not for long.

“The biggest surprise was how easy it’s been. The space and the technology are perfect in so many ways. When I’m working here, I’m more relaxed and focused. I get more done, and I feel better about it. We’ve learned that space can drive innovation as much as people can. It can create a whole ‘tribe’ that looks out for each other and shares experiences and what they know. We have a happier, more close-knit and productive community that we didn’t have six months ago.”

Non-design teams from Wolverine are now coming to the downtown space for brainstorming sessions, too, because it supports that activity best — and gives them a reason to be part of the buzz of this appealing environment. An added bonus: adjacent floors of the facility are used by workers from three other local companies, with large meeting rooms and a café shared by all. So cross-company collaboration is starting to happen, too.

The business benefits are clear. “We’re seeing innovation get more engendered in the DNA of all of our company because of this space,” says Koenen.

Clearly, organizations that view their people as an asset can benefit by viewing their space as an asset too, making the workplace a less stressful, more desirable place to be.

The nature of work is changing dramatically, and investments in the workplace that support wellbeing for all generations of workers can be among the most strategic steps an organization can make to be fit and agile for what’s ahead.

When the physical, mental and emotional factors of wellbeing are fully realized, people thrive — and so do businesses.

Filed under: 360 Magazine, Featured Articles

  • Ken Barry says:

    Hi, I am a dealer principal in Edmonton, Canada. I was asked to provide an article to the local Chamber of Commerce here in Edmonton. I am wondering how we go about getting permission to submit an article from 360 for reprint in their monthly \Commerce News\ publication? It would be seen as very favourable for Steelcase and my dealership, RGO Edmonton.

    • Steelcase says:

      @Ken — We are happy to give you permission to use the article; we will contact you directly to accommodate this request.

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Issue 61 Cover

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