Workplace design – well-being at work: people or profit first?

Workplace design – wellbeing at work or profits ahead of people?

Workplace design – well-being at work: people or profit first?

There is a lot of talk right now about workplace design of the future, with studies on our changing behaviours within the context of the work/ life balance, but are we researching and designing our workplaces to support a deeper level of well-being at work, or is the focus still rooted in the culture of putting profit and the aesthetics of design ahead of people?

In consideration of workplace design, are we to some degree distracted by spectacular angles, magnificent finishes, the latest integrated technology, catchphrases on supposed ‘well-being’ and incorporated ‘chill-out zones’, so that things look / appear both aesthetically pleasing and functional, while we overlook the responsibility of the well-being of people at a deeper, a less superficial, profit driven level? For instance, are we willing to connect deeply to what is really going on within the work environment, to support people in a framework that is by way of design, positively geared to have an effusing effect on profit margins and the bottom line?

We have largely kept workplace design – both interior and exterior – in the realms of being all about subjective taste, based on elementary needs, executed by the select few, sold on philosophical argument and designed to fit budgetary constraints... but could there be more to architecture, building structure and interior design when it comes to making beautiful, functional and supportive work spaces for real people than we currently pay homage to?

Interdisciplinary research teams have been investigating workplace design, culture, and its relationship to productivity and well-being at work for many years, and executing the design accordingly, but the high rate of sick leave, burnout and staff turnover is clearly indicative that what has been deduced and applied is not going far enough.

If we look from an angle of economics, we see that at present, workplace well-being is generally motivated by profit and returns on investment. It cannot be claimed that the initial motivating factor is to nurture people equally alongside nurturing the business while we only look at the health of staff as far as it aligns to the economic benefits or costs (sick leave, training, remuneration) that ‘human resources’ incur. The well-being of staff in the work place is, for most workplaces, a secondary issue at best.

For example . . .

Do colourful wall murals support staff to feel less stressed or fatigued?

In a report I recently read on designing workplaces in the financial sector, they were supposed to “offer visual respite and a sense of playfulness” for the staff. However, I found quite the opposite effect; the brightly coloured, oversized murals tried to draw me into the complexity of the design, and only offered distraction from what I was actually feeling. I was left with a feeling of emptiness that in turn inspired reflection on the true purpose of design in the workplace... Are we as designers / clients taking note of the increasing statistics of workplace stress, illness and disease, and asking more of our built environments?

With my experience in the interior design industry for the last 20 years I can safely presume that the design team had been asked to come up with a concept – an intellectually justified, ideologically sound concept, as to why the mural is supportive of staff, or its aesthetic is needed within the space...

I am not looking at and subjectively critiquing the visual – the skill of the artist was evident – I am suggesting that the wall mural is possibly a ‘nice distraction’ but does not directly address the issues of fatigue, stress or a moment of true respite in the workplace, and that as designers we have an opportunity to offer much more.

To address the issues of staff turnover and absenteeism, resulting in lost revenue, most workplace design ideas for the future discuss communal work places that:

  • Enhance collaboration and communication
  • Feature shared interchangeable work spaces
  • Provide child minding facilities
  • Contain rest stops
  • Include ‘break out zones’ and
  • ‘Well-being spaces’
  • Maintain ‘living green walls’ and
  • Various concepts of the ‘one-team’
  • Provide ‘staff engagement spaces’
  • Designate meeting places for professionals from various disciplines to discuss and cross-collaborate within a neutral purpose-built environment...

These ideas all sound amazing but none of this is new or adds value in the context of employers providing amenities for the true health and well-being of staff that work within these organisations and facilities, and in fact, if it were adding value, it would be seen in the decreasing numbers of absentees and staff turnover, not the increasing numbers.

One example would be the development of Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, Australia, completed in the 1920’s, which provided railway staff with a lecture hall (to improve their chances for internal promotion) and a gym and running track (to support their general health and well-being). These additions may sound innovative and impressive, which on some level they are, but they still ignore the quality of care and general well-being within the actual workplace itself. Add-on amenities are not the same as an integrated, holistic approach.

In another interior design article that I read recently the office layout included a specifically designed, low bench that comes down to floor level so ‘staff members can crash-out’. But has this company first looked at the workplace culture it is promoting? What is going on in business and for individuals that they even need to ‘crash out’ at work?

Again the question must be raised; what is the motivating force behind providing the crash-out or chill-out zones? It would generally be perceived that this inclusion is thoughtful, caring, even cool, however this does not reveal or allow for truly feeling what is behind the idea to incorporate such design elements into the work space. I would suggest that it is to continue the march towards profit at the expense of the people and reinforce that work and being in a restful state cannot be experienced in the same moment. These workplace design elements reinforce the latter false perception that we all buy into as consumers.

Well-being in the workplace would be more possible if design was formulated to support staff, allowing them to feel supported at work, inspired to be present with what was actually going on during their day, feeling the interconnectedness of co-workers as they interact within the shared work space.

What if workplace design inspired self-care at work, work task completion and workplace communication, rather than the current work model that dictates pushing through ‘at all costs’ and relying on finding a space alone to crash-out and recover, or failing this, crashing out at home at the end of a work day? Why do we all accept this as ‘the norm’? What if through a workplace design that encouraged self-care and staff feeling supported, that collaborative teamwork ensued and thus office competition and politics were minimised? By natural attrition all the elements mentioned above would result in increased productivity and staff retention rates, with a reduction in absenteeism.

Everybody that works within or enters a work space feels the intention or driving force behind the interior design, and no amount of ‘distraction’ will alleviate this truth if the work space was designed for profit over people.

Stunning views, amazing materials, cutting edge technology, impressive designs and colourful wall murals distract and override but cannot subjugate what is undeniably felt in any workplace environment. Is it possible that such workplace designs have become more about reward, performance and upholding status, whether it is monetary or peer accolades, and not in fact about a harmonious and successful working environment designed and set up with the intent of caring for the people that work there?

Well-being in the workplace is on the table to address the rise in the rate of staff turnover, the increasing number of sick days taken per annum, work/ life balance and general dissatisfaction of work employees largely because it affects the bottom line. Globally, billions are outlaid annually as a result of staff absenteeism and turnover.

When the implementation of ideas for the wellbeing of employees – specifically workplace design – is introduced as a reaction to lost profit alone, nothing will actually change with any real permanency.

In the latest Direct Health Solutions Absence Survey[i] it quoted that:

"Businesses lost $30 billion due to employees taking an historic amount of sick leave in 2009-10, with the banking, finance, telco and public service industries the hardest hit."

"The cost to businesses of sick leave is also rising, with the average cost of absence now at $375 from $370 in 2009. Over the year, that cost comes to $3,712, resulting in the Australian economy losing up to $30 billion a year – 3% of GDP."

If we are prepared to put the well-being of people at work ahead of profit and monuments to human pride, then what is co-created by the client, the design team, the builders and suppliers, will truly support and nurture staff on a 24/7 basis.

True well-being in the context of workplace design is a process of co-creation with the true care of people as the no.1 intention. Well-being at work will then become a process and a responsibility of the all, rather than the band-aid approach of today.

We all feel the energy of intention equally and thus there is a subliminal tension from feeling the underlying purpose behind the construction of the building or work-space, no matter how many ‘chill-out’ rooms are incorporated.

Great workplace design and business collaboration should not just be about understanding the changing work culture or incorporating the latest technology, especially when all these things are underpinned and driven by external markers and will be talked about, discussed, and debated ad infinitum. Would it then not be possible that the simple intention behind co-creation and making it about people first would withstand all the changing subjective perceptions and introduce a level of true care that is currently missing at a foundational level within our workplaces and our society as a whole?

Well-being at work 24/7 requires a perception shift across the board. Separation in departments or professional disciplines researching these issues without working together will not hold the one unified intention or purpose of putting people first, which if implemented, will initiate a new culture of integrity that encompasses the whole rather than the compartmentalised approach and focus on profit that is currently the norm. In effect, great workplace design being made even greater, and by putting people before profit, the profit will naturally be taken care of.


  • [i]

    Direct Health Solutions Absence Survey, Smart Company, 7 September 2010

Filed under

AbsenteeismProductivityWork stressWork life balanceBurnout

  • By Melinda Rowe, Interior Designer BA (Hons) MDIA; Holistic Counsellor; Esoteric Practitioner EPA Recognised

    Melinda is a lover of Truth, People and Connection. The Ageless Wisdom is a constant source of inspiration, along with an excellent lamb roast, and the random exquisite moments in life that remind us we are so much more.

  • Photography: Leonne Sharkey, Bachelor of Communications

    For Leonne photography is about relationships, reflection and light. She is constantly amazed by the way a photo can show us all we need to know.