Does your work environment affect your wellbeing?

Wellbeing team Kelly (l) Richard and Lizzie (r)

For anyone tasked with improving wellbeing at their workplace, it can be difficult to know where to invest time and money. They can find themselves looking at a wide range of issues from mental health support, ergonomic desks, employee safety policies or the tax implications of the cycle to work scheme.

Yet, some Cambridge employers are certainly getting things right around workforce wellbeing and performance. The city ranks amongst the top locations in the UK for business in terms of its leading edge innovations (‘patents per head’) and high employment numbers. At the same time, our city is also ticking boxes around people’s ‘quality of life’ and we are the most likely to cycle to work. So what are employers here doing so well?

Talent Glue has been investigating what local employers have been up to and which things have the most impact on employee wellbeing. Partnering with Cambridge Plant Interiors and COEL, we investigated how employers are using the physical work environment to boost workforce wellbeing.  Our three companies found employers were using a combination of practices to maintain wellbeing in their workplace. An effective wellbeing strategy considers four elements – individual resilience, the challenges of the job, the environment and the organsation’s culture. When these elements are considered together, employers are more likely to benefit from improved productivity and performance as well as higher employee retention and lower absence.

Workforce wellbeing coverWe conducted a survey with over 70 employers and found that 62% of people felt resilient to change happening at work. Resilient people more often had a view of nature from their workspace, social space where they could meet with others or a manager who cared about their wellbeing.  Nearly a third of survey respondents who lacked views of nature, plants in their office, artwork or natural lighting, were found to be less productive; were more likely to work when they were not well; and were less proud to work for their employer.

“Trees, plants, views of nature, banter with colleagues, natural daylight and a social space nearby – these are all things I would choose if I were at home – they make me feel more like a human being!”  Technology sector worker

Cambourne-based Global Graphics has good views of the surrounding countryside, plants in the offices as well as plenty of space in the building where people can collaborative and socialise. They feel these things all contribute to their workforce’s wellbeing.

Practices at ProQuest, a global academic research company, range from small touches such as putting Xboxes in the communal recreational areas and having living plants in all areas to wider measures such as installing full spectrum LED lighting which replicate natural daylight and alleviates Seasonal Affective Disorder. They find installing the lighting throughout the office has delivered immediate and tangible results with employees feeling fresher, healthier, more focused and more productive.

Spotify Spotify, whose global customer centre is based in Cambridge, find that involving workers in the design of the office is key to ensuring they are comfortable. This music business has murals painted by their workers, a cinema screen, free food and space to relax. They also have a significant spread of plants which have notably helped to improve the office air quality. Spotify confirmed a noted reduction in sick days after the installation of plants.

NASA research found that plants clean the air better than any man made mechanism whilst researchers at Harvard found that those who work with live plants in their office experienced fewer coughs and colds, were more alert, reduced stress levels, enhanced creativity and were up to 15% more productive that those who didn’t have plants at work.

Of course, simply having a well designed workplace will not equate to good workforce wellbeing unless there are supporting factors such as access to flexible working or good communications.

“If you are doing a job you hate in a company that apparently hates you, brightly coloured sofas and ‘inspirational quote’ wall murals will make you hate it even more.” Pharmaceutical worker

The 11% of survey respondents who suffered from low resilience were more likely to feel in an ‘always on’ culture – affected by working excessive hours, never tuning out of emails, having ‘crunch periods’, and conflicting work priorities.

Flexible working can be difficult to manage. At MosesCameronWilliams Architects, the leaders ensure people have clear responsibilities and know what they are expected to deliver. There is mutual trust in people taking the time back when it is reasonable in the delivery schedule. They have also designed their office environment to enable a healthy lifestyle so when people are working to deadlines, they can feel comfortable.

Employee relations were also noted to have an impact on employee wellbeing. Organisations with higher levels of trust between colleagues had better workforce wellbeing. However, some employers were using the office space to reinforce key messages that instil that trust and reassurance.

Research earlier this year by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that organisations build trust in their workforce through one of four routes: competence, transparency, altruism and predictability. The Cambridge companies involved in the research were also found to be using their physical environment to reinforce these messages.  For example, the Royal Society of Chemistry reinforces its competence and knowledge through the clever naming of rooms. Even the reception clock is numbered with scientific formulae.   At print manufacturer Xaar, much of the physical space is used to communicate transparent processes which are paramount to ensuring safety of their people. Attention has been paid to how workers move through the buildings to ensure signs are suitably placed.

VOLACSo, for anyone tasked with improving wellbeing at their workplace, the researchers would recommend thinking about what you are trying to communicate to employees about valuing their safety and wellbeing. The team’s top tips for improving workplace wellbeing that you might want to try include:

  1. Provide symbols that show you care about employees. Healthy snacks, breakfast cereals or a weekly fruit basket all help ensure that your workforce are not going for long periods without eating and as a result feeling fatigued and exhausted. Plants can transform an office environment aesthetically and cleanse the air of the many harmful toxins that can affect wellbeing.
  2. Encourage staff to build in time to take a walk outside during the day. Maybe, you could host meetings outside where possible to gain access to fresh air, stretch limbs and combat the strains that can be felt from sitting at a desk all day.
  3. Offer options to employees about how and where they work. Consider implementing flexible working hours where this is operationally possible. Where the time and location is fixed, make sure the team can personalise the space in a way that is compatible with the company image and the team’s needs.
  4. Reflect on the social space in the office. Creating a relaxation area brings more integration between staff and allows them to re-energise themselves. Encourage people to use this space for informal meetings.
  5. Use aesthetics to communicate what the organisation values about its employees. The furniture says a lot about whether employees are valued – ensure this fits the physical needs of the staff such as desks which allow you to work whilst standing or sitting. Make sure that the lighting adequately provides for people’s needs.

And if you are one of the many workers who is based at home, you can apply these ideas to your home office too.