Wellbeing Begins with the Workplace

16/03/2011

Don’t Upset the Eco-system of the Office

Written by Kenneth Freeman, International Technical Director, Ambius and Head of Ambius University

Kenneth Freeman

In 1984, the World Health Organization published a report that claimed that as many as 30% of new or refurbished buildings caused occupants to suffer symptoms that became known as ‘Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)’. Common symptoms of SBS seem to be closely related to poor indoor air quality, such as itchiness, dry skin, eye and throat irritations, headaches and nausea. Often, the presence of volatile organic compounds in the indoor environment, mould spores, poor ventilation and badly-adjusted temperatures are blamed. The trouble is, removing those supposed causes doesn’t always get rid of the problem.

Research carried out over the last quarter century or so, by building engineers, air quality experts and occupational health specialists often find that there is rather more to the story than the simple presence and subsequent remediation of these physical causes: an awful lot of people still feel unwell at work. There are also several instances of office workers experiencing symptoms of sick building syndrome where no obvious environmental cause could be found: air quality is good, the space is at a comfortable temperature and it is well-lit.

So, if the physical characteristics of a building can’t be held wholly to blame (either for the cause or the remedy), are there any other culprits? Certainly, a number of studies carried out suggest an interaction with - if not an outright attribution to - psychological causes. Experiments in offices where interior plants were installed to help mediate the poor indoor environment (due to plants’ known abilities to remove pollutants and improve indoor air quality) have shown consistently that complaints of symptoms associated with sick building syndrome drop considerably as a result and even that absenteeism due to sickness drops. However, where objective measurements were made before and after plants were installed, the physical changes in the environment were not enough to explain the magnitude of the benefit.

Something else is at play and that might make for uncomfortable reading for those professionals responsible for allocating and managing space in the office.

For the last five years or so, researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK and colleagues at the University of Groeningen in the Netherlands have been investigating the management of workspace. Dr Craig Knight and his colleagues from the University of Exeter have made some discoveries that should make space planners and those responsible for managing space in the workplace think very hard about the effects their activities have on the wellbeing and happiness of the people who have to work there. Their research has far-reaching implications for organisations interested in improving engagement, reducing absenteeism and increasing productivity.

In a nutshell, the research has shown that when compared with a typical lean space management system, enriching the environment with - essentially ephemeral - items such as indoor plants or pictures can increase productivity (by over 15%) and satisfaction scores relating to the indoor environment. These are clearly impressive findings. However, the effects can be magnified when the office workers are given a degree of autonomy in the choice of those items. Even a small amount of empowerment over the arrangement of personal workspace (the antithesis of Lean and almost guaranteed to send proponents of the 6-Sigma approach to workspace management into a state of confusion and self-doubt) can result in productivity improvements of up to 32%. Again, wellbeing (as measured in terms of workplace comfort, identity, engagement and corporate citizenship behaviour - altruism at work) went up significantly.

Here we have evidence that making work spaces more interesting, and in recognizing the need for people to realise something of their own identity in the workplace (in other words, by allowing people the opportunity to personalise their space - even if by only a little) can pay huge dividends in terms of wellbeing and happiness, which in turn leads to real business benefits.

So, we have any amount of peer-reviewed research as well as case studies and the results of work space satisfaction surveys that show work spaces that are more humane, empowered and interesting will result in a greater sense of wellbeing. The precise mechanisms underpinning these effects are unclear. The researchers at Exeter explain many of their findings in terms of identity realisation, and they have developed a powerful and convincing model that shows very clearly the relationships between performance, comfort, wellbeing, autonomy, altruism, organisational identification and the ability of individuals to express something of their own personality at work.

There is also evidence that something else might be affecting our sense of wellbeing and happiness at work.

Our species has only recently left our natural habitat. It is 300 years or so since land was enclosed, and only 250 years since the Industrial Revolution wrought vast changes to the way we live and work. That is only 10 generations of our entire species history and nowhere near long enough for us to adapt and evolve to cope with these unnatural conditions. Our discomfort in many buildings is not necessarily due to poor ergonomics and bad indoor air quality, or even issues of identity realisation and lack of autonomy - they are just symptoms of a greater, more holistic problem: our innate discomfort with the modern world.

At the same time the World Health Organization investigated the phenomenon of Sick Building Syndrome, an American social biologist called Edward O Wilson was working on a hypothesis called Biophilia, which he defined as...

“...the innate affiliation people seek with other organisms and especially the natural world.”

Wilson has referred to studies that show that, when given complete freedom to choose the settings of their homes (and work places), people gravitate towards an environment that combines three major features: positioned at height, overlooking the landscape (with open terrain with scattered trees and copses), and being close to open water, such as streams or lakes.

Effectively, what has been described is the landscape of our distant ancestors from the African plains, and that is the sort of landscape where we instinctively feel at home and safe: Humanity’s natural habitat.

Other elements frequently also included as key elements in the choice of an environment include: refuge, use of natural and local materials, dynamic and diffused daylight, visual connections between the interior and exterior and natural odours and scents.

What does all this have to do with managing a work space? It may be unrealistic (and unreasonable) to advocate the re-creation of the Serengeti among the cubicles. However, our very definite need to surround ourselves with nature (especially vegetation) at home and at work can be facilitated by the use of design elements such as interior plants, decorative lighting, art, sounds and fragrances.

In conclusion, wellbeing in the workplace appears to be the result of an interaction of several factors: good environmental design, a recognition of our in- built biological need for a safe habitat and a management style that recognizes the human need for identity and autonomy. In other words, an eco-system in the office. Get the balance right and everyone benefits, but everyone knows what happens when eco-systems are upset.

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