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The five factors of workplace wellbeing

Kellie Payne, Bates Smart
Kellie Payne, Bates Smart

Bates Smart studio director Kellie Payne recently spoke at The Fifth Estate’s Bring Your Office to Life event in Brisbane on the factors needed for a healthy, sustainable and productive workplace. Following is an edited transcript of her speech.

Architects design spaces that are “touch-points for humanity throughout our lives”, Kellie Payne says.

“I’ve been involved in designing hospitals, schools, workplaces, where me meet, where we play, and retirement spaces. So really from the cradle to … I’ll say retirement – I haven’t gone further yet.

“And since the mid-1980s there’s the science of evidence-based design, that’s been experimenting and analysing on these spaces to understand how the design of them impacts the health of the people. I like to think of it as a David Attenborough experiment, where he’s sort of sitting there doing experiments on habitats for homosapiens, and watching them closely.

“For us, there’s a really strong acknowledgement that evidence is in well and truly that design impacts our biology, how we feel stress, how we feel anxiety, it impacts our relationships and our physical health.

“And as a practice, we strongly believe we have a moral and civic responsibility to understand the impact that design decisions have on the people that inhabit our buildings and workplaces.”

This responsibility has now hit the mainstream commercial real estate sector.

“Tools such as the WELL Building Standard have helped challenge clients and bring them onboard with the concepts. But we also believe that a checklist approach to this misses the very heart and soul. So again, these words about soul and beauty.”

First principles involve asking clients what they’re trying to achieve in this space?

“How can we look at that through the lens of creativity to create something beautiful, engaging and unique as a result?”

The five factors

Bates Smart started a project five years ago after completing the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne to better understand how design can influence health.

They identified five factors for success.

“Rather than a checklist this is an interactive index with different levers that clients and the design team can pull, and we can set the expectations of what the outcomes are going to be from the project. And this is critical; we have to measure it afterwards and see what we’re doing and curate it and calibrate it to get the outcomes we want to have.”

Bates Smart

Bates Smart

Vitality

“The first of our factors is your physical health. We talk about it in terms of wellbeing. Salutogenic design is what we call it.

“Up until quite recently design was focused on pathogenic design – so preventing the spread of disease. And in the late ’70s it was decided that maybe we should change this. And it wasn’t in the late ’70s, really. It was back in Florence Nightingale’s time, where she said, ‘We have to have hospitals with higher roofs, we need better ventilation, we need natural light to make these people healthier and we will see the benefits.’

“And then we got antibiotics and we went, ‘We just need efficiency and to tighten everything up and to get everyone in one space, spray them with antibiotics and they’ll be fine.’

“But now we’re in a post-antibiotic age and we’re looking towards health. So salute means ‘to your health’ and salutogenic design is about health promotion. And this isn’t just something that designers and a few academics support. This has led to the setting up of the World Health Organization as an organisation that promotes health rather than prevents disease. It’s quite a significant difference.

“When we talk about vitality we want to talk about how design helps the physical health of the building users.”

A new project Bates Smart is working on in Pyrmont, about to start construction, has been designed with vitality in mind.

Payne shared a famous study, that has been replicated many times, which found a memory test given to a group of people, who were then split into two groups. One went for a 20-minute walk through a park; the other through a city street.

“And they came back together and were given the same memory test. And the park street strollers performed 20 per cent better on the second test than they did the first test. And the city strollers: no change at all in performance.

“And there’s a multitude of studies, but in order to achieve this we can’t just put a madonna lily in the corner of your office and say ‘There you go’. We have to understand the subtleties of these studies. And that’s why they’re repeated so often.

“What we’re finding is it’s actually the dappled light that you walk through; it’s the meander and the wander, that sense that ‘I have control over where I’m going.’”

Payne says Bates Smart is using those lessons to inform the design of buildings.

“What we have is a central void that’s lit by natural light at the top, and we’ve got two intertwining green walls. But they’re not really green walls. They’re green canopies that grow up through the building.

“So we’re getting this dappled light effect through the space. And then we’ve got the interconnecting stair that meanders out into the void, and back again as people move up through it.

“And when you look at the ceiling – I’m so happy we put some timber in after the first speaker today – but we’ve used timber, and we’ve striated the colouration of the timber as well to start giving this texture and complexity around how you interact with these materials.

“When you walk through the lobby of this building and see that beautiful stone with veins through it, it brings you back to the beauty of the material.

“We’ve also got twice the amount of fresh air going through to improve cognitive function.”

Community

The second wellbeing factor is around social health and sense of community.

“Two years ago I was lucky enough to work with the Salvation Army, designing their new headquarters in Sydney,” Payne says.

“And we talked to them about the impact. So there was a study that followed patients for seven-and-a-half years, and looked at people with strong social connections, average social connections, and no social connections.

“Those with adequate social relationships were found to have a 50 per cent greater likelihood of surviving clinical disease than those with poor social connections.

“And this is excluding evidence around suicide and accidents. So it’s just purely your body’s ability to fight disease.

“I think social isolation is the new smoking. It is equal to 15 cigarettes a day. It has a bigger impact on your health than obesity does.

“When we talked to them about it in terms of their space, and how they support their staff social interaction along with the social interaction with the community, they completely flipped their minds.”

Payne says the Salvation Army had a highly hierarchical structure in how they interacted with one another, and how they sent messages down the line.

“And it was really a rethinking about how they support their staff. The workplace brought all of their social spaces together, into a large semi-public open space with a chapel, large meeting rooms, great event spaces along with consultation rooms. And the general of the army’s office sat… in the heart of these community spaces.”

Food spaces can be seen as the social glue of an organisation.

“I’m a strong believer that in order to collaborate in a real way, to share my knowledge with you, I need three things. I need to know you – I need to know who you are. I need to like you – I’m not going to give you anything if I don’t like you. And I need to respect that you’ll do something valuable with the information or the client that I share with you. And one of the fastest way we know to build that connection is through food.

Bates Smart designed a “continuous commons” with “a whole different variety of food offerings, from fully catered to self-serve, to a small cafe, to like a domestic kitchen”.

“But I think in a very different way to the kind of Google-esque design, which is more on the kitsch end of the spectrum… it’s very experience-based. And this passion for experience does need to be balanced with real social connection, and a reality in how we live and respect each other.”

The new space has increased collaboration across the organisation profoundly.

“So we tracked people with proximity monitors before and after they moved and we’ve seen a 200 per cent increase in connections through the organisation that weren’t there before, just through this collaboration commons.

Cognitive health

The third factor in health design is cognitive health.

“How do we design to support occupants to think at their best?

“And I think the evidence is well and truly in. We can influence this through our design and I think the finance sector has probably been one of the most passionate uptakers.”

Payne mentions a project for Latitude, a fintech company.

“Issue of trust is easily the number one issue for the sector. This trust is not only with their customers but with their staff as well, because if you want your customers to trust you, your staff have to trust you. Because they’re the go-between.”

They’re also facing issues to do with innovation.

“The complete foundations of the finance sector are collapsing. They’re standing on shifting sands. So they really need innovation.

One of the key issues Bates Smart talked to the client about was cognitive function.

“One of the biggest impacts we can make on cognitive function is natural daylight. It’s highly restorative.”

Payne recounted experiments where in Sweden post-operative patients were put in rooms either with an abundance of natural light or not.

“The sunny side of the ward had 46 per cent more daylight. And they took 22 per cent less painkillers while they were staying there. Just through this one change to the space.”

At Latitude, every workspace is within 7.5 metres of natural light.

“And we think that makes a huge difference to how people perform in the business. It’s also about gentle curves. It’s part of the biophilia piece. We call it ‘soft fascination’.

“If we gently curve the corners and bring people into rounder spaces, their fight or flight instincts change completely. So a lot of studies where people are hooked up, measuring their cognitive function, and looking at sharp geometries versus curved geometries, and there’s a 50 per cent reduction in the fight or flight instinct when we’re looking at curves.”

This is particularly important in financial institutions.

“There’s a lot of threats.”

Acoustic performance is critical.

“When you do come to cut your budget, acoustics are not the place to start. If you cut acoustics, you will completely reduce your engagement with your staff and their satisfaction in the workplace, no matter how gold the taps are, or how soft and comfortable the seats are. People need quiet.

“And it’s got to be one of the primary drivers when you’re planning out the space as well. So we need to have open collaboration spaces closer to circulation where the noise can bleed. They also need to have white noise buffers so people can speak openly and collaborate without fear of distracting others.

“Then we need a built form blocker – an acoustic box that I can escape into and get complete silence while I think. And that can protect the open plan space.”

Another study, which looked at people recovering from heart surgery, the room with worse acoustic absorption and separation saw patients see a 30 per cent increase in blood pressure medications needed.

“We know that acoustics affect our heart rate and heart rates are key to performance. That’s why all those silicon valley CEOs are taking beta blockers at the moment, to keep calm and carry on.

Optimism

Bates Smart

Bates Smart

The fourth factor is around psychological health, which Payne refers to as optimism.

“So again we’re looking for the health promotion factor. We want to create spaces that reduce stress and support resilience. I think this is a large part of the crisis of confidence people are having. They’re feeling overwhelmed.”

A benchmark study that started evidence-based design in the mid ’80s involved post-operative care patients put into two different rooms – half with a view of a brick wall and the other in room looking at a deciduous tree.

“[Those looking at the tree had] a nine per cent faster recovery time. So they left a day early. They took 22 per cent less painkillers. And – my favourite – they made 71 per cent less negative comments to the nurses while they were there. They felt they were better cared for… and their stress was reduced.”

A workplace for legal practice Maddocks was used as an example of where this has been applied.

“In the legal profession, stress, anxiety and mental health is a critical issue. They face very poor statistics around those issues, and so it was something they were really keen to address through the design.

“[Maddocks] were moving to a brand new building. They were an anchor tenant. So we negotiated on their behalf during the agreement to lease period to create a double-height outdoor room for them on the corner of the building. And this is connected to a double-height indoor room which is their staff breakout. So that they can come out here and work. It’s got full wifi connection throughout. And their whole workplace actually wraps around looking down onto these two signature spaces to try to get people to maybe refocus their mind and take a break and look down onto nature.”

Enable

The final factor is called “enable” – supporting a sense of control over events and environments.

“Designing to enable people is actually giving control back… When you face stress, we want to escape. And the ability to have some sense of control over our destiny, and a belief that no matter what happens we can face, it is critical to that.

“Design plays a huge part in that.”

Payne mentions a workplace for RACV in Melbourne.

“They’d been in the same space for 20 years, and they’d had the same business structure in terms of how they structured their staff. A lot of staff dealing with poor middle management issues, line of sight management… So they used their workplace design process – and a new CEO – as a chance to flip that on its head, and activity-based working was a solution they came up with not to save space – they spent as much if not more on space than they would have – but as a way to free up their staff and give them autonomy while still feeling nurtured as part of a tight-knit group.

“There was a 26 per cent increase in job satisfaction when employees were given autonomy over their workspace.”

Ending note: The importance of biophilia

“There’s this amazing study…this is why dentists seem to put aquariums in waiting rooms.

“We put a three-storey one in the waiting room as people come into the children’s hospital because there’s nothing more important than a child in trauma and how quickly we can triage them.

“And the ability to calm their parents down before they go into that triage can be a life-or-death issue to get the information out of them. So we also included meerkats in some of the waiting and recovery areas, because we know that nature, and direct contact with nature, has an immediate calming effect. And despite bringing your dog to work day, I think we really do need to look at how we can integrate our lives and our workflow better with nature.”

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