Building a new office space? Here are 6 ways to foster a healthy environment

The idea that we should aspire to live a healthy life, or at least engage with products and services that promote physical and mental health, has become ingrained in our daily life.

It’s evident in the calorie counts next to menu items at restaurants, the fliers that come in the mail after buying a new house that show every gym within a 25-mile radius, or the reminders on an Apple Watch to breathe.

So it’s no surprise that there’s also an expectation that the places we work will promote well-being in the office, from a cafe with healthy options to an on-site fitness center.

Research shows that working environments that offer healthy amenities help reduce stress, promote better moods, and increase productivity. In fact, the strong connection between environment and well-being prompted the establishment of a rating system, the WELL Building Standard, in 2014. It measures a building’s wellness features, such as air quality, views of nature, and comfort of the interior.

“A healthy building is becoming part of what it takes to attract and retain the top talent,” says Colley Hodges, senior associate and director of sustainability at Kirksey Architecture in Houston.

Employee expectations are high, and the first step to meeting the demand is incorporating basic wellness amenities inside (and outside) your office. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

1. Provide access to natural light.

Research shows that people who have access to daylight are happier, more satisfied, and more productive, says Hodges, who suggests placing workspaces next to windows to allow access to natural light and create a connection to the outdoors. Even placing greenery around the office can produce a sense of calm.

In the fitness center, facing cardio machines toward windows helps people unplug, brightens the space, and makes it more inviting. If natural light isn’t an option, artificial lights can mimic the light patterns and color changes of natural daylight, says Hodges, which has the same effect on the body’s circadian rhythm.

2. Focus on fitness center design.

Many companies designate a space for employees to exercise, but the key is designing it in a way that engages employees of all fitness levels. “What we want to do is create an environment that’s inviting for a novice to walk into,” says Phillip Cole, director of design and development at EXOS.

At Insmed, a biopharmaceutical company based in New Jersey, EXOS designed an aesthetically pleasing hallway, lined with information about the company’s history, that leads to the entrance of the fitness center. Tall glass doors open to a spacious area in the center of the facility — separate from equipment and weight racks, which Emma Simonich, executive administrator for human resources at Insmed, points out can be intimidating for beginners if placed in the entryway.

The gym is flooded with natural light and the back window looks out onto the company’s grounds. “It’s meant to be relaxing; meant to be a break,” she says.

The equipment is spaced far enough apart that employees can freely move around, jump, and lift weights. Cole says this is one of the more important design aspects in a gym. He also recommends ceiling heights higher than 10 feet. That height ensures there are no restrictions on equipment, such as stepmills or plyometric boxes and also allows for safe installation of ceiling fans, which improves air flow by providing more open volume.

3. Location, location, location.

Location is everything when it comes to choosing the spot for your fitness center. You’ll want a space where you won’t have to worry about volume control as much so that you can make the entry welcoming and music can be played for everyone’s enjoyment. Cole suggests choosing a space away from board rooms or shared office spaces where noise might transfer and instead looking for a spot near a cafeteria or outdoor area. Not only are these locations ideal because they’re typically a bit louder and people won’t mind music or noise transfer, but they also provide great visibility to the fitness center because they’re high traffic.

4. Designate an integrated eating space.

Employees are more likely to practice mindful eating in a cafe setting versus at their desks where their focus will be pulled toward work. Build the cafe in a prominent spot in the office to encourage engagement and openly display colorful fruits and vegetables.

At Insmed, it was important that the food served in the cafe was tied to overall wellness strategies at the workplace. The cafe has a welcoming, casual feel, says Simonich, with farm-style tables and booths that people can use for eating or for meetings.

5. Promote activity outside the fitness center.

Building a centrally located, well-lit staircase encourages people to take the stairs instead of the elevator, says Hodges. And with the right design, the staircase can take on a social role as a meeting spot or a place for employees to intermingle.

An outdoor terrace or green roof can have a similar function as a peaceful place to sit or exercise, and it has additional benefits related to rainwater management, habitat creation, and insulation of spaces below. Hodges says, “Most importantly, it’s about making those pleasant places to be.”

6. Create an open office layout.

There are mixed opinions when it comes to open floor plans. The pluses: They encourage collaboration, reduce barriers between senior-level employees and new hires, allow for flexible workspace designs, and provide better access to daylight. Open floor plans also make it easier to adapt to the ways workplace cultures are changing. Hodges says, “Technology is redefining when and where you can get your work done, so it’s less important that people are tethered to one spot.”

This type of setup can also complement strategies such as sit-stand workstations, or in some cases, make room for recovery chairs with compression sleeves to improve circulation after standing or sitting for too long.

Now, for the “but.” Open office spaces can be loud. And for some employees, the lack of privacy may increase stress or create distractions that decrease productivity. The good news is there are workarounds.

Many companies with open layouts also provide quiet rooms where employees can retreat when they need mental space to focus on a project, hop on a call, or engage in a one-on-one meeting. This approach may help foster the collaboration and camaraderie that comes with open layouts without hindering productivity. “The idea is to keep the benefits of open offices — natural light, views, and collaboration — while still providing privacy and isolation from distractions when a task demands it,” says Hodges. 

Some companies even add libraries, wellness rooms, or phone-booth style mini meeting rooms with different temperature and lighting options. And these spaces are open to everyone in the company, not just the upper echelon. “It’s about allowing people to choose what’s most comfortable,” Hodges says.

Having an open floor plan is also more economical to reconfigure as needed and makes your office adaptable to changes in the future. “It’s difficult to predict what an office will look like in the coming decades with the pace of technological change, so flexibility and adaptability are a necessity,” says Hodges. And that ability to keep up with the times will help you continue to support your employees in a healthy way, no matter what the future holds.

Interested in working with EXOS to design the perfect healthy space for your employees? Learn more about our services.

About the Author

Lauren Katims

Lauren Katims is a Northern California-based writer and editor.

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