Design for life: Rethinking the office to promote activity

Today’s workplaces are increasingly being designed with movement in mind to help promote employee health and boost productivity.

Office life has traditionally been sedentary, but as more companies and their employees prioritise healthier lifestyles, workplaces are finding new ways to get people moving. 

From locating desks further from printers to providing shower rooms for runners, adjustments to workplace facilities and culture can help make employees more active during the working day.

It can be a fruitful investment: research suggests that active employees tend to be healthier and more productive. A 2017 University of California study, for example, found that participating in a company’s corporate wellness programme increased worker productivity by four percent on average, while reducing absenteeism.

A study from Finland’s Tampere University suggested that walking during lunch breaks can help improve concentration and reduce stress levels in the afternoon.

Laying the foundations for active spaces

Office layouts are changing, as with the rise of flexible space prompting companies to rethink how they can better create workplaces that get the best both from the building and their employees.

“The walls are breaking down for formal meeting rooms. More flexible, multi-functional spaces that can be used for work and wellbeing activities, such as lunchtime yoga sessions, are supporting the rise of activity-based working,” says Yioti Smith, Head of Design & Build, Hong Kong, at JLL.

Modern office furniture

While many desks are still designed for sitting and typing, new models have introduced alternatives in recent years. Sit/stand desks have gained a following in some offices in recent years, although the extent of the benefits of spending more time standing varies significantly between studies.

In some offices, desks are decreasing in size to open up floor space. “Smaller desks leave more space for staff to circulate and move around,” says Catherine Kim, Senior Design Director, Design & Build, Hong Kong, at JLL.

However, some employees prefer their own desk and storage space, and work best that way, says Kim. “It’s important to understand your office’s needs and tailor the environment to support that, rather than to impose new trends.”

Creating amenity points, such as stand-up snack bars providing free healthy food and drink options, can get people away from their desks at regular intervals, while ping-pong or pool tables can get employees on their feet at lunchtime.

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Leveraging technology

Technology can further boost activity. The popularity of wearables such as Apple Watches and Fitbits that track steps and calories is already raising awareness of activity levels – a trend employers can buttress with in-office innovations.

At the Delos offices in New York, for example, sensors in the stairs record how many trips employees take, adding a drop of water to an electronic “waterfall” display with each journey.

“Trackers can also provide information on desk and meeting room usage, and the time people spend in different areas of the office,” says Kim. “This data can inform and improve the quality of office layouts and design.”

A social future

With employee expectations of the workplace changing and companies putting an increasing focus on humanising their office space, many active design principles lend themselves well to more collaborative and flexible ways of working.

“Desks will always have a place, but they will have a less pivotal role in a workday,” says Smith. “Offices will continue to break down boundaries and offer different, more social ways to work, which can potentially make for happier, healthier and more engaged employees.” 

Ideas realised

Forward-thinking companies are realising the potential of a new workplace