Designing Workplaces that Support Mental Health

When 2020 happened, no one had any idea how to go about it. 

It upended our lives in almost every way possible. Transformed our life and habits. Skyrocketed the concept of work-from-home and virtual meetings. Tested our mental health and wellbeing. And, basically, asked everyone what is important in our lives and what makes us happy. 

Today, more than two years in, as things slowly creep back to ‘old normal’ levels and we start to go back into our office, still, habits, perspectives and minds are forever changed.

Casually lounging in a swing chair in the office filled with plants

Photo source: Space Refinery

In this article, we talk about how this led to changes in the design of workplaces and offices. Employers are realizing that the physical design of offices directly affects employee wellbeing, mental health and satisfaction.

Stress and anxiety have undoubtedly increased as people are forced into this new way of life and grapple with restricted movements and social distancing. With that, health, wellbeing and happiness of employees are becoming an important corporate focus. 

After all, research studies are showing that happy employees are more productive. 

Playful bubble chairs and decor used for a meeting

Photo source: The Guardian | Google’s Zurich office.

Why is your office design so important?

A well-designed space allows its inhabitants to work efficiently, productively and with gusto throughout the day. The typical packages of financial compensation and employee benefits are no longer enough to attract the best talent you’re looking for. 

Today, employees of all ages demand a workplace that stimulates creativity, collaboration, healthy communication and most especially, one where they can be comfortable. 

Where you work is as important as the work you do. 

Good office design allows employees to be at ease physically and mentally. Giving them energy and space to focus on their work without adding to the stress and anxiety of everyday life in a competitive world. 

Plus, when a company makes an effort on the quality of work environment they provide, it shows they care. This is a step in the right direction to encourage and motivate employees to work better and smarter. 

Some of today’s most successful and notable companies, regardless of industry, care about re-energizing their workspaces and office designs. 

Colorful interiors with plant-filled walls

Photo source: Office Snapshots | Etsy Headquarters in Brooklyn, NYC

Mental health and wellbeing of employees in the workplace is giving rise to important office design techniques. Here are many of the must-haves for a healthy office environment:

1. Biophilia and natural elements

Office spaces that incorporate natural elements can significantly boost employee health and wellbeing. Biophilic design is a rising and enduring star that is reshaping many workspaces around the world for its known wondrous effects in reducing stress and anxiety

As it reconnects urbanites to nature and improves physical and psychological health, employees experience better concentration, creativity and overall work performance. 

Amazon-like plants and rock formations in an indoor dome in Amazon's Spheres in Seattle

Photo source: arch2o | Amazon’s Spheres in Seattle cannot be any closer to the biophilic theme. They have treehouse meeting rooms, waterfalls and 40,000 plants – all to drive the point that the more disconnected we feel from nature, the less alive we feel – according to the company’s spokesperson mentioning that people now suffer from a ‘nature-deficit disorder’.

There are many ways to incorporate biophilia into your office without having to do any major renovation or changes to the layout. Here are some easy ones to start:

  • Plants: apart from doing wonders to office aesthetics, plants have other amazing abilities of purifying your indoor air and cleaning out harmful toxic compounds. Office surroundings become more pleasant, both visually and on intangible levels like comfort and wellbeing. 
  • Natural light: naturally brightly-lit rooms and spaces subconsciously help you feel, see, and sleep better while giving you your needed dose of vitamin D. Best of all, a workplace that is flooded with natural light boosts productivity and improves overall mood. 
  • Flowing water: When your office building has outdoor spaces and a lobby, installing water features in these areas are perfectly fitting. For the interiors, miniature water features or aquariums can be placed in the reception area or any available corner. 
  • Natural materials: use natural materials like wood, stone, rattan on as many areas and surfaces as possible – they help bring the idea of being closer to nature
  • Views of nature: reconnecting with nature can be done in different ways – even through views. Offices with large, wide windows can easily do this. Other methods are to have an indoor garden, green wall or paintings of mountains and landscapes. 

Here are examples of offices that embrace the biophilic design:

Hanging ceiling plants, plant-filled walls and stone walls in United Technologies' office in New York
Employees having fun at a billiard table in United Technologies' office in New York
Large screen TVs in meeting rooms with exposed stone and cement in United Technologies' office in New York
Comfy lounge chair facing a large window with a view of the city in United Technologies' office in New York

Photo source: Office Snapshots | Designed by Gensler, the office of United Technologies in New York embraces the biophilic design concept in every nook and cranny. The office is filled with greenery – hanging plants, living walls, vertical gardens, potted plants. It has a generous amount of sunlight complemented by lighting that mimics natural light and incorporates an amazing amount of natural materials – like wooden beams and bricks.

Wooden boxes hanging on ceilings and plants on the floor decorate Adobe's HQ in San Jose
Wood decor on an empty white wall show the letter A in Adobe's HQ in San Jose

Photo source: Home World Design | Adobe’s HQ in San Jose gets a makeover by Gensler, incorporating the biophilic concept through earth tones, naturalistic shapes, wood elements, grass carpets, images of nature, and glass meeting rooms resembling greenhouses.

2. Outdoor spaces and work areas

Similar to the first point, giving employees an option to work in outdoor areas brings them closer to nature – natural sunlight, plants, and the unpredictability of the natural world. 

Being in enclosed spaces for extended periods of time can be stifling and suffocating. Having the chance to go out and get some fresh air, will not only boost employee productivity and reduce stress but also alleviate boredom. It’s similar to getting a sudden dose of energy to get going on your to-do list. 

With an outdoor office space, your office design gets magnified tenfold. Employees value this visual appeal and aesthetic for its look and for intangible positive feelings it can evoke. These outdoor spaces serve as a way for employees to refresh, get a breather and attain different perspectives as they try to finish tasks on hand. 

Additionally, outdoor work areas are a great way to foster better employee relationships. They may be better fit for healthier and more open interactions and communication compared to an office room.

Here are a few examples of amazing outdoor offices spaces:

Large rooftop area filled with plants on top of Kickstarter's HQ in Brooklyn

Photo source: Wallpaper | Kickstarter’s HQ in Brooklyn, New York has a tree-filled courtyard in the middle and a large rooftop patio where employees can work, rest and see the seasons change; plus there’s also a small garden spot that provides fresh fruits and vegetables for employees’ meals. 

Rooftop patio for Casper's New York office with manicured grass and comfortable chairs and tables

Photo source: Dezeen | The rooftop patio for Casper’s New York office. Manicured lawns, white, lawn chairs, a partial shade and a snack supply nearby all give this clean, comfortable look befitting this mattress start-up ethos about rest and relaxation. 

3. Diverse working environments 

Just as you are open to diversity and inclusion when hiring employees, you’ll want to create workspaces that can accommodate the work styles of this diverse set of people too. This employee-centric approach to office design boosts engagement and quality of life. 

It is important to remember that not everyone is okay to sit in front of a desk and work there the whole day, nor will everyone be productive in open space layouts. Ideally, offices should offer different areas that can cater to different purposes, such as:

  • Open areas: allow transparency, easy communication between coworkers, literally bringing down barriers and removing indications of hierarchy 
  • Quiet spots: for that much needed moment of solitude and quiet to concentrate properly on an intensive task, or simply for some privacy
  • Collaborative or breakout spaces: to foster teamwork, collaboration and communication across all teams and levels 
  • Communal spots: areas for healthy, mostly informal interactions that can lead to better relationships between colleagues in the office as they break down barriers and get to know each other better
  • Outdoor: refresh the mind and get some air or a new environment for inspiration, new ideas and get the creative juices running

Having a space that can work for different personalities means that your employees can find a spot they really like to work in and be productive and happy there. It’s similar to finding your favorite cafe or your favorite table at a restaurant. Finding a spot in the office where you like to work can positively impact wellbeing. 

Here are a few examples of diverse office environments:

Soft green interiors and a pool table in the SAP Österreich Office in Vienna

Photo source: Office Snapshots | SAP Österreich Office in Vienna provides a healthy working environment with different working areas (with swing chairs!) and styles – open space layout, glass meeting rooms, informal spaces with gaming and having that overall biophilic feel

Airbnb's office in Singapore showing a multipurpose informal area with step seating

Photo source: Vulcan Post | Airbnb’s office in Singapore features an ultra cool informal space that can be used for different purposes – office announcements, teamwork exercises, collaborative spaces, informal meetings and gatherings or just to hang out. 

Expansive and brightly lit atrium in Airbnb's HQ in San Francisco
Asian themed meeting room in Airbnb's HQ in San Francisco
Comfortable lounge area with light pastel colors and wavy ceiling tapestries in Airbnb's HQ in San Francisco
Brightly lit and diverse working spaces in Airbnb's HQ in San Francisco

Photo source: Dezeen | Airbnb’s HQ in San Francisco has all the things that embody a workplace catering to diverse working styles. The office design has the unique element of a five-storey atrium and by getting inspiration from their worldwide listings, it has spaces befitting anyone – private sanctuaries, themed meeting rooms, yoga and wellness centers, etc.

4. Facilities and amenities

An office is not a proper office if it only has desks, tables, some meeting rooms and a tiny pantry.  These are probably the basic elements that make offices boring, suffocating and reduce productivity and happiness. A well-designed office that focuses on its employees’ wellbeing needs so much more. 

To begin, you can improve on what you already have – a well-stocked pantry is the first step. Having a free flow of healthy food and drinks can keep any employee happy and feel like they’re being cared for. 

Next, spruce up the meeting and conference rooms and make them more comfortable spaces for collaboration and teamwork. Help with boosting creativity and productivity through pops of stimulating color, white boards of ideas, comfortable seating, and filled with supplies like pens, markers, post-its and other materials. 

Pantry filled with snacks in Twitter's Asia Pacific HQ in Singapore

Photo source: CNBC | A part of the pantry in Twitter’s Asia Pacific HQ in Singapore. The walls are decorated to mirror the traditional window design of shophouses. There are two marble-top kitchen counters and movable chairs and tables that make the area a multi-functional space. Best of all, the fridge is full and there are a multitude of choices for chips and granola bars.

Once you’ve added more welcoming padding to the rather plain and bleak interiors before, here are other areas to add that show you support employee mental health and wellbeing: 

  • Creative corners: usually an awkward corner or overlooked spaces that can be transformed into a mini reading area, have versatile furniture pieces, or create a wall gallery with interesting decor that can inspire creativity
  • Comfortable spaces for collaboration: designing areas that encourage teamwork and collaboration will make for any healthy work environment 
  • Social spaces: areas for informal gatherings that allow employees to break down walls and get to know each other better, fostering stronger relationships beyond work
  • Relaxation areas or quiet spaces: employees are human beings that need to recharge when their batteries are running low, areas that allow them to unwind or have a few moments of fun can relieve stress and give them the energy boost they need, try game or sports areas, meditation rooms, sleeping pods, etc.

Here are some examples of office spaces with amazing facilities and amenities:

Uniquely themed meeting rooms in Airbnb's office in Singapore

Photo source: Vulcan Post | Airbnb’s office in Singapore has the most unique meeting rooms yet – each one is different and transports you to another part of the world. This Byron Bay meeting room replicates The Boat Shed with the focal point being a remodeled bathtub. There is also an Auckland meeting room that brings the outdoors in with greenery, BBQ pit and fireplace.

Using chalkboards to jot down random ideas in Facebook's Tel Aviv Office

Photo source: Business Insider | Facebook’s Tel Aviv office makes use of chalkboards that allows anyone to jot down any creative idea they suddenly have (still work-related of course) or to write motivational or inspirational quotes to give the office a little pick-me-up.

5. Home-like atmosphere

This work-from-home experience we’ve all been forced to share has made many realize how comfortable our home atmosphere is compared to our office setup. With this new insight, many employees want the option of continuing to work from home or at least be given the flexibility of WFH or going to the office.

Many companies still want employees to go to the office; so one way to encourage them to come in is to make the office feel like home. An office that is a home away from home will be able to reduce workplace stress and anxiety and keep employees productive all day.

When you spend 8-10 hours (or more) a day in one place, you’d want it to be comfortable and relaxing. This follows all the previous points mentioned above – providing fresh air, different working environments, spaces to relax and recharge and areas for interaction, collaborations and friendly communication. 

A lounge area slash meeting room with ample natural light in Groupon's London office

Photo source: Glassdoor | With the many colors, generous amount of natural light, large collaborative space and amazing view, all these elements in this corner of Groupon’s London office mirror what a relaxing, comfortable and stress-free work space should look like. 

Additionally, this also points to ergonomics. Sitting on a chair for extended hours has a negative impact on your health. To address this issue, incorporating new technologies at workstations will make a huge difference:

  • Comfortable seating: chairs with adjustable lumbar support, height levels and armrests to fit different body built and height ranges
  • Height adjustable desks: desks with electric motors allows its user to adjust the height with a click of a button, this makes it easier to use for people of different body sizes and those who want to alternate between sitting and standing while on their computers
  • Desk risers: no adjustable desks, no problem – have stand desk platforms instead where employees can mount their laptops and adjust it based on their height or whether they want to sit or stand

Ergonomic furniture and the sit-stand approach can help stimulate thinking, creativity and concentration. Ultimately, breaking down barriers of a traditional office means less intimidating and less formal workplaces that encourage employees to express thoughts casually.

Here are more examples of workplaces that feel like home:

TBWA Hakuhodo office allows employees to lounge on grass and enjoy nature while at work

Photo source: ArchDaily | TBWA Hakuhodo office gives employees a relaxing atmosphere as well as a chance to reconnect with nature without having to go out. 

Comfortable and ergonomic chairs for casual meetings
Comfortable armchairs for each employee at their desks

Photo source: ACTIU | Comfortable armchairs that envelop employees in soft textures. Plus, workstations come with adjustable monitors and customizable tables and chairs that allow the sit/stand alternating positions while working. 

Breakout spaces with interesting designs in Airbnb's Singapore office

Photo source: Vulcan Post | Airbnb’s Singapore office has several of these breakout spaces for employees to relax or have an informal meeting. 

6. Clean indoor air quality

Office indoor air quality directly impacts employees’ health and wellbeing. If there is poor air circulation or vents and air conditioning are not properly maintained, then breathing in dirty stuff and recycled air will lead to health problems, drowsiness and lack of concentration.  

Contrary to popular belief, indoor air may cause us more harm compared to outdoor air. There are many sources of air pollutants inside that come from most of the things we use – furniture, perfume, air fresheners, air conditioning systems, heaters, etc. 

Harmful air pollutants come in different forms – such as carbon dioxide, particulate matter (PM2.5), volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, and many more, including viruses. 

With COVID-19, more people are conscious of their surroundings including the air they breathe.

A treehouse as part of the Microsoft office in Redmond, Washington for a truly outdoor space

Photo source: Microsoft | Part of the Microsoft office in Redmond, Washington. These unique meeting spaces can be found hidden amongst fir trees and looking like the perfect treehouse. As a mini escape from the office, employees can enjoy fresh air here and reconnect with nature. 

There are many employees who crave the outdoor space even for just a few minutes because of the stuffiness and suffocating air in the office – a clear sign that there’s a problem with indoor air quality. To manage this better, you can have outdoor spaces, allow better ventilation, regular service of vents and air filter systems, or buy a lot of indoor plants that can purify the air.  

Air quality is not topping the priority list when it comes to workplace designs. But it should be because ensuring clean indoor air results in higher productivity, better sleep and focus and less allergies leading to lower absenteeism. 

Here are more clever examples of offices that maintain good indoor air quality:

ACTIU HQ in Alicante Spain takes advantage of air circulation in their offices

Photo source: ACTIU | The Actiu HQ located in Castalla, Alicante, Spain holds two certifications – LEED and WELL Platinum – making it the first industrial building to be fully healthy and sustainable. For good air circulation, they have automatic windows, self-closing doors, suspended particle filtration in their AC systems and air quality sensors for constant monitoring. 

Large plant-filled walls in Lendlease's HQ in Sydney
Large plant-filled walls in Lendlease's HQ in Sydney

Photo source: Junglefy | Lendlease’s global HQ in Sydney’s Barangaroo South shows multiple green or breathing walls that are made to reduce the amounts of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds in the office air – it is said to remove over 24 liters of CO2 per hour. 

7. Indoor acoustics

Another aspect of workplace design that is most often overlooked is the acoustics. Functionality and aesthetics can easily be pictured to impact employee productivity and concentration but sound is harder to imagine. 

The point here is not that these noise levels are harmful to human hearing but rather, they are constant distractors that break employees’ concentration and thought processes. Therefore, acoustic comfort is an equally important element when looking to improve employee health and wellbeing in workplaces. 

Noise can come from different sources. Outside, there’s traffic, horns, construction, etc. Inside, there’s constant employee chatter, ringing phones, people on the phones, etc. 

ACTIU Technology Park is conscious of indoor acoustics

Photo source: ACTIU | In the Actiu Technology Park, there are sound-absorbing panels and acoustics positioned in open areas and meeting rooms to facilitate sound absorption and proper reverberation. 

With the open-space layout, sound reverberates more and employees try to seek refuge spaces from this maddening distraction. In indoor spaces, sound bounces off solid surfaces, therefore, playing with surface materials will be imperative in reducing noise pollution in the office. 

Here are some tips you can put on the ceiling, wall or floor:

  • Acoustic panels and furniture: with sound-insulating core materials and porous fabric covers, these trap sound and prevent them from bouncing off and reverberating
  • Hanging gardens and indoor plants: plants are magic elements in design, they can even absorb, deflect or refract sound. Sound bounces off solid surfaces; but the dynamic, soft and flexible surfaces of plants break up the sound waves thereby reducing noise. Try covering walls with plants, or having large planters – the more, the better – they not only reduce noise but help you achieve that biophilic effect.
  • Perforated, high ceilings: perforated surfaces make it harder for sound waves to bounce off, and instead gives them sound-absorption abilities 
  • Low height screens on workstation: these provide privacy and block of some noise from your neighboring colleagues especially when they’re furiously typing or their phones are ringing
  • Avoid overcrowding: each workstation should be a comfortable space where your work stuff won’t easily overflow into a colleagues work space
Microsoft HQ in Vienna using plant-filled walls to reduce sound

Photo source: ArchDaily | Microsoft Vienna HQ incorporates numerous green walls and plants that help with sound reduction and refraction while making the space look aesthetically pleasing.

Exterior of Interface HQ in Atlanta blends with nature by reflecting the trees surrounding it
Bright, clean, white interiors at Interface HQ in Atlanta
Expansive common spaces in Interface HQ in Atlanta with welcoming pops of color
An inviting sunken lounge/ meeting area at Interface HQ in Atlanta

Photo source: Curbed Atlanta | Interface HQ ‘Base Camp’ in Atlanta shows commitment to sustainability with natural light, reduced heat and outdoor spaces, while also blocking distracting traffic noise right outside by using thicker glass. 

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