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Good office design has a crucial role to play in our wellbeing

Emily Booth
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With mental health an increasing concern in the UK, how we work and where we work are ever more important, writes Emily Booth

One of the happiest times in my working life was at an early gig at an arts mag. The office was everything that should, on the surface, have made it a miserable place to work. Stained carpets, broken chairs, water leaks, bookshelves groaning under stacks of papers, mess everywhere, yellow strip lighting. I was as happy as a pig in muck.

Of course, like any good work environment, the people were crucial. They were the sort of creative and quirky group of personalities you get in any stimulating environment – and we shared a sense of common purpose.

But there were some important elements to that office space which allowed those personalities to mix and thrive and share ideas. It was open-plan – no one was locked away in a separate cubicle. The windows were the 60s sort, big, so that the spider plants could grow like Triffids. There were quite a few meeting places, and an old sofa that was seriously comfy to put your feet up on. Some of the bookshelves came out into the office, like screens, and they created semi-private areas. The desks were massive. You were close enough for conversation and free enough to think. 

What that neglected and decrepit office did, perhaps not by design, was promote wellbeing (though we never called it that). 

Promoting wellbeing is something that designers of office buildings have to take seriously. One of the questions we ask architects in our office design survey – published to coincide with the British Council of Offices annual conference, of which the AJ is a media partner – is whether the current wellbeing drive is just a fad. To which they answer with a resounding: ‘No’. The following comments provide a flavour of their feedback: ‘In the near future wellbeing could be the new BREEAM, a necessary standard to meet instead of an optional add-on’. And ‘Offices need to re-focus on human beings and not the computer.’ And ‘The next few years will see an increasing obsolescence in buildings that don’t deliver environments that foster wellbeing for users.’ 

The boundaries between working and home lives are increasingly blurred

Wellbeing is set against an increasing concern about mental health in our societies. According to the World Health Organisation, one in four people globally are affected by issues such as depression or panic attacks at some point. The Mental Health Foundation suggests that the problem is particularly pronounced in the UK. Its survey of 2,000 respondents found 65 percent had experienced some form of mental health problem. Even within the architecture profession itself, the AJ’s recent Life in Practice survey paints a picture of architects regularly struggling with these issues.

If we are lucky enough to have a job, the boundaries between working and home lives are increasingly blurred. We live in an ‘always-on’ society. How we work and where we work are critical to positive personal development and professional growth – which, in turn, helps businesses thrive. 

Architects can’t control the workloads of the end users of their buildings, but they can work in collaboration with their clients to understand challenges and support better working practices. They help set the standard for wellbeing to be taken seriously. Architects of offices that put people at the centre: we all need you. 

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