Well Workers: A Look at the Sodexho 2014 Workplace Trends Report

With an increasing focus on productivity and wellness in the workplace, designers are in a unique position to help.

05/01/2014 By Erika Templeton, Adam Moore, Ben Frotscher

Designers, rejoice! Your clients are thinking more like designers than ever before. Take, for example, Sodexo’s 2014 Workplace Trends Report, which combines insight from principal research, clients, academia, and leading facilities management and human resource trade organizations to collectively examine trends that affect the quality of life of consumers in the workplace.

You can find the full, 98-page report at bit.ly/sodexotrends, but two trends in particular won’t exactly be news:

1. Workplace Experience Design

2. Health-Centered Buildings

Designers and architects have been touting the importance of spaces geared toward health and well-being for years. What’s really notable is that this discussion is going on amongst corporate real estate and facility management (CRE/FM) leaders themselves, as they begin to fully grasp the implications and benefits of design investments—namely, “higher employee retention, engagement, and increased productivity in more efficient, intelligent buildings,” as identified in Sodexo’s report.

These benefits are the key to proving the dollar-for-dollar value of spaces that take quality of life into account, and winning the “bottom line” argument for better design amongst this critical group. It is exciting progress, although as Sodexo notes, there is still plenty of work to be done.

“At the present time, building-related health issues focus largely on indoor air and the impact of materials, ventilation rates, and maintenance in a reactionary approach toward illness symptoms,” noted the report. “However, it is time to look much more closely at how our buildings affect human emotional functioning, social support, and occupant stress. It is also time to expand our focus to include electric light, daylight, noise, views, connection to nature, and spatial factors that influence how people perceive, behave, and cope with environmental stressors.”

We could have told you that, thank you very much.

Even still, all this non-news is great news for designers. When the directives for healthy spaces come from the top down, that makes designers’ jobs that much easier. Why?

less “selling” on ideas, as clients will likely be more receptive
Corporate real estate and facility leaders who adopt a design-thinking approach and emphasize uncovering and understanding end-users’ needs at a deeper level will inevitably view challenges differently—and turn to design as a solution. That means less time spent selling big paradigm shifts or reorganizations, and more time making sure new initiatives work. More traditional execs may remain unconvinced, but the good news is that a new generation of management is filtering into the corporate hierarchy and pushing design as a strategy for survival in a competitive marketplace, making the hard sell a thing of the past.

“There is a subset of people who are really looking for productivity and efficiencies—how can I get my people working better together to get better results, and how can the space better support that?” said Mapos Principal Colin Brice, mentioning creative services agencies as early adopters in the design-thinking revolution. But he’s quick to note that it isn’t limited to the branding and design elite. His firm recently finished an interiors project for a large pharmaceutical company that had requested a space that would spark creativity, collaboration, and help their scientists think and work better.

“We’re seeing more of that, research-based Fortune 500 companies wanting to get more out of their employees,” he said. “If it helps collaboration, let’s do it.”

more willingness to allocate dollars to these kinds of initiatives, because engagement directly affects the bottom line
Even if some of the metrics surrounding design’s contribution to the workplace remain undefined (peer-reviewed research regarding design-related boosts in productivity and creative ideation remains a work in progress), executives and managers can largely see the benefits of great interior design with their own eyes.

“We are hearing our clients are happier and enjoying going to work more. More people are wanting to come to work and not work at Starbucks,” said Brice. “It could be because it is a great place to work, it has more natural light, or because I can see my trainer at the gym that’s built into the office.”

That kind of positive environment translates into numbers that can be easily measured—tangible results like lower attrition rates and fewer sick days—which in turn make the case for design a lot easier.

larger systemic changes offer more support for health-focused design initiatives
The business world is experiencing a new wave of health awareness, driven by everything from research about the benefits of active design to mounting healthcare costs. “We are witnessing an increasing demand from a grass-roots level,” noted Lisa Fulford-Roy, senior vice president for client strategy in HOK’s Toronto office. “With education and best practices, there is very little resistance to adopting healthy principles in the workplace (scaled to the budget of each client).”

According to Fulford-Roy, health and wellness amenities are “being identified more regularly as a priority in the program requirements,” and range from attractive sit-stand furnishings at each workstation to on-site massages and fitness center, typically depending on the size of the company and the corporate culture already in place.

“The emphasis on health has not really changed how we design, but it has given us more options to design without compromise,” she noted.

So now that your clients’ thinking has evolved, have you? Here’s what designers from some of the country’s top firms had to say about how they’re evolving workspace design even further.

sodexo design trend 1: workplace experience design
When asked, “could you define ‘workplace experience’?” 66.5 percent of Sodexo’s respondents (read: your potential clients) said yes. Here are the top 10 words they used to describe it:

  1. Flexible
  2. Collaborative
  3. 3. Open
  4. Comfortable
  5. Engaging
  6. Productive
  7. Efficient
  8. Fun
  9. Energetic
  10. Supportive

Flexibility is also the number one goal driving the designers we spoke with as well. Part of that stems from the desire to allow employees to organize themselves as needed for fast-moving projects, but it also comes from a more pragmatic reality.

“A lot of companies are developing and growing so fast that they really can’t predict what is going to be happening in a few years, or even a few months," said Tanya Naumova, a designer with Montroy Andersen DeMarco Architects (MADGI). “What we do usually is try to design something as adaptable and flexible as possible.”

That approach has resulted in a variety of forward-thinking workspaces that function in ways that would have been hard to sell even five years ago. Steven Andersen, principal with MADGI, recalled a financial services client who requested a space that could function interchangeably for trading groups, merger and acquisition teams, and investment groups—three teams with significantly different needs. Designers eventually configured three separate spaces in a block of columns that could be partitioned or combined with the help of flexible walls and raised access floors, allowing facilities staff to build conference rooms, work areas, or other spaces on the fly.

“That probably cost us 20 to 30 percent more because it was so flexible, but it’s what they wanted,” Andersen said. “It was great help for the firm, because over the 10 years of the lease, they changed it many, many times, and the cost of flexibility probably paid itself back over the 10 years.”

In highly competitive industries like financial services, the advantage gained through such flexible environments and work policies is a real one. New work setups, such as those where employees selling to different time zones around the world share a desk across different work shifts, can help maximize space and keep employees engaged at all hours of the day. Likewise, in MADGI’s office redesign for Dentsu, a leading advertising agency, a variety of oversized and flexible green screen rooms allows the firm to produce YouTube videos and other streaming content faster than its competitors—helping fuel the firm's explosive growth.

Of course, designing a productive and efficient workplace goes beyond building spaces that can pull triple duty or transform at will; it’s a curious mix of supportive amenities and unique experiential touches that inspire creativity and a feeling of unity among employees.

“Everyone is effective and efficient in different types of spaces, depending on our mood, depending on the day, and depending on the task—and then you multiply that by the amount of people in an office and a business,” said Brice. “It says that you can’t have just one type of space that works for everyone. That diversity and balance is key.”

That understanding is both responding to and fueling the idea that “you don’t hire engaged people, you create them,” according to Michael Norris, chief operating officer of Sodexo North America. Clients are now asking designers to think beyond efficient spatial layouts, to consider how they can enhance employees’ productivity and satisfaction—attributes typically lumped under the well-being heading.

Hard data quantifying well-being in the workplace remains in its infancy, but enterprising researchers like Cristina Banks at the University of California at Berkeley are beginning to ask frontline employees about what they consider to be most important in encouraging well-being in the workplace. “Very few of their answers are focused on the physical aspects of the workplace,” said Jodi Williams, AICP, LEED AP ID+C, associate with RTKL, describing a recent presentation by Banks. “They were more focused on the culture, and feelings of belonging and feeling valued, and those kinds of things, which are a little bit harder to translate into a built space.”

Workplace Experience Model©

The Workplace Experience Model shows that experiential factors like aesthetics, escapism, affective components, and other elements of a holistic workplace can enhance or detract from employees having a great experience—and thus an optimal quality of life—in the workplace.

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Chart courtesy of Sodexo

In response to a perceived lack of published research on improving experience in the workplace context, Sodexo created a new Workplace Experience Model©, which seeks to identify the key factors that “enhance or detract from employees having a great experience (and optimal [quality of life]) in the workplace.”

Through this model, researchers at Sodexo have made a clear distinction between experiential factors and work-related factors (see chart above), as well as emphasizing the different impacts of emotional and rational drivers of human decisions and behaviors.

“With this in mind, CRE and FM leaders are beginning to translate the emotional aspects of an experience to the workplace setting,” noted the report. “They are also developing new evaluation tools to measure the impact. … implications include:

  • Shifting the measure of value from ‘cost per square foot’ to ‘quality of life per square foot,’ a value that has much more meaning and potential to impact employees and the organization in unprecedented ways.
  • Infusing elements of aesthetics, escapism, entertainment and much more in the workplace environment to improve quality of life.”

It’s a change in thinking for many in the corporate world, especially as real estate costs continue to spiral upwards. And yet, as many of us spend increasingly more hours at the office every week, nibbling away at our nights and weekends, it makes sense that clients are starting to seek ways to make the slog more comfortable. “[Clients] are making their spaces feel more like this third place, like home,” said Brice. “It’s the realization that we’re spending eight hours at minimum in our work spaces, so we should make them awesome.”

sodexo design trend 2: health-centered buildings
That seemingly sudden realization that we spend a large percentage of our waking lives in our offices and other places of businesses has pushed employees to demand (and clients to request) not just fun and motivating environments, but healthy ones as well.

This is not necessarily a new development for the A&D community—the need for healthier spaces has been known since the discovery of “sick building syndrome,” and publicized since the introduction of LEED—but the rapid rise in healthcare costs has made it a central issue on many corporate agendas “due to the threat it represents to business sustainability,” wrote David Hurtado in the Sodexo report. With the total health benefit costs per employee growing consistently above overall inflation and worker earnings levels for the past 15 years, and chronic diseases and workplace injuries beginning to accumulate, clients can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to negative influences in the workplace.

“Five years ago, we were educating clients and decision makers about LEED certification—the process, the benefits, and the ROI,” said Fulford-Roy. “Today our clients are asking us to apply sustainable design principles to almost every project we are involved in. The focus has shifted from solely marketing corporate social responsibility (which remains a genuine focus for many of our clients) to emphasizing employee productivity.”

What is the Delos Living WELL Building Standard?

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The WELL Building Standard® is the first protocol of its kind that focuses on improving human wellness within the built environment by identifying specific conditions that, when holistically integrated into building interiors, enhance the health and well-being of the occupants. A proprietary protocol, the WELL Building Standard is the culmination of seven years of research developed by Delos in partnership with leading architects, scientists, and wellness thought leaders.

WELL Certification™ is based on building performance and requires a passing score in each of the seven concept categories of the WELL Building Standard: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. The certification process, which includes the submission of project documentation and an on-site audit, is administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), which independently evaluates achievement. The IWBI awards certification at one of three levels: Blue, Silver, or Gold.

To learn more, visit WellBuildingInstitute.com.

This increased focus on productivity, coupled with the growing understanding and acceptance of green building guidelines, has pushed clients to A) expect that the basics of green building—such as natural light and efficient HVAC—will be included in any new project, and B) ask for help in creating and implementing workplace policies that go beyond a designer’s traditional scope. “We’re starting to see more of a focus on holistic well-being—providing a workplace that really focuses on [the employee] and their well-being, psychologically and socially,” said Williams. “The concrete stuff, such as better air quality, is almost a given.”

The designers we spoke with acknowledged that clients are still spread along a wide spectrum in terms of interest in incorporating wellness amenities, and that implementations vary, including everything from accessible outdoor green spaces to healthy cafeterias. Meeting zones that promote walking and mobility across floors or vertically through the building are in particular demand, as are attractive, internal base building stairs and sit-stand furnishings.

Companies also appear to be split on how to fully approach some of these more abstract improvements in the name of employee satisfaction.

Some, according to Williams, are willing to take a “leap of faith” on emerging wellness and productivity research from organizations like Gallup and the Society for Human Resource Management, while others are waiting for more established science before making facility investments. New innovations, such as the Total Worker Health (TWH) program from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Delos Living WELL Building Standard (see below), aim to help systematize and quantify the impact of buildings designed for occupant well-being, but designers remain a primary resource for most clients, necessitating a change in how designers view their own responsibilities.

“It’s forcing us to become researchers and educators,” Williams noted. “Instead of being called to draw or design something, it’s teaching what other people are doing, what the results are, and how [design] can impact the bottom line.”

According to Fulford-Roy, the definitions of and goals for healthy workplaces will continue to shift for the foreseeable future—if there’s ever even a final definition. Trends and technologies will change, as will our understanding about what makes employees happiest and most productive. For most designers, perhaps the best way forward is to focus on the foundation and create the healthiest base possible—from there, the sky is the limit.

“We make sure that the fundamental elements with the most significant impact to the broader workforce are always integrated as ‘good design,’” said Fulford-Roy. “This means creating environments with access to natural light, views to the exterior, greater quality of indoor air, as well as flexibility for work settings to address ergonomic preferences and mobility. These are the base requirements to encourage health and well-being in the workplace.”