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Wellbeing - More than just the pretty pictures

Posted on Fri, 2020-03-20 09:58 by Hugh Anderson

Wellbeing-more than just the pretty pictures – November 2018

The following notes were presented by Hugh Anderson at a wellbeing Seminar hosted by haa design in November in Glasgow.

Speakers were Hugh Anderson from haa design and Carol Craig from the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing.

The trouble with most important issues is that they can become the issue of the moment becoming rapidly over debated and made tedious.

So it is with the issue of wellbeing which has become the excuse for marketing new types of furniture, lighting, ventilation systems and endless design seminars (including this one!)

The idea of this seminar therefore is to try and put the subject in better perspective and give it some sort of grounding in wider society before it becomes further devalued.

Because the subject is important!

It underpins our behaviour as human beings, and it is at least that which should shape the design of an intelligent workplace.

First, a couple of important but fairly obvious observations about the ‘healthy workplace’:

  • Academic studies and our own instinct all point to the importance of sunlight, greenery, fresh air, and views to the outside.

So far, nothing new.

  • Such studies also point to the fact that our modern ‘artificial’ environments increasingly deprive us of these basic stimuli, not to mention the specifically adverse effects of atmospheres where there is poor lighting, a build up of CO2, or just the stultifying or debilitating affect of an environment which is too hot or too cold.
  • It comes as no surprise that patients in hospitals ‘heal’ better in environments with sunshine and views to outside and concentration in lecture theatres rapidly falls off without a decent supply of fresh air.


We are hugely affected therefore by the physical properties of our working and living environment but this does not mean that four potted plants or even Circadian lighting is the answer to workplace design as certain acts of tokenism would seem to suggest, although the desperate, atavistic way that people have to go out and immediately buy plastic plants as soon as the interior designers are out of the way (witness once again, the latest of our projects) might point to something else!

“people can be happy and productive in a badly designed office (or no office at all) or miserable and debilitated in a gilded cage” Mark Eltringham Beware the great apex fallacy of workplace design

What I want to focus on rather is that huge, more complicated world of the psychological environment, while in no way denying the pre-requisites of good design, which obviously entail those things that impact on our physical senses. Or if not the psycho-physical phenomena like ‘noise’ that are all too often dealt with (or attempted to be remedied) in purely physical ways.

If this wider world of our societal behaviour is too complicated to deal with (or it at least calls for the kind of proper academic framework that Carol will give it) let me at least explore some of the more complicated issues of the workplace than sunshine and fresh air that never the less fall within the remit of the designer, or at least should fall within his or her remit.

The world of workplace design is possibly an easier, limited context than that which Carol will be looking at, but it is nevertheless an important one. It is that which forms the background to a growing part of most people’s lives. It is also that which (because it is often over simplified) merits better understanding, involving, as it does, the behaviour of organisations, not just in terms of their own effectiveness and profitability, but their role in wider society.

Thesis – the sick building syndrome lesson

A most powerful demonstration was given of this wider context of design by the scare that filled our papers some years ago. For those of you old enough to remember it, the big scare in office design was that of sick building syndrome, where a whole array of physical phenomena was first of all blamed, ranging from air quality to, flickering lights to, the emission on carcinogenic fumes from newly laid carpets.

As with the exhibition of various symptoms by those suffering from mental illness, the existence of sore throats, headaches, dry eyes were all real enough, but none of these seemed to have a full correlation with the above mentioned physical causes, until one other factor was gradually unearthed, namely the correlation between physical symptoms and the fact that sufferers almost universally had other societal reasons for feeling dissatisfied with their lives. 

The fact that they were not in control of their personal situation, either in terms of their physical environment or, more importantly, their workload, its quantity, its purpose, its means of execution.

  • the simple ability to open or close a window if one was  feeling too hot or too cold.
  • the way that they were being treated by their superiors.
  • In other words this further research pinpointed the correlation between stress and unsatisfactory physical design and the conditions of employment.

From this ‘anecdote’ a couple of important themes emerge:

  • the importance of choice and freedom.
  • the inextricable link between management style and the way this is given expression in the arrangement of the physical environment, in other words the fact that interior design or the general arrangement of the workplace is the outward and visible  face of management, an expression of its values and the  importance or otherwise of individuals within the organisation, a theme which we will return to later.

“interior design – the outward and visible face of management”

Let us look at what constitutes ‘workplace design’ at least in the minds of others looking in.

For most persons I guess the role of the designer is mostly to do with aesthetics, that which can very quickly be equated with colours and materials, with possibly a bit of ergonomics thrown in. In particular design appears to be focused on trendy reception and breakout areas, fancy sofas and expensive lighting. I would venture to suggest there is a bit more to workplace design that just this.

Let us look therefore at one of these spaces, the increasingly popular break-out area.

Socialising spaces do indeed seem to have become of disproportionate importance, but much more visible too has become that array of fashionable ‘study booths’, ‘touch down’ and ‘scrum’ spaces.

These spaces are indeed suspiciously photogenic but I would argue that they are, or at least should be, an intelligent response to that call for ‘wellbeing’.

The modern office is definitively a lot more attractive than the ‘corporate deserts’ of the American giants of the 1980s or the sleek efficiency of the 1990s, but is this increase in colour, softness and greenery just fashion or evidence of changing attitudes of management? To what extent does it add up to a conscious response to tackle issues of wellbeing?

“open plan, that great manifestation of bland corporate culture, efficiency, command and control” Mark Eltringham Beware the great apex fallacy of workplace design