How has COVID-19 changed our expectations for workplace wellbeing?
3 December 2021
To what extent can employers entice staff back into the office following lockdowns and during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic? Environmental Design and Engineering MSc student Emily Child reviews changing expectations for workplace wellbeing.
The COVID crisis has driven innovation in working patterns with millions of office workers forced into remote home-working for extended periods. This experience has produced profound effects on workers’ expectations of flexible home working. A survey from January 2021 indicated that 87% of UK office workers wanted to work remotely for at least some of their time post-lockdown measures. Employers have an opportunity to respond to this shift with new dynamic staff wellbeing policies and more efficient office arrangements. Taking advantage of these opportunities requires a good perspective of the relationship between physical working conditions and employees’ health/wellbeing and performance/productivity and how far optimal conditions can be ensured during home-working.
The UK Building Council for Offices’ publication “Wellness Matters”, and CIBSE Guidance TM40 identify the main Internal Environmental Quality (IEQ) factors as thermal comfort, air quality, lighting and acoustic comfort. These factors are part of a complex interplay with issues like layout, individual control and natural elements in the workplace (biophilia) that influence wellbeing1. There is strong scientific support for office design conducive to health, wellbeing and productivity. The optimal temperature range for thermal comfort is 21-25°C, outside which performance suffers.2,3 Workers need good ventilation and low pollution to avoid negative health consequences (eg Sick Building Syndrome) and resulting productivity losses4. Good lighting is also important (300-500 lux) for alertness and to avoid eyestrain and headaches5. Office configurations (open-plan vs shared offices), individual control over IEQ factors and natural elements (biophilia) also produce beneficial effects6,7,8.
Acoustic comfort is cited as the main annoyance in office surveys9. It is a complex issue because of the wide variation in personal tolerance levels, preferences and cultural factors and context3. Noise disturbance is not just a question of intensity/loudness. Annoyance also varies with the noise salience (irrelevant speech is a particular distraction in offices) and other factors. Workers can habituate to repetitive low-frequency noise, but are more disturbed by intermittent high-pitched sounds10. Noise disturbance affects performance of more complex tasks more than routine activities11. There is growing attention to the benefits of providing positive soundscapes for wellbeing and performance12, and recognition that moderate noise can stimulate creativity13.
Figure1. Diagram adapted from (ISO, 2014)14 of 'noise in context of offices environment'.
These findings provide a starting point for employers’ guidance for staff working remotely. However, further research is needed to establish whether office IEQ standards can be transposed to domestic settings. For example, temperature, air quality and lighting are less controlled, and potentially subject to extreme variations. Similarly, the salience of noise generated by household members may be different from co-workers’ speech because of psychological/emotional links. The productivity impact of residential noise sources (internal vs external) also merits attention.
The Stoddart Review highlighted that improvements in office environments could produce productivity gains of up to 3.5% (£70bn annually in the UK) what employers can do to address these. Other reasons to return to the office are the benefits of face-to-face interaction for mutual learning and creative group dynamics. As these factors inevitably point to a future normal hybrid working patterns, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development recommends employers develop opportunities and incentives to entice people back to the office, but also provide active support policies to optimise home working conditions. Giving staff more control of their individual working patterns can thus improve wellbeing, boost motivation and deliver higher productivity.
Emily is currently a MA Part II Architecture student at the Bartlett, having recently completed a MSc in Environmental Design and Engineering with three years’ industry experience.
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