How to design an office that actually supports employees’ well-being

(Hint: It’s not the open office.)

How to design an office that actually supports employees’ well-being
[Photo: scyther5/iStock, Marc_Osborne/iStock (illustration)]

There’s a lot of press on the harmful effects of the open office, and for good reasons. Many open offices are as life-sucking as people say—so much so they could be a scene from a dystopian movie. Think about it, aisles lined with office cubes in drab colors, or work areas with no walls at all, and long rows of tables where people are jammed together with little privacy and no choice. It doesn’t exactly sound like a productive, let alone inspiring, setup.


Full disclosure: I work for a company that makes office furniture—and I know how bad offices can be. I’m also a sociologist studying work, workers, and the workplace, and the problems of the modern office are well known. Apple emphasized the drudgery of work in their classic 1984 Orwellian ad, and Conan O’Brien poked fun at office drab in 2007.

On a more serious note, nearly 200 CEOs from some of the largest and most well-known companies recently pledged they would prioritize people over profits. (I’m pleased to report that the CEO of the company I work for was among them!)

You might wonder what that has to do with office design. The thing is, it can affect people’s well-being—and I’m not just talking about the kind that focuses on fitness or physical health. You see, true well-being is holistic—including physical, cognitive, and emotional elements of our experience. Our environment contributes to holistic health and has everything to do with how it supports us physically, how it helps us think, and how it promotes psychological safety. It also creates the conditions (or lack of) for us to bring our whole selves to work.

Here are six strategies to create well-being at work and avoid the adverse effects of an open office:

1. Give people choice and control

Choice is a very big deal for many employees. In fact, research conducted during 2016 across 20 countries (and almost 13,000 people ) found when people had the choice of where to work, they were also more highly engaged and highly satisfied at work. Of course, engagement is a holy grail for business. When people are engaged, companies are more likely to grow, because people expend discretionary effort—they’re willing to expend just a little bit more effort toward doing the best work possible.

2. Ensure people have plenty of variety

One of the ways to provide choice is to design places that have plenty of variety—a full ecosystem of options. The best offices aren’t made up of drab cubes or long rows of open workstations. Rather, they are places with both open and enclosed places, both formal and informal areas, as well as spots where people can work alone or together. Think places with work cafés and enclaves, with workstations and phone booths, and with garden areas inside and out.


3. Empower people to make their space their own

Avoid pristine spaces where people can’t customize or personalize their experience. Start with designing a space where people can choose their own spot to work, but you can go even further by giving teams places to display their work in progress, hold impromptu meetings, and work through issues. Even better, have places where people can move their furniture around, so they can arrange it in a way that best supports the ebb and flow of their project.

4. Give people freedom

Of course, variety is about having plenty of different options for where to work, but you need to make sure that you take the time to cultivate an organizational culture that allows people to work in so many great areas. People won’t work in the café if they feel like their boss silently disapproves; they need to feel like it’s okay not to be at their desk.

5. Support multiple ways of working

A great workplace supports well-being by facilitating all kinds of work—focused, collaborative, and learning-oriented. Most people may underreport how much they socialize in a workday, but it’s still a vital part. At its core, work is fundamentally social, so create spaces that invite informal connections that are so key to workers’ well-being. It’s also crucial to have areas to support rejuvenation. The more intense the work people are engaged in, the more they need time for respite and renewal. The path to productivity isn’t constant hustle. It’s work interspersed with breaks and moments to reflect and get away.

6. Design for nature and stimulation

Evolutionarily speaking, our history in offices is relatively recent. After millennia surviving out in the wild, we show up in our business casual attire and attend less-than-riveting meetings. Our brains are so bored—and we’re divorced from nature. A workplace that supports well-being provides interesting, stimulating environments with color, texture, daylight, and views. Since most of us spend the vast majority of our time indoors, we must make it as healthy and meaningful as possible.

Open offices, as we know them today, are a disaster for employees’ well-being and productivity. But it is possible to design for people and generate great results for the company. Avoid creating a traditional open office—instead, design for well-being. Far from a dystopian reality, the office will be a great place where people want to work—and can do their very best to the benefit of themselves and the company.

Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.