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4 February 2021 | by Ann Clarke
A survey of 8000 office-based staff across eight countries revealed that 28% of employees said their mental health had worsened during the pandemic and only 1 in 10 managers were exceeding employee’s expectations in supporting them. Figures from the Office of National Statistics paint a similar picture – one in five Britons suffered either moderate or severe depressive symptoms during the first lockdown – almost double the record level for the same period in 2019. With lockdown three underway, the situation is likely to worsen.
These figures give employers a glimpse of the challenge they face when employees start returning to the workplace. There will almost certainly be a need for more soft support for employees to ensure they have the right emotional, mental and professional help to thrive – but there’s an opportunity to make the workplace solve some of the problem too.
Already, we’re helping businesses take a fresh look at their office interior design to reflect how COVID has changed employee expectations and employer needs – both about the act of work and the place of work. Here’s the five needs that offices must satisfy in order to contribute to curing the COVID mental health hangover.
Easy plug and play – A transient workforce is here to stay. According to Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics, 25-30% of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week by the end of the year. Transient people need environments that make it easy for them to literally arrive, plug in and work. Inclusion of easy access to charging points, simple to use printing systems, desk/room/parking booking software and office concierge services ensure a frictionless office experience – whether employees visit one day a month, or one day a week.
Stimulation – After months of being cooped up at home, we will crave greater stimulation. No one will rush back to the office just to do what they could do at home. This will create demand for much richer workplace experiences that offer choice and variety of work settings, cater for our work and social selves, help us to have shared goals, bring the brand to life and convey a strong sense of community.
Sociability and belonging – Almost half (46%) of UK workers have experienced loneliness during lockdown as our average number of people interactions per day has almost halved (51%). When we return to the office it will be for sociability and a human, personal experience. This will require spaces for relaxation and forming friendships with peers in and out of work (think cafe, soft seating areas, outdoor terraces) as well as for teams to work together (meeting rooms, huddle spaces, kitchen tables) and for all-important peer-to-peer mentoring and knowledge sharing to take place (libraries, study areas and one-to-one meeting rooms). They will also need a layout that promotes flow and movement through the office and which allows for the serendipitous meetings that can be so important to creating community.
Collaboration – Zoom and Teams have done well out of lockdown, but they are not a real substitute for face-to-face collaboration. The desire to collaborate with colleagues will be a main driver for office use, so there must be appropriate spaces and intuitive technologies for people to work together. Greater use of white boards, write-on surfaces and real time collaboration tools will be important for teams sat physically together, as well as those that still connect remotely.
Peacefulness and wellbeing –Taking a break is an important part of being productive, as well as helping people to manage their own wellbeing. The workplace can play a significant role here – not only in providing quiet spaces for people to regroup and reflect (a comfortable chair in a quiet corner) but in thinking about wider concerns such as how workplace design might affect people’s ability to concentrate, whether dedicated spaces should be set aside for wellbeing purposes (counselling, nutrition or exercise) and bringing your organisation’s wellness plan to life.
Let the workplace embody wellbeing – Our workplace behaviours have changed and it’s unlikely that we’ll all return to our pre-Covid five day 9-5 pattern of working. As such workplaces must be re-thought so they are relevant and give employees compelling reasons to visit. That means understanding and catering for employees’ new needs and offering a positive and social experience grounded in wellbeing and belonging.
It’s critical to get this right because there is a direct connection between wellbeing and business performance too – something that will get us out of an economic downturn. Putting the right amount of focus on wellbeing will help to lower absence levels and staff attrition, as well as drive employee happiness, loyalty, creativity and productivity.
Organisations will not be able to avoid the mental health hangover of Covid altogether; people are grappling with grief, financial worries, social anxiety, stress and burnout. However, they will be able to minimise and even manage it, if they recognise that the physical workplace and office interior design has a powerful role to play as part of an organisation’s wellbeing response.
 Adecco research as cited here: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/22/business-leaders-must-prioritize-workers-mental-health-in-lockdown-ceo.html
 Research from ONS as cited here: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9141791/Englands-lockdown-triggered-unprecedented-crisis-mental-health-issues.html
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