Workplace wellbeing: designing spaces for people

By Hannah Mellow on 12 July 2016

On Thursday 9th June, we hosted a workplace wellbeing breakfast event with Urbano Network and University of London. The guests that attended were from a wide variety of industries with common interests: workplace design and wellbeing.

Spacelab’s Director of Workplace Consultancy, Rosie Haslem, and Director of Research and Innovation and Reader at The Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL), Dr Kerstin Sailer, shared their insights into space, its impact on people and how to better design it to improve people’s wellbeing. Guests were then treated to a tour of University of London’s existing workspace that Spacelab have carried out an in-depth workplace study on and are redesigning to support the new vision for the organisation and their people.

The spatial layout of buildings and how it impacts behaviours

Kerstin set the scene with an introduction to space syntax theory and explored the question, is there a relationship between the spatial design of cities or buildings and the way they work socially? Using four examples of spatial types – public libraries, work spaces, hospitals and schools – she explained how the character and social aspects of an individual space are dependent on their position within the fabric of a city or building; with integrated spaces livelier and frequented by more people than segregated spaces.

In public libraries, people prefer to work and talk in more integrated spaces at the weekend, creating a more relaxed, buzzy atmosphere. This is in keeping with Kerstin’s findings in office buildings, which are more ‘generative’ of new ideas and contacts if they are more integrated, provide local visibility from circulation spaces and have attractors placed in more integrated areas. Out-patient clinics in hospitals that are open and spatially integrated similarly show less hierarchical behaviours, whereas schools clearly demonstrate how less integrated areas are used to enforce hierarchical, student-teacher relationships.

She summed up her presentation with a quote from the original pioneer of space syntax research, Bill Hillier:


What does this all mean for workplace wellbeing?

Building on Kerstin’s presentation, Rosie emphasised the importance of staff wellbeing, and the increasing expectation of employers to ensure the workplace maximises staff wellbeing. A recent piece of research (Britain’s Healthiest Workplace) showed that 73% of people suffer some form of stress at work, and on average in the UK, each worker loses 24 days of workplace productivity per annum through stress and a sedentary lifestyle.

While the issue is increasingly on the radar of the HR function in businesses, the impact that a design of a space can have on people’s wellbeing is often missed. Rosie shared her findings from Spacelab’s database of over 20,000 people from over 30 businesses in the last 5 years. In summary, encouraging movement and giving people the right spaces to do their job – whether for collaboration, concentrated working or social interaction – can help to reduce stress and increase productivity.

rosie_not_desk.jpgRosie also used some of our post-occupancy findings to exemplify how the impact of workplace design on wellbeing can also have implications on wider business objectives, such as staff retention and the bottom line. Staff turnover rates for one of our clients dropped from 42% to 19% following the redesign of their space. This resonates with wider industry findings such as the research by Prof. Alex Edmans, of London Business School, which demonstrates that organisations with better wellbeing and staff satisfaction ratings outperformed other companies on the stock market by 2-3%.

Putting workplace wellbeing into practice with the University of London

For University of London, the wellbeing of their staff is of utmost importance, and was a key driver for the workplace analysis, strategy and design project we have been working with them on. Dan Wakelin, Head of Space Management and Design at University of London, took guests on a tour of their existing workspace and explained, with visual aids, how the new space that Spacelab are designing will help them achieve their goals, to:

  • Enable staff to work in a way that meets their own needs, as well as the needs of the organisation.
  • Encourage staff to work together by breaking down physical barriers.

3D visuals of the new designs were shown to attendees, illustrating our plans to glaze an unused, internal courtyard and open up the workspace to flow through it. Staff will be given a variety of different workspaces to choose from and, by adopting activity-based working, the space will accommodate their individual and task-based needs. This will not only help to reduce stress and increase productivity, but also provides flexibility for future growth, churn and change.


For more information, or to request Kerstin or Rosie’s slides, please contact:

Topics: desk, workplace, people, workspace, workplace design, movement, space, office, wellbeing, rosie, haslem, urbano, engagement, consultancy, university of london, uol