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Healing Spaces

Businesses are ditching traditional office design in favor of innovative spaces dedicated to employees’ wellness

There are reasons why headquarters of tech giants like Google and Facebook create so much buzz among business elites and the new wave of millennials looking for work. Large windows show green spaces and natural light; art and creative motivation are plastered around the walls; employees have a sense of control over their workspace—like riding a scooter down the hall while on break: these environmental elements can improve an employee’s productivity and sense of wellbeing. Healthier, happier employees can seriously affect a business’s bottom line.

Photos by Casey Dunn, courtesy of The Beck Group

For many years, buildings from offices to hospitals were designed with efficiency in mind instead of the people who fill their halls. Norma Lehman, a former interior designer, is currently the Director of Sustainability at The Beck Group. The Beck Group, a Dallas-based architecture and construction firm, specializes in designing and building spaces that foster wellness and sustainability such as the Nasher Museum and Sundance Square in Fort Worth.

“The topic of health and wellbeing is a huge national trend, and there’s a renewed focus from corporations,” Norma explains. “It goes beyond savings from medical and healthcare costs. Corporations are getting savvy, realizing that the health of their employees affects the bottom line. Less sick days means more productivity. There’s less turnover, and when recruiting the best and brightest, [businesses] have to stand out. Having an environment based on employee wellbeing is a way to do that.”

The notion that one’s environment can seriously impact a person’s health can be traced to the “View from a Window” study by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich, published in 1984. Ulrich explored whether looking at a garden through a window, instead of a brick wall, could help hospital patients heal faster from surgery or other illnesses. Spoiler: it helps a lot. Patients looking at green spaces not only healed quicker, but needed less pain medication and had fewer postsurgical complications.   

“I can’t emphasize enough the connection of nature to human beings,” Norma says. “We feel better when we’re connected to nature, whether that’s through water, plant life or animals.” That’s the philosophy behind biophilic design—humans inherently seek connections with nature—which The Beck Group incorporates into their buildings.

Other influential studies have shown that more diffused natural light can improve test scores in students and that art can increase productivity and sense of wellbeing.

“The type of art, the color, the style definitely affect outcomes as well,” Norma explains. “You can be energized by art; you can be disturbed or calmed by it. There’s situations where you need energy and you want art that’s more lively and colorful, but other situations, like a recovering patient, you want soothing art. It’s also important that the art is recognizable; you don’t have to figure out what it is.”

While the tangible design elements—natural light, access to green space, art—seem like obvious things that improve wellness, a less tangible factor can also reap health benefits: autonomy. A study Norma cited put different employees into three types of work stations: one with nothing but work equipment, another one with a plant and piece of artwork, and a third which also had the plant and art, but this employee was allowed to rearrange the workstation.

“The expanded study where employees controlled their space…they doubled their productivity and sense of wellbeing,” Norma says. This is one reason why many Beck Group designs put task lights at employee’s stations, rather than harsh overhead lights. “Everyone gets a task light at their work station so that one, they can control it, and two, they get as much light as they need, because everyone is different. When we’re in control of our environment we’re happier.”

The next factor designers are exploring? Circadian rhythm.

“One new area we’re exploring is circadian rhythm, which is how we sense external cues like sunlight,” Norma explains. “My daughter is a nurse on the night shift, so her body clock is off. If the lights in her hospital can be tuned at the beginning of her shift so she’s up and alert throughout the night but gradually change, like the sun, it informs her body to start winding down so she can sleep better. Basically what the Night Shift application can do on iPhones.”

From a piece of artwork, to a plant, to a desk lamp, making your work environment a healthier place can do you—and your business—a whole lot of good.

Cori Baker
Cori Baker is a journalist and photographer based in Plano, Texas. Cori is an alumna of Plano Senior High School and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor's in Journalism and a minor in business.

Cori has worked as an intern for KUT Radio, Austin's NPR affiliate station, a photographer for Reporting Texas, and is currently the Creative Assistant at the Plano Profile. Her work has been featured on Reporting Texas, Orange Magazine, Plano Profile, and the Austin American-Statesman.

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