02: Rethinking Wellbeing for a Post-Covid Workplace

After the many months we’ve had of disruptive and traumatic lockdowns and social distancing, companies will need to prioritise the wellbeing of their employees as they gradually make their way back to the office. The return will likely be met with mixed messages. On the one hand, there is the relief of reconnecting with colleagues and getting back to a pre-pandemic-ish way of working. On the other, there are the challenges of returning to a new normal and navigating any number of potential changes. For example, hybrid working is on the rise after an extended period of working from home: where some colleagues will physically be in the office and others will remain virtual at least part of the time. This will have impacts on the physical workplace as well as the company culture.

Despite ongoing uncertainties, we know that design can have a positive impact on health and wellbeing, and that people perform better when they feel better. This gives us an opportunity to support the wellbeing of employees after the intense period of uncertainty, and to attract and retain talent as everyone navigates their personal and professional lives in a post-Covid world.

Here are some insights from how we have been focusing on wellbeing in our workplace projects, even before Covid-19 forced much of the world’s workforce to work from home.

Story Anne Kristine Kleppan and Jørund Johansen

Bringing Workplaces to Life

Humans spend a majority of their time indoors—mostly at home and in the workplace—which conflicts with our inherent love for nature. The concept of biophilia, meaning connecting people with nature and other living beings, has had a major influence on interior design for some time now, as this is a simple and evidence-based way to improve wellbeing. At Nordic, we strive for design solutions that incorporate daylight, views to nature and other biophilic features in all project types for this reason.

Our project at Alf Bjerckes vei 22, just outside Oslo, takes the relationship between humans and nature to a new level. The 29.000 m2 BREEAM Excellent logistics building and headquarters for Motek and Ahlsell is under construction and will be the greenest logistics building in Norway upon completion in 2022.

The goal for the design was to create visual connections between the inside and outside of the building, maximising natural daylight and letting views of nature penetrate the space. The biophilic experience begins at the entrance of the building, with the atrium’s walls covered with living vegetation. The green wall is visible from the offices on the upper floors and extends all the way to the roof. What makes this project truly special is the 16.000 m2 park on the roof, alive with indigenous flora, beehives, walking paths, exercise zones and areas for socialising or resting. These biophilic features are just a few examples of how the building is designed to reduce energy consumption and support the user's wellbeing and local biodiversity.

Alf Bjerckes vei 22

Let’s get physical

Spending a lot of time indoors also suggests that we are sedentary throughout much of our day, which is linked to multiple physical and mental health risks. It is therefore important for employees to add physical activity to their daily routines. People who are physically active are not only more resilient, but also experience more energy and joy in their day-to-day tasks. All this translates to a better working environment, improved productivity and better retainment of employees. And not to mention an improved quality of life which creates positive ripples throughout society.

For NAV’s (Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration) new office in Lillestrøm, Nordic designed a “health-promoting environment” (helsefremmende bygg), with a variety of activity elements designated for each zone. The idea was that it should be easy to incorporate physical activities throughout the workday.

In the employee entrance, an artificial tree has been installed to stand under an open atrium and "grow" to the second floor. The tree is not only a sculpture, but also as a playful activity element. In social zones and selected work zones, climbing walls, swings and workout equipment promote opportunities for activities throughout the workday. We used colour-coded carpeting as a fun and intuitive wayfinding tool to help employees navigate between active areas and non-active areas.

In contrast to all the focus on physical and social activities, separate rooms and areas have been set aside for immersion, focus and relaxation. These areas are emphasised with the use of calmer colours, subdued lighting, and comfortable furniture with soft shapes and tactile materials. The working zones have also been designed to improve wellbeing with high quality lighting and acoustic design, ergonomic furniture and treadmill desks.

Sense of community + belonging

The pandemic has emphasised the essential importance and impact that social networks—from family and friends to colleagues and communities—play in our lives. The sense of community and belonging that people feel when they are together has mostly been absent in 2020-21, especially in the workplace. Whilst there have been many benefits to remote working, it also created feelings of isolation and disconnection from colleagues. The post-Covid workplace will need to elevate the critical social connections that have been deficient whilst employees were at home.

Nordic’s new head office in central Oslo was designed with this in mind—albeit before the pandemic. Located on the third and fourth floors of a historical building known as Telegrafen (The Telegraph building), it is a place to collaborate, learn, and come together as a group with a common purpose. These attributes help people to build trust, increase innovation, boost morale, and enhances the holistic employee and client experience.

Throughout our office, we have dedicated much of the area to small and large common spaces, integrated within working areas for impromptu meetings. Our two storeys are connected by a multipurpose internal staircase, used as an amphitheatre for large meetings and events or for informal get-togethers. Internal staircases have become a wildly popular feature in the workplace for their manifold advantages. In addition to the social benefits, they visibly connect people on different floors and promote physical activity. At the top of the stair is our public zone, equipped with a variety of seating options and direct adjacency to the kitchens with coffee machines. The zone is designed to encourage spontaneous encounters, impromptu meetings and informal collaboration. To compensate for all these wonderful ways of connecting, the space also offers multiple solutions for privacy, which enables for focused work and rest.

Designed as a future proof office, there is plenty of space for Nordic to grow, with the versatility to accommodate evolving uses as our needs change. In fact, we recently made the decision to share our workplace with external organisations, as a way to maximise our return on investment. These tenants have designated working areas but share the common spaces, yet another way to enhance the positive community vibe.

Nordic's office - internal staircase
Nordic Head Office

Empowering people to be their best selves

On the other side of the coin, we must also take individual backgrounds, needs and preferences into account when we design workplaces. The concept of activity-based working (ABW) is an effective way to address these differences in the workplace—and a common feature of the case studies in this article. ABW is a design approach based on the recognition that people work on a variety of activities throughout their day, and therefore need a variety of settings to perform each activity effectively. Giving people the agency to interact with the workplace as they see fit, empowers them to be their best selves. This is especially important after many months working from home, where trust and agency were a vital component.

Norway’s new government quarter will be an attractive activity-based workplace campus. Employees will have the choice to work where appropriate depending on the task at hand, with a variety of collaboration and concentration spaces for each ministry, and shared social zones on each floor. Additionally, a sequence of social spaces connects all the buildings in the government quarter on the second floor, which encourages interaction and collaboration between ministries and provides easy access to all common areas and entrances. Large open plans on the office floors provide optimal flexibility to alter layouts and uses over time. The quarter will extend well beyond the walls of the building, with pedestrianised public and private green spaces. These spaces will reconnect the government quarter with the rest of the city and play a central role in balancing government functions with the daily life of the city's inhabitants.

New Government Quarter - cafe
New Government Quarter - park

As we cautiously emerge from the pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to rethink how we can meet the diverse needs of employees. Companies that want to have a successful return to the office will need to prioritise wellbeing and the employee experience. Workplaces have so much more potential than just being a place to complete tasks. It can be a place to enjoy nature and to build better daily routines. It can be a place where we thrive as individuals and connect with people around a shared purpose. It can be a place that promotes growth and inspires innovation. And it can be a place to reconnect after long months of living with loss, disruption, isolation and uncertainty on a global scale.

Contact us to learn more about how you can integrate wellbeing into your workplace project and stay tuned for the next article focused on urban wellbeing.