Workplace design for health nudges

Would you be willing to nudge a co-worker towards wellness by saying something like: 'Let's take the stairs instead of the elevators'? In our action learning set last week the topic was developing a healthy workforce. The plan was to discuss how designers of workplace could be encouraging and enabling movement and active-work to enhance health and productivity by providing space for walking meetings, asking questions about standing vs. sitting at desks, and considering healthier modes of getting to work. We were asked to ponder three questions prompted from the pre-read material. (This is listed at the end of this blog).

1. How much is it 'ok' for employers to 'nudge' their employees to better health? E.g. via walks to printers, etc.
2. Is employee health a US preoccupation tied to healthcare costs or is it really about business performance?
3. How can workplace contribute to workplace health in the absence of a 'wellness program'?

As we assembled, one snag immediately hit. Only two out of eight or so attendees had read the pre-read (and they were the discussion leads). In my experience this is common. In most situations, people do not read the pre-reads.

This lack of pre-read participation made me wonder whether it was due to lack of time/will/interest or something else. We constantly read about the torrent of information that we are expected to deal with every day in our organizational life. Surely this is detrimental to health and wellness? And a number of articles and books suggest this is so.

In Fast Company, where this month is the month for telling people how to do an 'internet detox' there is a figure that people receive 112 emails daily on average to respond to (not junk ones) and that is on a rise towards 125. So I was pleased to see a piece in Information Week on 10 tools to beat email overload.

As I was musing on the mental toll of information overload the discussion was rapidly getting going on the topic of do architects and designers understand the importance of the environment in the performance of workers or, in the case of hospitals, the recovery time of patients. Someone suggested that environmental design compromises are made for the sake of something that is architecturally 'cool'. And the responses to this was agreement but also a note that designing workplace for health and wellness required a good question set for asking clients about their attitudes and philosophies around workplace wellness and how/whether they would like nudges towards this designed into their workplace.

As we don't have a good question set we came to a view that we could be 'rapid prototyping' around our own workplace design in order to develop one. For example, could we introduce a 15 daily walk around the parking lot that would encourage walking, social interaction, and a renewal time, and see if a walking track could be a design feature.

Related to the idea of renewal someone mentioned that he was doing a piece of work in an office in Taiwan and that at 1:00 p.m. every workday a bell rang and people lay down on the floor under their desks for a one hour nap. The idea of 'power naps' being beneficial to has been around for a while and the space for these is typically not designed into workspace.

Moving on from this topic another person mentioned that she was now wearing an Up Band that she could set to vibrate to remind her to get up from her desk to take a break. She sometimes over-rides the vibration reminder by remaining working but was saying that if she had a co-worker with a similar device they could reinforce each other's healthy behavior, and she would welcome that – others were a little more circumspect in supporting the idea that workers should nudge each other into wellness behaviors. (See Lionel Shriver's new novel 'Big Brother' on tackling a family member's obesity).

This led the discussion back towards methods of unobtrusively nudging people towards health and wellness through the way the workplace is designed, the way the space is then used, and how cultural norms can be developed alongside this. Someone mentioned Healthways in Tennessee that has alternate Fridays afternoons as 'sports afternoon' led by the CEO. This was another idea that people wondered if they could try out. (As we were talking the intercom announced the ice-cream social!)

Shortly after the discussion I happened to read about Cody an app aimed at 'casual fitness enthusiasts by emphasizing sharing rather than tracking … On Cody, users can add photos, videos, tag their location and leave status updates -— actions aimed at making it easy to share the story of their daily fitness routines, rather than the metrics.' This could be the type of thing for co-workers to jointly use with associated development of workplace design to support it.

The conversation switched then towards office furniture and how much influence workplace designers could have on wellness by guiding furniture choices. People felt that workplace designers working much more closely than they do with furniture providers – to develop an integrated design/furniture workplace wellness approach – would be worthwhile. This led back to the rapid prototyping conversation with the suggestion that we start tinkering with our own furniture, for example, raising our desks to become standing desks, changing the ratio of hard and soft seating, and the configuration of the furniture. This with the intent of testing the idea that clients and their designers should be much more deliberate in their relating health and wellness outcomes to integrated workplace design. We agreed that conscious decisions around this matter, but again are not typically designed in to achieve specific health/wellness or other outcomes like purchase decisions.

What we realized is that wellness programs are often operated independently of workplace design opportunities. For example, Iowa State University is currently doing some research on wellness programs but workplace design as a support to wellness does not appear to be part of the research scope. Google – a strong advocate of workplace wellness nods towards the importance of workplace design in a wellness strategy but it is not explicitly called out.

One person made the point that a LEED certified shell building lost opportunities for added-value benefit if the environmental, psychosocial, and health/wellness approaches of the interior design were not consciously developed. (I don't think there's an equivalent to LEED certification for workplace design that is conscious about the environmental, psychosocial, and health/wellness aspects of a workplace. Let me know if I'm wrong on this).

By the end of the hour we had seven actions. Now we just have to take them:
1. Rapid prototyping of different soft seating layouts to determine usage and appropriate configurations for this office's needs
2. Experimenting with standing desks (converting sitting to standing) and tracking user responses
3. Trying out some wellness activity that could be designed in – for example a walking track around the parking lot
4. Developing closer links between client/furniture supplier/workplace designer to get a more integrated approach to workplace wellness
5. Increasing designer/architect skills and knowledge related to the environmental, wellness and pyscho/social aspects of workplace.
6. Developing and testing a diagnostic tool that would assess clients' interest in using workplace design as a conscious nudger of worker wellness.
7. Trying out various tracking/social media devices to encourage a culture of wellness

If you have thoughts on any of these let me know. Chapter Seven of my book Organizational Health:an integrated approach to building optimum performance is on the connection between workplace design and wellness.