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Workplace Wellness: 7 Workplace Design Experts Weigh in on the Next Big Thing

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Sitting is the new smoking. Rising U.S. obesity rates. Michelle Obama's "Get Moving Campaign." Proliferation of the LEED rating system and acceptance of practices.

There are many drivers increasing general awareness creating perhaps the most predominant trend of 2014: Wellness in the Workplace. I recently spoke with Joan Blumenfeld, of Perkins & Will, and one of the pioneers in this area, who worked with the NYC Department of Health and the NYC DDC in developing some of these ideas. She is also on the board of the NY Center for Active Design, a nonprofit aiming to reduce the risk of obesity and chronic diseases through the design of buildings, streets, and neighborhoods. Joan stated, "This movement really started back in 2006, but hasn't gained much popularity until recently." Though she has been involved in the concept for quite some time, it's only been in the past two years that requests for speaking engagements and information in RFP responses has increased.

Perhaps it also helps that more research at a molecular level has been done to show how even small amounts of exercise can change your metabolism. This particular study on "Inactivity Research" counters conventional wisdom. "The conventional wisdom... is that if you watch your diet and get aerobic exercise at least a few times a week, you'll effectively offset your sedentary time. A growing body of inactivity research, however, suggests that this advice makes scarcely more sense than the notion that you could counter a pack-a-day smoking habit by jogging. Exercise is not a perfect antidote for sitting," says Marc Hamilton, an inactivity researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center. It is this revelation that is leading furniture manufacturers and design practitioners alike to apply similar concepts from the Center for Active Design to the workplace. I spoke with seven experts in the workplace design field about these concepts.

What else is driving this increased attention on wellness in the workplace?

"Active Design is a natural result of current culture and societal awareness with wellbeing as the driver. There are really three components that have catalyzed this movement including sustainability, individual wellness and the ability of leveraging choice in the workplace as a destination/mobile movement. It is a continuing conversation that we are having with our clients on many levels from variety of workplace setting offerings, circulation patterns, fitness/wellness programs to food offerings. How the workplace design can provide the healthiest environment to support our client's staff is's increasingly becoming an important issue for everyone" -Mark Hirons, Principal/ Design Director of Interiors, Cannon Design

"The increasing costs of healthcare, the Affordable Care Act and a cultural shift towards increased workplace productivity are leading organizations down a path toward Active Design. These concerns will soon be the number one issue organizations will face and aim to solve in the coming years." -Jonathan Webb, VP of Business Markets, KI Furniture

"A conglomeration of factors drives awareness. With that awareness, comes change. There is a huge correlation between the culture on university campuses and how we work. As graduating students enter the workplace, expectations change. Today, they are basically living the free address model. You go to class, learn, do work, come back and share. You get graded, so you are measured. Then what happens is when they enter the workforce, they have to sit 40 hours per week in the same spot within the office. As we progress as a design industry, our client profiles will continue to evolve. Right now baby boomers remain predominant, but by 2020 Gen Y will be the majority in the workforce. When that happens, the Millennials have certain expectations of what the work environment can offer, and because they are 'digital natives' and are accustomed to working 'anywhere,' this alone will drive a lot of these principles of activity in the workplace as well." -Angie Lee, Principal & Global Market Leader, VOA

"Active Design is extending the conversation of sustainability from buildings to our human capital, which is the largest investment. The concept of Active Design is growing organically with the new generation of worker. Employers now realize that the greatest asset they have are their people. We've gone through the 'great depression of cost reductions,' and now we are understanding the investments we have. Sustainability is front and center. There has been a 'media blitz' on creating sustainable environments. It's not either or, It's the 'yes AND' conversation. And the 'and' is how we have a conversations about our own sustainability. (i.e. longevity of life) As many companies are targeting new hires, they want energetic, lively, sustainable and active people, which means they need a workplace that reflects that, supports and grows that activity. They understand that an active workplace is important for bottom line." -Nila R. Leiserowitz, Managing Principal, Gensler

"The perk of this question is tied to the war for talent. Even though there is still unemployment many organizations are having struggles to get right talent and keep the right talent. Having the right benefit structures helps the right talent. Not everyone can compete with Google and all the amenities, so they try to find affordable ways to attract employees to their organization. It not only makes them attractive as an employer, but makes them a healthy employee at the end of the day. They have seen the impact of not only absenteeism (people not showing up for work) but also people not staying at job for more than a year. You can go to any employer's website now and find examples of these wellness programs being actively marketed. Look at how they present themselves with benefits to see how they are attracting people to organization." -Bernice Boucher, Head of Workplace Strategy, JLL

Where and how is this concept of wellness taking hold as it relates to our physical workplace?

"What we are doing for these companies is providing the same number of seats, but in different formats; formal conference rooms, meeting rooms, a café with lounge area, lounge spaces. There are all kinds of other ways to be working besides sitting at a desk in an office or workstation. We are providing a lot of different workplace settings that people can get up and go to. This idea is driving a lot of the changes we are seeing in workplace design in the corporate world." - Joan Blumenfeld, Global Interior Design Director, Perkins & Will

"Unlike designing a healthcare environment which is a bit more prescriptive and follows process for how you deliver care, workplace planning is very dynamic and fluid. Each organization and its operation are unique in some ways. One standard approach to planning for the various settings or standardized workstations or layout is not meant to work for all companies. It's 'messy.' Further, in today's work environment, there are many modes of work that require different settings. Technology drives mobility, mobility drives wellness - the ability to get up and move around as well as being able to look outside is the key, it is about having choices." -Angie Lee, Principal & Global Market Leader, VOA

"Give them lots of options of places to work, so that they can choose where and how they work best. [Gensler] recently did a workplace survey to study the impact of workplace design on business performance, employee engagement and innovation. One of the big findings in over 11 industries was CHOICE. So how does that relate? If you respect the person, give them choice and they feel more in control, they are less stressed. Less stress means less health issues." - Nila R. Leiserowitz, Managing Principal, Gensler

"Flexible spaces are now commonplace; conference rooms that double as studio space for yoga/pilates and other things can also support wellness programs. It is cheaper for them to bring people in to the office than to support someone out [sick]. If space can double or pieces of these spaces can double in their function that is innovation." -Marlene Liriano, Director of Interior Design, HOK

Is it really possible for an office space to change behavior?

"Cannon Design recently moved to a new office space in Chicago where creating choice and fostering movement was imperative. We have everyone on one floor, which has increased our face to face interaction by 40% between staff leveraging destination settings and created a more active, cohesive culture throughout. Daylighting and openness creates connectivity and accessibility, which encourages more movement. We have one central café with various teaming and meeting spaces surrounding which fosters a nucleus of activity and engagement and offers multiple posture offerings for people to interact. It's really more of a flexible hospitality suite to support interactions and creativity as well as enjoy the ability to work, learn and play together (i.e. from workshops to ping pong tournament). It really fosters a sense of creativity of how people can actively define their setting and better leverage participation and movement to best capture the dynamic process of design within our environment." -Mark Hirons, Principal, Design Director of Interiors, Cannon Design

"Seen through today's lens, the work environment is less about fixed items like walls, bricks, and mortar, but so much more about flexibility and agility. The furniture industry itself has really come to life from that respect. To be a designer today is to apply one's creativity in concert with solutions that allow for change over time. When our clients decide to take the leap in a new approach in office design, the solution will impact corporate culture and behavior, how space will be used. Having a Change Management program is essential to run concurrently with the design and construction of the new office space. This is a key component of designing 21st century environments. Buildings last 50 plus years, interior spaces have longevity of around 10-15 years before becoming dated, but technology changes every 12-18 months. Because technology is the backbone to how business is conducted, it must be considered and be integrated into the overall design concept. This too, will influence behavior and culture." -Angie Lee, Principal & Global Market Leader, VOA

"Even with corporate wellness programs already in place (i.e. healthier food options and onsite gym facilities), KI's research has shown that only those employees already subscribing to healthy practices and leading healthy lifestyles take advantage of such programs. It is paramount that we work proactively with our clients to plan spaces that inherently promote more active work environments." -Jonathan Webb, VP of Business Markets, KI Furniture