Why office design is only the start

It’s a strange thought that 19th-century Australia might have had a more progressive attitude towards work-life balance than 21st-century employers. An old Australian workers’ ditty sums it up: ‘Eight hours to work, eight hours to play, eight hours to sleep, eight bob a day.’

Today’s employee can expect to earn considerably more than eight bob a day. But how many of us achieve such a healthy balance in our lives?

The eight-hour movement began in Melbourne when stonemasons building the new university downed tools and marched to Parliament House to demand a reduction in working hours. On 12 May 1856, 700 workers staged a public parade to celebrate their achievement of ‘eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest’.

This piece of history reminds us of something we’ve forgotten. Life should not be all about work. Of course work is an important part of our existence – it’s a source of income and status. It gives us purpose. But for many it has crowded out time that should be devoted to other needs – recreation, so we can relax and de-stress. And, of course, sleep. In this connected world, it has become difficult to switch off.

Something is wrong in our workplaces. The UK is notorious for its productivity gap – we still lag behind other developed countries. Our low levels of employee engagement have been identified by Cascade HR in its 2019 HR Landscape report as HR’s biggest challenge for the second year running.

We’re not happy at work – and it’s affecting our performance.

Many organisations are addressing the problem through enlightened workplace design. Progressive trends such as agile working are attempting to provide choice and diversity in the working environment. The WELL Building Standard has identified key features that impact on employee wellbeing. Offices have neighbourhoods, privacy pods and huddle rooms to cater for different tasks, different personalities and varying moods. And that’s all great.

But is it a mistake to focus solely on the place where work is carried out? Shouldn’t we be considering the entirety of an employee’s experience over a 24-hour period? A person whose mood and morale are affected by factors outside the office – a poor night’s sleep, a stressful commute, a problem with childcare, a sick partner, financial worries – will not perform well, however beautifully designed their surroundings.

The prevailing work culture does little to support people wrestling with life’s myriad problems, big and small (which is all of us). It tends to make it worse. We’re at the mercy of our own conditioning and ingrained beliefs. Is it really necessary, for example, to get up and go to work at the same time each day? How many of us fear being late – even when a delay is not our fault? How many feel pressured by dress codes or the need to present a certain appearance? How many are convinced our managers will have little sympathy for our problems? And how many feel the need to hide their stress and unhappiness behind a façade of coping – because that’s what we do in this country. We cope – until we don’t.

This is not an argument for taking an intrusive interest in every aspect of an employee’s life. It’s an argument for being aware of the stresses and strains that affect people, inside and outside the office. It’s an argument for training managers to lead and trust rather than dictate and control.

It’s about taking a holistic look at how to create a safe, supportive working environment that enables people to be the best they can be. From mental health and inclusivity initiatives to flexible working patterns, it’s very much within an employer’s remit. And an office move or workplace refurbishment is the perfect opportunity to begin the conversation that can lead to real change.


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