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How office design can help people to be happy in work and their personal lives

Posted on May 20, 2014 by Charles Marks

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Has there ever been a government more interested in work and the workplace than this one? The Cabinet Office issues regular pronouncements on the procurement, design and environmental performance of property. And when the Government came into office, one of its first tasks was to promote a Happiness Index, the announcement for which the Prime Minister peppered with references to flexible working, balance and control. The next annual happiness report from the Office for National Statistics is due very soon and hopefully will build on last year’s which saw the proportion of people rating their life satisfaction as seven or more out of 10 rose from 75.9 per cent to 77.0 per cent.

All of this focus on workplace, wellness and happiness marks a significant shift for governments in the UK who have typically been more interested in the big economic indicators such as GDP rather than the little ones like GWB (general wellbeing). There are problems of course, not least in measuring and defining what we mean when we talk about such nebulous ideas. Happiness is a very subjective notion and we all have our own ideas on how to achieve it.

But the idea of measuring it does have some heavyweight intellectual backing, not least from the Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. It has also attracted the interest of other countries. It is not only a very Zeitgeist-y idea but one that is backed up by the hard facts. What drives us and makes us happy isn’t money. Lack of money may make us unhappy, but once we’ve sorted that out, we need something more that cannot be measured in pounds and pence. This was the subject of a recent animated presentation sponsored by the Royal Society of the Arts, which you can see here.

Where the workplace is concerned this switch is largely a question of moving from a negative mindset based on the costs of doing (or not doing) certain things to one that balances that against the benefits of doing them.  For example, workplace designers, facilities managers and everybody else with a vested interest have been trying to argue for years that the office has an impact on organisations and the people who work for them. This is an argument that works on many levels:

–          The intuitive; our surroundings influence the way we feel about ourselves, the way we function, the way we are perceived.

–          The financial; the office for most organisations is the second most expensive operating cost behind people so you need to make the most of it.

–          And the prescriptive; if you don’t do this with your office, you’ll get sued or prosecuted.

Yet, it is this final idea that many people focus on too much. If you just take the issue of stress, you can see how this works. The debate about stress is couched in terms of ‘how much it costs the UK economy’ which is fine but – without getting into the wider debate about stress – ignores the idea that you can also move the debate the other way.  Instead of eliminating this cost to get to some neutral position, what happens if you make people happy at work? What happens if you look at the benefits associated with good management and design? What happens if you think positively?

We have the information and the examples we need to take this debate to the next level. We also have the spirit of the times on our side based on the pronouncements of the Government and Nobel Prize-winning economists. It’s especially important in the present economic climate where there is so much focus on cutting costs that we are also able accentuate the positive wherever possible and make the business case for strong and enlightened office design and management to make us more productive, healthy and happy.