Our chairs are killing us, but that’s just the start. Why it’s time to re-think the entire office

There is a workplace where employees can drop off dry cleaning onsite and chat with an in-house doctor before arriving at their desks. Low on cash, they can hit the ATM on the way to the onsite convenience store, or go to the gym for a mid-morning break. There’s no cafeteria here, not in the traditional sense. Lunch options, cooked daily, might include Argentinian flank steak panini, tartufo pizza with fontina cheese and truffled mushrooms, or curried squash and apple bisque with leeks. This can be eaten in the atrium, or at a desk, which is nice and bright thanks to glass curtains on all four sides of the building.

That’s not all. Sore neck? Call the staff ergonomist to assess and adjust your workspace. (If the massage chair didn’t provide relief.) Need groceries? Order them online and they’ll be ready for an end-of day pickup by the back exit. A need for a stroll can be satisfied with a walk around a pond out front, naturally. And it’s a place to return on the weekend, if you’ve got the onsite volleyball court booked for a kid’s birthday party.

Short of a round of ping-pong, and a zip through the office on a Segway, it sounds like a campus in Silicon Valley, filled with millennials doing techy things. It’s the stuff Fast Company pages are made of. The stuff most of us will never experience as we bang our elbows against the broken armrests of our desk chairs for the 156 thousandth time.

But this place is in Brampton, Ont., and it is Loblaw’s 51,000-square-metre headquarters, daytime home to 3,000 employees. The company’s mission is to help Canadians “Live Life Well,” and as a purveyor of groceries and nutritional products it makes sense that it offers staff not only hot meals but a holistic approach to workplace wellness. Beyond the gym — a fully functioning Goodlife that’s home to a yoga studio — there’s a reflection room for meditation and prayer, an outdoor herb garden, and car pool service.

Since moving to this new campus six years ago — a consolidation of several regional spaces  — employee satisfaction rates have increased from 45 per cent to “over 80 per cent,” says Mark Wilson, executive vice-president of human resources. And employee benefit is company benefit, since job satisfaction affects every company’s bottom line.

Loblaw offers a stark contrast to the typical office, with stale air, fluorescent lights and dilapidated furniture. While it may not be reasonable to expect every company to reshape itself in the grocery chain’s image — not everyone can design a forward-thinking, wellbeing-centric environment from scratch in the suburbs — it’s a useful model for how to think about the places we gather to work as more than just an assemblage of desks we sit at to get things done.

Poor workplace design takes a physical toll: Sitting is making us miserable. Canadians, on average, spend 37 hours a week at work, and the more one sits, the higher his or her risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and death. Sitting has been branded the new smoking, but the average workplace facilitates sedentariness with long hours in front of a screen, and provides few reasons to get up and stretch one’s legs. The beige, grey or, worse, beige-grey boxed-in desks don’t do much to inspire. On top of this, working under fluorescent light lowers cortisol levels, which leads to increased stress and tiredness.

Yoga classes and good snacks may sound gratuitous, but they’re not. A healthy and happy workforce is a productive workforce. The Society for Human Resource Management suggests that poor employee wellbeing can cost a company between 25 per cent to 35 per cent of its payroll. An employer that ignores its staff’s wellbeing is also ignoring productivity and the bottom line. From increased natural light to an onsite naturopath, there are many ways to improve an office, whether it’s a rebuild from the ground up, or retrofitting an existing space to be more worker-friendly. The time is now to create offices that don’t just house employees but service them, offices that don’t just offer a medical plan but foster a culture of wellbeing and offer a medley of features that make going to work a healthy and happy experience.

The history of the office has always been something of a tug of war between productivity — the demands of the employer — and the wellbeing of the employees, though in the early days, the employee needs didn’t much factor in to the equation.

In the counting house of yore, one would typically find an accountant or lawyer, for instance, and his clerk as the only two employees in an office. The word “office” replaced “counting house” in the 1830s. In the latter half of the 19th century, several industrial innovations — construction of taller buildings, thanks to the development of iron frames (1860); elevators in buildings (1871); Remington typewriter introduced to offices (1875); Bell patenting the telephone (1877); filing cabinets in U.S. offices (1880s) — meant that administrative (a.k.a. white-collar) work could be done by more people in smaller spaces.

But with more people come more opportunity for distraction. In 1898, Bethlehem Iron Co., in Bethlehem, Pa., hired Frederick Taylor to study workplace efficiency. Paranoid that workers wouldn’t work unless they knew the boss was watching, he created spaces in which employees toiled in the open under the watchful eyes of their managers who looked on from private offices. Employees would essentially be scared into working, thus ensuring maximum productivity. Taylor is known as the grandfather of North American office design.

In the late 1920s and early ’30s, concerned that office workers were planning to unite under unions and ask for higher salaries, the U.S.-based National Office Management Association decided that designing better offices would ward off disgruntled employees. The first major office design rethink in 30 years resulted in cleaner, better-lit spaces with natural light from more windows. Also at this time: air conditioning was first introduced in American workplaces in 1928, and 1933 saw the introduction of glass walls in offices.

Meanwhile, office towers were climbing toward the sky and being designed with the rental rate per square foot — rather than workplace health or function — as priority. In Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, Nikal Saval writes about the rise of the skyscraper: “The point was not to make office buildings per specification of a given company, but rather to build for an economy in which an organization could move in and out of a space without difficulty. The space had to be eminently rentable.”

In the 1950s and ’60s, offices doubled in depth, thanks to brighter, cooler spaces created by fluorescent bulbs and suspended ceilings. Another significant addition to offices at this time: giant computers. Thanks to these innovations, again employers found that more people could do more work in less space. Also in the 1960s: A U.S. government tax break made writing off depreciating assets a much easier thing to do. As a result, employers were happy to be rewarded come tax time by buying cheaper furniture more often, so actual offices with four walls and a door housing large wooden desks with filing cabinets gave way to open, malleable desk space, a.k.a. the cubicle.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the cubicle, or the Action Office, a creation of Robert Propst, who headed the research division of workplace design firm Herman Miller. In 1964, he debuted a colourful, dynamic space with a standing desk and little in the way of storage because Propst believed if you were filing things away, you probably didn’t need them. It was remarkable and ahead of its time; the Action Office didn’t sell. In 1968, Propst toned down the dynamism — the Action Office II eliminated the standing desk — and enclosed the workspace with three movable walls. Over the past five decades those walls have become more structured, and the space within them smaller.

According to the Houston-based International Facility Management Association, the average office worker in 2010 had 75 square feet of space, down from 90 in 1994. What was meant to liberate, trapped. “His optimism would be his undoing,” Saval writes of Propst. Ours, too. Because so little has changed in office design since then, unless you’re one of the lucky ones who works for a dot-com or Loblaw and its ilk, you’re probably feeling the walls of your cubicle close in on you.

“More office workers switching to fetal-position desks.” “HR sends out reminder email about not scrawling ‘revenge’ in blood in conference room.” “Health experts recommend standing up at desk, leaving office, never coming back.” “Obama still hasn’t figured out how to adjust height of Oval Office desk chair.” “They finally built George Constanza’s sleeper desk.”

Only one of these headlines is from a source that’s not the satirical newssite The Onion — the sleeper desk is real, though just at the prototype stage; a design by architecture firm Studio NL, based in Koropi, Greece — but they’re funny because there’s an element of truth to them all. While part of the issue with working is that you have to work, sometimes with people who drive you nuts, sometimes doing tasks that bore you to tears, the limitations of the physical spaces in which we do this work contributes to the desire to curl up in the fetal position, vandalize, or walk away without ever looking back.

As the public has become more focused on healthy lifestyles, there’s a greater awareness of the effect of space on those who occupy it. But despite industry conversations about improvements that can be made to work spaces, little has changed during the past 50 years. “We all understand that place matters but there’s a disconnect in the workplace,” says Rex Miller, a Texas-based management consultant and co-author of Change Your Space, Change Your Culture, a book published last year about the effect of workplace design on engagement and productivity.

In part, he blames this on the design industry itself. In 2012, Miller attended a conference and sat in on a seminar about the “2020 workplace.” In it, the presenters spoke about lighting and air quality, ergonomics and power distribution. “These were the same topics being talked about in the 1980s,” Miller says. “There is no good work on the relation of space and workplace culture.” No wonder there’s been so little change, he thought, executives are being told the same old thing. This was the reason he decided to write Change Your Space.

Creating a better, wellness-oriented environment for employees doesn’t automatically mean investing in new furniture or tearing down walls. Things like flexible work hours, communal lunch spaces and bring-your-dog-to-work days go a long way to making employees feel valued and amenable to being in the office — and make the workplace a more interesting place to be.

And spending on infrastructure and programming to improve workplace culture and well-being is returned, according to research from the Healthways Center of Health Research, via increased job performance, fewer unscheduled absences, lower presenteeism (going to work while sick) and lower medical costs.

Because of the costs involved, most workplace redesigns — which include everything from desks to bicycle storage lockers to juice bars — are usually brought on by a corporate milestone, says Miller. Loblaw’s headquarters and its wellness initiatives came to be — at a cost of more than $50 million — when it amalgamated offices spread throughout the Greater Toronto Area and Southern Ontario, with some employees coming on board from a regional office in Calgary.

Similarly, when Corus Entertainment consolidated its operations in 2010, it devoted considerable energy to designing the space with employee benefit in mind. One of the country’s largest media companies with radio, television and publishing divisions, Corus placed 1,100 employees spread over 11 different locations in one central headquarters on Toronto’s waterfront.

It’s culture as much as cost that limits imagination when it comes to office design.  Corus approached the task of designing its workspace with principles of inclusion at its core. On the surface, its workspaces look like typical, albeit spacious, low-rise cubicles. But, on closer inspection, all desks have proximity to natural light. The centre of each floor, where it’s darkest, is filled with electrical and maintenance rooms, stairwells and editing suites — areas that either don’t need light or that aren’t meant for working. Each floor has a large kitchen area with seating, and the third floor has an employee lounge  with couches. There is actually a giant slide that deposits slidees to a common area on the first floor where all-staff meetings are often held. Here, one wall of glass faces Lake Ontario, and another side of the room houses a five-storey bio-wall, a vertical garden that purifies the air.

“Collaboration was key” when the company was making decisions about its new office, says Kathleen McNair, executive vice-president of human resources for Corus employees. Everyone from the CEO to administrative support had input into how the office would look and function. Each department created its own protocols for how it would work in the new space, which included issues with noise and smelly lunches. The employees of one department, for instance, have mutually agreed to ban sardines in the shared kitchen. “The goal was to get buy-in and engagement from all staff at all levels,” says McNair.

Not everyone’s going to have this kind of blank slate to work with. Vera Gisarov, senior associate with the Toronto-based architecture and interior design firm Quadrangle, says that to really have an impact on employee wellness, and therefore productivity, changes need to be implemented in batches. You can offer “desk flexibility, with standing or sitting options,” she says, but employers will also want to think about adding “healthy snacks and lunches, in-office massages, in-office yoga or fitness classes.”

“The average employee is looking for a lot more in their employer,” Gisarov says. “(Job satisfaction) is not about salary anymore. It’s about the other options that the employer is giving. Is it closer to my house or can I lock up my bike there or what kind of social programs do they have? There’s a lot more to it these days.”

Successful wellness-oriented workplace design is more than just about the dollars spent, it’s about leveraging the unique characteristics of an individual office. There are three key things to consider when planning a healthy, happy office, says Miller: the work being done, the voices in the decision-making process, and what’s happening in the outside world.

“The way most companies are structured, the people making the decisions are disconnected from the work that gets done,” he says. As a result, architects and designers end up in the role of organizational development. Miller cites a recent transition by commercial real estate company CBRE, which went from having four types of work venues (private offices, cubicles, small conference rooms and large meeting spaces) to 16 different venues after executives asked themselves, “What’s the actual work being done here?”

Though he admits to being pessimistic about the evolution of workplaces, in his own book research Saval found that extending a sense of control to employees was as important to productivity as culture and effective workplace design. “Even flatter organizations are bureaucratic. Decisions aren’t up to the individual worker, and this extends to design,” he says.

When Corus was combining its dozen offices under one roof, the entire staff was surveyed about everything from food offerings to chairs, and voted on model work stations. Employees were given points that they could use to “buy” things to customize their workstations, whether it be a hook for a coat or a desk drawers on wheels that can also be used as a stool. A fitness boot camp and yoga classes were launched, as well as a weekly delivery of fresh fruit. As a result, employee engagement (measured via companywide surveys in which employees are asked questions such as “Would you recommend Corus as a place to work?”) increased to 83 per cent from 77 per cent before the move, and productivity in its radio and television divisions jumped by 10 per cent.

A broader move toward changes like these is slow, but it’s happening. Last year saw the launch of the International Well Building Institute, a U.S. industry organization devoted to wellness-centred building design. Established along the same lines as (and working in conjunction with) the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standard, the WELL Building Standard certifies buildings that optimize “air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind” for their occupants.

WELL works with spaces being built from the ground up as well as improvements in spaces already housing tenants. In ranking buildings, it looks at everything from smoking bans to sound barriers; operable windows to the promotion of drinking water; spaces for physical activity to stress and addiction treatment. The thought is that prospective employees will consider a company’s WELL certification the same way they’ll look at bicycle storage facilities and flex hours. Though currently only U.S. companies can apply for the certification, Gisarov says she is already looking into how it will apply to her work in Canada.

We spend upward of 90 per cent of our time indoors, and The International Well Building Institute is a testament to the knowledge that design, operations and behaviour are intricately linked. If there is a desire to improve one, the others must be considered as well. An office can have all the standing desks in the world, but if they are not inherently connected to the corporate culture and fostering workplace well-being, office life, engagement and productivity will still be miserable.

When it comes to improving a work environment, making the space one in which employees want to be, the options are vast — from potted plants to ping-pong tables, brighter spaces to bagged groceries. The key to making them work, and realizing increased employee wellness and productivity from them, is to ensure that whatever implemented is organic to the organization and can be adapted to evolving needs. “Cultivating a workplace culture is like cultivating a garden,” says Miller. “It’s never finished.”

This story ran in the National Post (January 2, 2016)