Human-centric design - It starts with people

13 May 2019  |  People  |  Design  |  News

Human-centric design is a term that’s tossed around pretty freely. Happy people are productive people, so everyone is talking about wellness and wellbeing and putting people first. But what does that actually mean?

It’s widely accepted that the workplace has a significant impact on employees’ health, morale and productivity. The WELL Building Standard has trailblazed a path to healthier offices that identifies seven key factors: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind.

It’s an acknowledgment that wellbeing depends on more than physical features such as ergonomic furniture, good lighting, unpolluted air and clean washrooms (important though these are).

It’s about proactively encouraging better health through the provision of fitness programmes and healthy eating opportunities, for example. And it’s about people feeling comfortable in their surroundings, whether that’s achieved through soothing colour schemes, programmes to tackle stress, or promoting a connection with nature.

Much of this, however, is alien to traditional working culture. It’s a strange idea to some that employers should consider the wellbeing of employees beyond providing a nice desk and chair, a decent canteen and adequate washroom. Even more strange that they should bother themselves with issues such as mental health, privacy, noise and emotional comfort.

But the truth is, the physical aspects of the workplace are only half the story. The most stylish, elegant and expensive design will do nothing for productivity if it fails to take account of all the factors that impact on people’s physical and mental wellbeing. However comfortable their chair, if someone feels stressed, bullied, excluded or simply distracted, they will not thrive and give of their best.

An office relocation, fit-out or refurbishment project is a golden opportunity to rethink the environment, conditions and culture within which the workforce is expected to perform. Human-centric design is about starting with the needs of the individual. And it’s a conversation that needs to happen at the outset of the process.

The organisation should consider the outcome it wishes to achieve and communicate that vision to those responsible for delivering the project. Close collaboration is essential if the consultant is to understand the client’s requirements. The better informed the consultant, the better able they are to advise on effective strategies and ultimately create a successful workspace.

Often the design will need to support a change in working practices. Agile working, for example, is about providing different settings that suit people’s task, mood or personality, allowing them to perform at their best. Problems with engagement, communication or isolation can be tackled by attractive social and breakout spaces allowing people to gather, chat and swap ideas.

An office layout can be designed to maximise opportunities to meet and connect. If noise and distraction is an issue in a busy open-plan space, this can be minimised by acoustic screens, privacy pods or the simple organisation of furniture. If there is an occasional need for events such as communal presentations or social gatherings, flexible space can be included adaptable for different functions. It’s about making the best use of the space available.

All of this should be considered alongside factors including aesthetics, HVAC, lighting, planting, and facilities promoting health and fitness. Staff need to be consulted at every stage – breakout furniture that looks great in a brochure will not be used if it is uncomfortable to sit on. Pods and meeting rooms will repel if the lighting is cold or unflattering. Younger workers in particular may want to be reassured of the sustainability credentials of the furniture and materials. People need to feel their opinions matter.

The culture of the organisation also needs to come under scrutiny. Do managers lead or control? Do conditions such as rigid working hours and dress codes lead to unnecessary stress? Is there support for struggling or troubled workers, or do they feel they have to suffer in silence? These are all aspects of the same whole.

 A good consultant will ask the often hard questions that will drive the project to a successful conclusion. They will assist with change management where the organisation accepts it needs to evolve. They will translate the client’s vision into a workplace where everyone feels safe, comfortable, and motivated. The ultimate WELL workplace.

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