Workspace Design Show

26 – 27 February 2025 | Business Design Centre, London

Designing Workspaces that Promote Positive Employee Wellbeing through Empathy

In this article, the conversation between workplace design consultant Steve Brewer at Burtt-Jones & Brewer, Associate Director Mbali Chaise at iPWC Ltd, led by Vanessa Champion Editor and Publisher at the Journal of Biophilic Design, at the Workspace Design Show is discussed. The trio discusses how empathetic workplace design can positively impact employee wellbeing. The article explores how understanding the individual users of a workspace is the key to building empathy, which can lead to a more positive environment. It also touches on the importance of providing users with control over their space to tailor it to their individual needs. The article also highlights the importance of designing workspaces with the senses in mind and how engaging the workforce in the design process can result in a better, more effective workspace design.

Well, let’s start with clarifying what the term empathetic means.
“Empathetic: showing an ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
So how can design play a part in what sounds like something that is behavioural?

1. What do we mean by an “empathetic workplace?”
To build true empathy in the workspace, we need to dive deep into understanding who works there, how they interact, and the impact of those interactions.

Taking time to know and understand the individual users of the workspace is at the core of crafting successfully empathetic workspaces and positive employee wellbeing.

Questionnaires, surveys, workshops and interviews, are key engagement tools for establishing a good understanding of the people that will use a workplace. By truly listening to the end user’s desired workplace experience, are we able to open up a world where we create environments tailored to support everyone.

When we take the time to gain an understanding of an office culture, it serves as more than just knowledge – it allows others to see and gain better understanding of each other, allowing us to build bridges between ourselves and our colleagues. These are the pieces of the jigsaw that all need to come together within this work environment and creating an “empathethic workplace”.

2. We often speak about human-centric design. What design elements do you include that have a direct positive impact on the wellbeing and motivation of people using the space? Can you give us examples as well?

Choice and ‘tailorism’ is what users are looking for, they crave control over the spaces they are using. A true diversity of spaces enables users to select working environments which are best for them at any given time.

The built environment is typically a fixed thing.  Meaning, the windows don’t open because that will mess with the air-conditioning.  The lights come on, and go off.  If you’re lucky, you can choose how to make your own tea or coffee!

Working from home, which has increased more so over the years, where we all can open doors, turn the heating up, turn the lights on/off or angle that desktop light; has increased the desire to have the same type of flexibility and autonomy within the office workspace.

As we inch closer to having the perfect working environment at home, when in the office being able to tailor that experience down to lux levels and temperature to suit ourselves, on any given day is more challenging. There are elements that we can look at to enhance people’s wellbeing and motivation when in the office.

The more choice of alternative work settings that make up a workplace i.e quiet areas/rooms and improved acoustics throughout, the more supported the workforce will feel, thus leading to higher levels of wellbeing and motivation.

However we need to ensure the implementation of these additional types of spaces are well utilised and serve a purpose. For example if there is the implementation of a wellbeing room, then also ensure the culture and the companies community supports and encourages the use of such a room!  And it isn’t a token gesture of a poor quality room somewhere in the basement.

For ‘choice’ to succeed there must be a culture of trust, enabling users to utilise spaces without fear of judgement especially in relation to perceived lack of productivity.

3. Why is it important to design for the senses? 

We are all individuals. And without sounding too frank, each of us has something going on. This could be from a bad Monday morning thanks to a tough weekend, to neurodiversity, to a sensitivity to lighting levels, or someone that struggles to work in a noisy office (who doesn’t, let’s be honest.)

By considering the impact of each environment on neighbouring users, by having more choice of work settings, these will go someway to being able to offer a better working environment for each of us.

Cohesively zone spaces i.e collaboration, focus, quiet for example, will also help. But people are people, so design with grey areas to allow for flexibility, this ensures that a user’s impact on their colleagues has been taken into consideration.

Also if you think about it, all our senses are constantly stimulated, wherever we are, even when we are sleeping. Nothing has changed to our physiology since our lives on the plains thousands and thousands of years ago, we are still the same “animals”. If we think we can shut ourselves off from what should be our natural state of experiencing life: fresh air, nature sound, circadian light, wood and the sensation of touching natural materials and indeed real food taste, then we are setting ourselves up for failure. Mentally and physically.

4. I’d like to talk a little about your design processes? How do you go about designing a workplace? How much engagement do you encourage from the workforce at all the different levels?  Workshops; why is it important?

To build a good, solid, foundation for your design, we look to co-design with the people that are going to work within and engage with such a place..

But it’s not just about hearing what people would like in their newly designed place of work, but to help others understand that others are/will work from here too.  Where tailorism can fit it, but also where compromise may be needed culturally.

Running surveys and workshops with a good cross section of staff is a given.  Listening is great.  But so is ensuring that people understand why, that timelines have been set, along with feedback and goal setting.

Creating an overarching vision for the new workplace is a great thing to do. It helps the moral compass to stay on target when other factors are at play.

By creating user-journeys and role-analysis from the information gathered, we can then start to discuss the types of products, furniture and changes that could be made.  And then demonstrate the ratios of such items that will start to populate the office.

By co-designing the workplace, by including the people in the process of co-creation, you help them create a sense of ownership of the future space and futher buy-in to the changes that could be.

5. Some people in the audience may already be familiar with Biophilic Design, but for you, why is nature-inspired design an important one to help support employee wellbeing? 

From time immemorial we have been connected to the earth, to the land, to the wind, the rain, the sun, nourishing ourselves from the abundance of fruits and seeds around us, listening to the leaves rustle, watching the birds fly in formation above our heads as they head for different climes, feel the ice cold water in the rivers, or enjoy the grass beneath our feet as we sit and talk around a fire. As a species, humanity NEEDS a connection to nature. The most obvious way is by getting outside and communing directly with nature, a regular dose of nature does wonders for mental and physical health, general wellbeing and so many other aspects of our lives.

But we spend most of our lives inside, and particularly at work. If we are at the office, many workplaces are designed using the economy principle: who are our suppliers, what can we buy bulk and let’s standardise it all so it’s cheap and quick to install.

The thing is business owners are missing a trick.

If we as humans, are surrounded just by white walls, plastics, reflective surfaces, noise, and flickering fluorescent untunable lighting, the cacophony affects us physically, the glaring light affects us physically, the bland walls affect us physically. The result is that this physical effect, changes our emotional state, raises our blood pressure, our cortisol levels, we feel stressed, and it triggers our fight or flight mode. We find it hard to concentrate, be creative and productive and I don’t need to say the impact that then has on a business’ bottom line.

What we aim to do with Biophilic Design, is to create environments where people flourish. From all the extensive research carried out (Biophilic Design is one of the most quantified, qualified and evidenced design principles), we know that introducing that “feeling” of being outside into our built environment, helps us be our best selves.

We know that “10% of employee absences can be attributed to architecture with no connection to nature” [1]. Views of nature in healthcare we know leads to 8.5% shorter stays and a quicker recovery [2].

When we have views of nature, for instance movement of waves, leaves in a breeze, fish swimming in a fish tank, our attention is held, and our cortisol levels come down. Our wellbeing is improved, and we are happier.  Viewing nature is literally a pleasurable experience. In contrast, where we can see less visual richness these are processed in the “small forward portion of the visual cortex and trigger far fewer of the mu receptors, triggering less pleasurable mental reactions” [3].

We know that stress is a major cause of cardiovascular diseases as well as mental health disorders. What we seek to achieve with Biophilic Design is to create respite, relief, harmony so our brains are not distracted by sounds, views, light, textures that induce that flight or fight reaction within us that triggers the stress hormone that leads to negative mental health outcomes from psychiatric and stress/anxiety related illness. Studies show that our ability to directly access nature can alleviate feelings of stress, even our heart rate and blood pressure are at healthy levels, which further highlights the case for biophilia in the workplace [4].

[1] Terrapin Bright Green The Economics of Biophilia

[2] Ulrich, R. S. “View through a window may influence recovery from surgery” Science, Vol. 224. 1984.

[3] Biederman I, Vessel EA. “Perceptual pleasure and the brain.” American Scientist. 94:249–255. 2006

[4] Grahn, Patrik and Ulrika K. Stigsdotter. “The relation between perceived sensory dimensions of urban green space and stress restoration.” Elsevier Science Ltd., Journal of Landscape and Urban Planning. 264-275. 2010.