Want your employees to come back to the office? Rethink how your workplace impacts mental health

 When the pandemic forced many organizations to implement remote models in 2020, employees got a taste of greater freedom and flexibility in their careers—and they don’t want to go back to the office full-time.
 
At the end of 2020, Slack conducted a survey of 9,000 workers in six countries and found that 73 percent of respondents preferred a hybrid model, and only 12 percent preferred a full-time office setting.
 
Today, more than two years into the pandemic, a report from Pew Research says workers are staying home because they want to—not because they’re worried about exposure to the virus. Remote jobs are the careers of the future. As such, decision-makers at leading businesses are challenged with making the office environment a more welcome space.

Design Collaborative helped create the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership's space at 200 E. Main St., Suite 910A.
 
So what does it take to create a work environment where employees actually want to spend time? Design Collaborative, a leading architecture and design firm in Fort Wayne, has some ideas—and they all start with a focus on “people-first places.” Elliott
 
“We really want our designs to have a human element to them,” says Lauren Elliott, an Interior Designer and Workplace Market Leader at Design Collaborative. “We take a lot of pride in really getting to know our clients—learning what they do, who they serve, and how we can make a building function for them. Work is a huge part of our daily lives, and we want to design workplaces where employees can thrive.”
 
People-first places are a core tenet of Design Collaborative’s brand identity, and they don’t look like a stereotypical workplace. Instead, they consider the deeper needs of the workers who will inhabit the office as opposed to design that merely supports productivity.
 
In a post-COVID world, this often requires taking people’s mental health needs into account. Perhaps one positive outcome of the pandemic is the way it has forced employers and employees alike to recognize how the workplace impacts mental health and wellbeing.
 
Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report shows a marked increase in mental health awareness from 2019 to 2021. The most notable statistics in the report include:
·  In 2021, 76 percent of respondents reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition, a number up from 59 percent in 2019.
·  Eighty-four percent of respondents to the 2021 survey said at least one workplace factor had impacted their mental health.
·  An overwhelming 94 percent of respondents believe a company’s culture should support mental health.

In its work with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, Design Collaborative incorporated a “green wall” in the community breakroom to give employees a spark of color.
 
Now that people have a greater awareness of their own mental health needs, they also have higher expectations for their places of work. According to a survey by McKinsey & Company, 49 percent of people anticipate going back to the office will negatively impact their mental health. Elliott says employers who want to inspire employees to be on-site may need to make some unconventional decisions.
 
“There are so many elements of the workplace that can impact our mental health,” says Elliott. “Access to natural light, the way a space is set up, the level of noise in an office—those simple things add up.”

In its work with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, Design Collaborative incorporated a “green wall” in the community breakroom to give employees a spark of color.
 
Amber Eberly, a Marketing Coordinator at Design Collaborative echoes Elliott’s assessment that the pandemic has been “a huge catalyst for employers making changes in their offices to improve their team’s mental health.” Both Eberly and Elliott have seen a recent revolution in the workplace, and they believe there are plenty of factors employers can consider to improve the mental health of on-site employees, like adding more flex space to offices.
 
“When people work from home, they can choose where they want to be,” says Elliott. “You can work in a lounge chair, at a desk, at the island in your kitchen, or just about anywhere else. One of the big challenges for employers now is replicating that in their office spaces.”

In its work with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, Design Collaborative incorporated a “green wall” in the community breakroom to give employees a spark of color.
 
Before the pandemic, many workers used desktop computers, making it hard to move around and get a change of scenery. Now, having experienced more flexibility in a remote environment, people want the same experience in the office. Providing employees with laptops so they can have the freedom to work where they want is a simple way to make the workplace more inviting. Eberly
 
“Furniture is a huge piece of making the office feel more like home,” says Eberly. “In our projects, we’re seeing a lot less ‘owned’ spaces and more ‘shared’ spaces. With many employers moving to a hybrid model, they have the freedom to create a more collaborative, lounge-like office.”
 
Residential-style furniture, such as couches and comfortable chairs, is growing in popularity as offices begin to implement more community spaces for their teams. In a recent renovation at Abridge Pointe, a strategic investment firm in Downtown Fort Wayne, Design Collaborative put this new trend into practice by opening up a former conference room and repurposing it into a larger gathering spot.
 
“We chose the furniture specifically to give the building a modern, homey feel,” says Eberly.

In a recent renovation at Abridge Pointe, Design Collaborative opened a former conference room and repurposed it into a larger gathering space.
 
The Abridge Pointe renovation also incorporates another important feature of a healthy space: access to natural light.
 
“When people work from home, they have complete control over their lighting,” says Elliott. “In a bigger workplace, it’s harder to control that. A lot of places have harsh overhead lighting or basement office spaces with no good light at all.”

Lighting plays a key role in how people interact with places.
 
One of the best ways to give workers more autonomy is to provide personal lamps—or even invest in an outdoor courtyard space where employees can have more access to fresh air and sunshine.
 
In its work with the Indiana Michigan Power Center’s Corporate Headquarters in Fort Wayne, Design Collaborative installed glass walls wherever possible to maximize access to natural light. The glass also added an element of openness to office spaces, making the entire setup more inviting. Additionally, the Design Collaborative team designed a fitness studio for employees that overlooked the outdoors, combining the physical influence of working out with the psychological influence of natural light to improve overall wellbeing.

At Indiana Michigan Power Center’s Corporate Headquarters in Fort Wayne, Design Collaborative designed a fitness studio for employees that overlooks the outdoors.
 
Not all office spaces have windows on every wall or outdoor spaces, but there are other ways to connect people with the outdoors. In its work with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, Design Collaborative incorporated a “green wall” in the community breakroom to give employees a spark of color. There are also various plant species throughout the office, which have been proven to reduce psychological and physiological stress.
 
“Biophilia is a term we hear a lot,” says Elliott. “Bringing plant life into the office reinforces that feeling of being connected to the outside world.”
 
Ultimately, to make offices more inviting, employers need to be prepared to meet the wide-ranging needs of their workers.
 
“It’s always important to remember that what one person wants isn’t universal,” says Elliott. “The way I work may not be the same as the person next to me.”
 
For today’s employers, creating a diverse experience for rest—whether that’s a private room, a fitness area, a couch, or something else—is what will add appeal to working on-site.

This story was underwritten by Design Collaborative.