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Sep 14, 2023 | by Dr. Sophie Keller Ph.D

Creating thriving work environments: prioritising wellbeing in workplace design

The settings and surroundings we work in matter, with our physical environment influencing wellbeing, creativity and productivity. Environment is a vital element in our five key drivers of workplace wellbeing evidence informed framework.

Here, Dr Sophie Keller discusses her research into workspace design to promote wellbeing, describing her approach to identifying and practically applying wellbeing principles in a realworld office redesign.


The research responds to a new generation of workers who desire to feel positive about blending work and home life. To encourage workplace attendance, in a new post covid hybrid working context, we must design spaces that both promote productivity and foster wellbeing.

I used wellbeing principles and flow theory as the conceptual basis for the physical design of a workspace. Part of my study involved undertaking literature research, surveys and interviews, which were underpinned by my lived experiences, including six years of ethnographic research, examining individuals behaviours and movements around workspaces and a 20 year career in the lifestyle field.

The approach

The goal was to understand what works, in order to create a workspace that enhances work productivity, and boosts physical and psychological wellbeing.

The overarching research questions were:

  1. Can wellbeing principles be identified and validated to be physically embodied in the construction of a workspace?
  2. How can these principles be effectively implemented in practice?

I identified seven core themes to underpin my work, informed by experience and research in workspace design, happiness, and wellbeing; including the evidence informed five ways to wellbeing:

  1. Cultivate intimacy and connection (to connect)
  2. Prioritise mind, body and health (to be healthy)
  3. Choose flow experiences (to foster flow)
  4. Embrace the present moment (to take notice)
  5. Foster lifelong learning (to learn)
  6. Practice generosity (to give)
  7. Harness thoughtful environmental design (to be environmentally sensitive)

These seven principles were narrowed down to the four most relevant ones, related to the physical design and build of a workspace:

  1. To connect
  2. To be healthy
  3. To foster flow
  4. To be environmentally sensitive

Other principles such as ‘to give’ and ‘to learn’ apply more to what happens day-to-day in a workplace, rather than the physical layout itself and so were not included. While ‘to take notice’ was incorporated into ‘to be environmentally sensitive’.

I did not find evidence that principles such as these had been used before when building a workspace, with wellbeing substantially integrated into the design from the beginning.

Linking wellbeing principles to physical design

When looking at the physical manifestations of these principles in a workspace, it became clear that they overlap and interact. For example:

Ergonomic Chair = Flow + Health

Window View = Flow + Environmental Consciousness + Health

Noise = Disruption of Flow + Health Impact (stress) + Relationship Conflict

Creating a four-factor model

The principles were then translated into a four-factor model to facilitate implementation and help determine actual design and construction:

  • Balance privacy and noise – have a combination of private offices and soundproof booths – to improve focus and reduce disruption – and open spaces – to support collaboration, information flow and camaraderie.
  • Cater to diverse work styles – create multi-location work experiences through distinct active and quiet zones, allowing employees to choose their ideal work setting or location based on the nature of their tasks or their mood at any given time.
  • Prioritise space, light, and views – research shows that exposure to natural light in workplaces can enhance employee vitality and improve sleep, underscoring the importance of our connection to nature for overall wellbeing. 
  • Craft a nurturing environment – inspire warmth and health, cultivating an atmosphere that nurtures inspiration through, for example, ergonomic furniture to encourage movement and varying postures.

This model was a guiding blueprint for constructing the Westside Village Workspace in Los Angeles, USA. The result was a workspace that met practical needs but also promoted wellness and productivity.

A collage of four photos. Two are from before the office redesign and the spaces are poorly lit and separated by cubicles. Two are from after the redesign and spaces are more open, well lit and created for joint as well as lone work.

Before (left) and after (right) photos from the Westside Village workspace redesign

This user-centred design approach emphasises spatial diversity and user autonomy.

To assess the impact of the wellbeing informed redesign, semi-structured interviews and surveys were conducted to understand how people experienced the space and ranked the principles.

‘To flow’ was valued the highest, taking priority over health and connection. Achieving ‘flow’ is influenced by numerous personal and environmental factors. It is both a contributor to and a product of other principles.

‘To be healthy’ + ‘To connect’ + ‘To flow’ + ‘To be environmentally sensitive’ = ‘Enhanced flow’. 

This formula underscores the importance of a holistic approach to workspace design, whereby multiple elements work together. Consequently wellbeing serves as the primary catalyst in shaping the design.

Conclusions and recommendations

This research into integrating wellbeing in workspace design has shown that prioritising employee wellbeing and fostering a state of flow are imperative for creating thriving work environments. 

The study also separates out the parts of wellbeing at work that can be built into the environment and which bits are cultural, for example learning or social events that can be added on separately.

How to apply research in practice

Theory of change:

  1. Assess current environments
  2. Identify areas for improvement
  3. Implement changes
  4. Evaluate impact and iterate

Understanding the preferences and needs of workspace users is essential, involving them in design decisions through consultation and collaboration.

Through my study, I was able to recommend specific strategies to guide practitioners and policymakers in formulating more effective workspace layouts:

  • Diversification of spatial utilisation and spatial diversity – create a variety of zones and functions to accommodate different tasks and styles of working.
  • Acoustic considerations – ambient music, sound dampening/ proofing.
  • Biophilic design elements and natural light – windows, plant life, natural materials.
  • Ergonomics – investment in adjustable, ergonomic furniture such as chairs with good lumbar support and if possible standing desks which could cater to diverse postures and promote mobility.
  • Aesthetic considerations – colour and artistic elements can impact mood and provide visual interest.
  • Health and recreational provisions – the availability of health-oriented amenities such as fitness rooms, meditation spaces or spaces for relaxation.

These recommendations are suggestions and may not always be possible or relevant in every workplace; different contexts, budgets and practical considerations might make them less applicable. However, the four principles and four factor model could be relevant to any workplace design or redesign, and may help with productivity, flow, and overall wellbeing. 

It is achievable to create spaces where individuals can thrive, creativity can flourish, and success can be redefined in the context of wellbeing.

Further resources

The Centre has resources and information to support workplace wellbeing:

Explore more workplace wellbeing resources.

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