Workplaces Made Purposely Wholesome
Wellness can be supported through many design techniques, all of which are valuable when working towards a healthy workplace return.
Approaches to workspace design focused on wellbeing, health, and inclusivity that were already in play prior to the pandemic have taken on new importance as we return to the workplace. The quest for work-life balance and wellness, expressed and experienced through the work environment, is top of mind as organizations define their new normal. A more human-centric space that meets users’ social and psychological needs is a powerful incentive for returning to the office, be it for work or team and culture building. What design considerations and means best contribute to these objectives? For IA, three approaches are strong contributors: biophilic design; feng shui; and inclusive design.
Bringing nature into the workspace through any of the 14 patterns of biophilic design remains a powerful strategy. Today, their expression, more sophisticated and abstract than in the past, goes well beyond the introduction of plants and green walls.
Case in point: to design the main lounge/café for a current on-the-boards-project for a Canadian headquarters, IA is drawing on the art of landscape architecture to fulfill the client’s request for a surprising and delightful venue that will attract staff back to the office. At the café entrance, pillars reimagined as trees, encased in parallel slats of bent wood, fan out as canopies at the ceiling. A clearly delineated circuitous garden path invites movement as it winds through a variety of organically shaped vignettes for dining and socializing. Distinct areas referencing outdoor venues — a night market patio; a picnic in the park; pergolas enhanced with string lights — are intentionally designed to accommodate the variety of seating preferences characteristic of a multiple-generation workforce.
Architectural screens that both define and shield areas create a touch of mystery. At either end of the longitudinal lounge/café, gaming rooms provide space for shared breaks and comradery. Supporting the overall theme of “World Food Fare” for this interior space, an indoor food truck offers choices from a variety of culinary traditions, alternating the menu between countries. Information boards about featured countries profile the healthy qualities and nutrition of their cuisine.
The IA Toronto studio’s expertise in the art and science of feng shui was applied to the design. Originating in ancient China and still popular there today, feng shui is the oldest form of evidence-based design. Focused on wellbeing and the relationship between a space or structure and its natural surroundings, feng shui aligns an array of factors including colour, material selection, images, shapes, and design elements to facilitate an optimum flow of energy and connection to nature. Used to inform the lounge/café design and determine design features within the floorplan, the principles of feng shui have been applied to multiple IA projects.
Recently, for the two-floor workplace in Toronto of a confidential bio-tech company focused on neurological diseases, a feng shui analysis determined the natural materials and colours used in various areas of the design. Two project features, among many, strikingly relate the interior to nature. A large grid of small irregular circles inspired by images of brain scans overlays a landscape photograph of a Canadian province. The effect is a surprising and subtle abstract of colour and texture. There are 10 such grids, one to celebrate each province and enhance conference room walls. The other feature, on the back wall of the stair connecting the two floors, is a mosaic made from three species of wood from Canadian forests, natural granite, and back-painted glass with LED strip lighting, inspired by looking into a canopy of redwood trees.
For workplaces in general, the importance of inclusive design cannot be overemphasized. There is now a renewed interest in shared social settings that speak to community and flexibility, as well as areas for collaboration. Clients are willing to spend more on these areas as the demand for personal space declines. Casual, warm, and inviting designs and furnishings are favoured to create a sense of wellbeing and inspire interaction. For hybrid workers who may only be in the office a few days per week, adding more phone and small meeting rooms accommodates heads-down work. A variety of space types allows for preferences, creating opportunities for mobility and choice, which many have grown accustomed to while working at home during the pandemic.
A curated approach to furnishings and design elements can add interest, warmth, and a sense of wellbeing to the work environment. For IA’s recent design of a new state-of the-art innovation hub, most furnishings are unique, whether custom or rescued from second-hand stores and repurposed or reupholstered. All were chosen to accommodate different body types and personalities from introverts to extraverts. The use of warm textiles and raw and refined textures complements the beauty of the vintage building’s original brick and timber structure.
But ensuring a variety of design gestures that support inclusivity across the workplace will require thoughtful and detailed attention. For example, careful consideration of font size and contrast in graphics, signage, and published guidelines, as well as clear visual cues like the well-marked garden path at the on-the-board cafe, will be important for users who may lack visual acuity.
At IA’s Toronto studio, biophilia, the application of feng shui principles, and a sensitive understanding of inclusive design inform processes as key approaches to nurture wellness and wellbeing at the workplace as we return to the office.
Beverly Horii, OAA, ARIDO, LEED AP, is managing director and principal; Lisa McDonald, ARIDO, LEED AP, is a workplace strategist associate at IA Interior Architects.