Wellbeing in research environments: an opportunity for innovation?

Science lead, Briony Lumb looks at how a different approach to design can help innovation and productivity...

One lab brief is too frequently an improved version of the last. That’s often the outcome when it comes to specifying or scoping out a new facility for a growing operation. Briefs are often quantitative, not qualitative: this many square feet, that many power points, that many desks. Providing workspace is the goal.

This process does not support any research organisations goals to enable their people to be the best that they can be. The difference design can make to a team’s wellbeing, contentment and productivity is often not clearly communicated in the project brief. As more and more experimentation and processing becomes automated, researchers spend less time in a controlled laboratory environment and more time in the adjoining office space, which can often make up 50% of the facility.

A change of approach

What would happen if more thought was given to what is needed to create a really great work environment beyond the strict laboratory conditions? One that factors in views to the outside, colour scheme, clean air and access to daylight? By putting the same type of people together in the same places similar outcomes will be generated. How can we truly enhance people’s ability to innovate?

Recent research from global workplace experts demonstrates the difference workplace design focused on human wellbeing can make to staff happiness - and then productivity.

The American-devised WELL Building Standard is the BREEAM of the better workplace, the first methodology to be focused exclusively on “ways that buildings, and everything in them, can improve our comfort, drive better choices, and generally enhance, not compromise, our health and wellness.”

Do the numbers back this up? Real estate firm, CBRE, used WELL Building Standard to create their Los Angeles HQ. Guided by seven principles including “light,” “fitness,” “mind” and “comfort”, the HQ features air filtration systems, sound damping walls, VOC-free paints, water purification, ergonomic desks and chairs, biophilic plantings, energy absorbing flooring and smart lighting systems.

Employee survey results were impressive; 83% felt more productive; 87% said where they worked helped them generate business; and 94% said the new space had improved their business performance.

Performance-enhancing design

From what I have seen in Willmott Dixon buildings in the UK, a well-designed workplace can bring about a profound increase in company performance.

It’s about incremental changes based upon a deep understanding on how people can be their best, such as giving your team a high quality fit-out, natural light, access to a gym, coffee shop in reception, collaborative break-out space or cluster-points, showers and cycle racks. Priorities are flexible, with less formal spaces and an emphasis on attractive co-working areas. And where connectivity is excellent to allow agile working, offices must be compatible with 5G communication.

These improvements represent a nominal increase in CapEx but will make a big difference in attracting and retaining good people in this increasingly competitive jobs market.

Science park operators and investors should create facilities guided not just by innovation, look and layout, but also take full account of human-led factors. That way, increased productivity and loyalty of employees will help maintain the UK’s role as a science world leader.