Monday, 4 May 2015

"Space Matters" - Part One

This is the initial post of a two-part blog about the workplace, inspired by the CIPD HR Leaders’ Network event on the topic.

“Space Matters” wise words from Neil Usher, the head of Workplace at Sky, who was the main speaker at last week’s CIPD HR Leaders’ Network evening.  Late last year I suggested to the CIPD that I bring together a collection of passionate advocates for workplace strategy as, increasingly, I am of the opinion that leaders (both in and outside HR) need to be mindful of the space and surroundings in which we expect people to perform and be productive. 

Selagas Cano Architects office, SpainPhoto by Iwan Baan
Our environment (be that at home or at work) has changed significantly over the past two decade and continues to evolve. Technology, transport, the manner in which we work, collaboration, project-based targets, generational expectations and capabilities – all of these have influenced the requirements and individuals’ expectations of the place in which we work.

Making a place accommodating and pleasant in which to work is certainly important – rudimentary necessities such as clean, accessible lavatories/broader wash room facilities, sufficient air, warmth, drinking water – are indeed a fundamental need. However, there are other quite basic requirements that all too frequently are ignored in deference to cost constraints. Personal, secure storage (especially as “hot desking” is popular, combined with flexible working practices, which often result in a change of clothing as a person moves from one environment to another), employees need somewhere to keep their possessions. 

Communal spaces are important – as Lynda Gratton says in her book Hot Spots, we are at times energetic, positive social animals and will congregate where we find a spark of energy (be that the water cooler, a vending machine, local watering hole or around popular colleague’s desk) if not given an area to meet and mingle we might miss out on enjoying the benefits of a Hot Spot’s energy. Many of our best and innovative ideas come from bouncing problems and concepts off others, not from sitting in isolation in a cubicle or “Brainstorming” at a boardroom table.

Intentional office Hot Spot

Another basic, but often ignored, human requirement is natural light – it is well known from numerous research studies that daylight enhances human health – workers exposed to daylight sleep, on average 46 minutes longer than their natural-light-starved colleagues and sleep has a huge impact of wellbeing, for example reducing stress levels. Yet according to research, by Mental Health Research UK, one in ten workers in the UK have no access to natural light at work and 30% of us leave before dawn and return after dusk during the winter months. 

Screen shot from The Apartment, 1960
No windows, no natural light, no colour, no view, no plants...
We instinctively know that daylight is good for us. SAD afflicts many during the dark winter months and can have serious ramifications – it is usually induced by a prolonged lack of exposure to natural light and yet 46% of European offices provide no natural daylight. Employers have a duty of care to their employees and, knowingly putting people into a situation that is bad for them is wrong. It took us a while to appreciate the harm from smoking and asbestos, I suspect that depriving people of natural daylight will be seen in a similar light in the future (excuse the pun).

De La Rue Technology Centre, Hampshire, UK
Daylight is not to be confused with sunlight. In a modern workplace sunlight can prove problematical, for example by having an adverse impact on heat, especially in offices with large expanses of glass, and the glare can make it hard to work (who hasn’t had problems trying to see a screen in direct sunlight and pulled down the blinds – thereby negating the positive efficacy of access to natural light?). However, these problems are due to our technology and not an individual’s needs. We require sunlight to produce Vitamin D (useful for healthy bones and teeth) and to encourage our bodies to create vital hormones, which regulate the internal clocks that influence our moods, appetites and energy levels. 

Komorebi (Japanese word meaning sunshine through leaves)
with credit to Jo Stephenson
I am writing this post while sitting in the garden – the sound of the birds, the warm sunshine on my skin and the scent of the blossom is wonderful. I can feel myself perking up just by sitting here. Fresh air and sunshine are good. It is proven that wounds heal more swiftly when exposed to daylight and sunshine (Florence Nightingale insisted that her Nightingale Wards had their long sides south facing, with a windows that could be opened between each single bed to let in the sunshine and fresh air - the ensuing Edwardian habit of wheeling the ill (especially those with Tuberculosis) and infirm in their beds out into the sunshine was less misguided than some of us believe.

Bed-ridden patients getting fresh air
City Hospital, early 1900s 
(Photo, City of Edinburgh Museums and Galleries Collection)
It took the threat of biological warfare to encourage two Ministry of Defence scientists, based at Porton-Down in the UK, to undertake research into the effect of sunshine and fresh air on bacteria. Henry Druett and K.R. May were concerned by what would happen if deadly pathogens were exploded over a major city – how long would the microbes remain a threat? To prevent the bacteria being blown away, they wound cobweb around a comb and dusted it with the common gut microbe, Escherichia coli. Some combs were placed in the open air on the rooftop and others placed beside them in a covered container. Much to the scientists’ surprise, the bacteria when exposed to sunshine and fresh air died within two hours, whereas the enclosed samples were still thriving and viable. This research might make us want rethink our attitude towards air conditioning. It is so easy for bacteria or fungi to breed in warm, sheltered spaces. I am aware of a couple of Directors severely poisoned by the unclean air pumped into their offices after aircon filters were not cleaned or replaced for a number of years – one’s lungs were reduced to those of  a 75 year old, despite being in her early 40’s and the other, who was not so swiftly diagnosed, has since not been able to take on full-time employment for nearly a decade. Increasingly employers will be held to account for putting employees’ health at risk.

Often found in Air Conditioning systems
While on the subject of nursing and health – nurses provide a great example as to how sensible workplace design can enhance employee health and wellbeing and also improve patient care. My grandfather, whom I have mentioned in an earlier blog about his involvement in the invention of the iron lung, was a medical professor, based out of Guy’s Hospital in London (which, by coincidence, is one of the hospitals in the Foundation Trust where I have the privilege of being a Governor). Early last century he undertook research into the amount of walking that a nurse does each day and found that over a third of the time spent at work involved walking, with just over half being dedicated to actual patient care. He argued that if you could reduce the amount of time getting to and from patients and the nursing station, pharmacy, etc… there would be more time for care. A similar study in the USA a little earlier this century came up with the same findings. At Guy’s and St Thomas’ we are trying to make the environment better for patients and staff. Simple changes, like moving a facility away from the noise and bustle of the public areas, has resulted in less mistakes and lives have been saved by transferring the intensive care ward from the top floor to closer to A&E at ground level – thereby reducing the time that a patient takes to reach required support and treatment – time wasted in a lift. Changing a workplace for the better does not require specialist knowledge – it just requires the application of common sense and an appreciation of the fact that “space matters”. But be mindful of Winston Churchill's words:
"We shape ours spaces and then they shape us."

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