Guest post by Nishar Fatema, Space Matrix

Header image: Ascendas Plaza bridge+, Shanghai

The annual corporate retreat, the company gym, nap pods — for the past few years, all of these played a huge role in promoting employee wellbeing and keeping up morale. However, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of these are being reimagined.

Of course, workplace wellbeing programs cannot be done away with altogether. When you consider the mental and emotional toll of the last few months, looking after employee health and wellbeing is more important than ever before. But now that employees define wellness very differently now, what will workplace wellbeing mean in the coming days?

Here are 5 ways wellbeing programs will have to be updated.

1. Becoming less location-specific

Given that many companies will be looking at making remote work a bigger part of their everyday functioning, workplace wellbeing cannot be limited to onsite options anymore. Organizations will need to make wellness resources available to those working from elsewhere too.

In the company workspace, employees have access to a variety of places to work from through the day. In stark contrast, working from home will most likely mean that they are restricted to one desk all day. The first step then, is to help them set up an ergonomic home office that’ll take care of their physical health. One great option is to redirect some of the operational cost savings to wellbeing allowances for each employee. Some people might be unsure of the right kind of furniture and technology to invest in. Offering expert design guidance in addition to an allowance may be necessary to help them sidestep health and posture-related issues a few months down the line.

When it comes to fitness, organizations can look at providing access to online workout classes and video sessions. Subscriptions to fitness apps, step trackers, movement reminders and screen time controllers can make for other great wellbeing offerings. Providing on-demand, remote access to experts like physical trainers and chiropractors can also help people stay healthy as they navigate this new normal.

2. Focusing more on mental health

With most people experiencing isolation, uncertainty and anxiety, companies are supporting their employees with great mental health policies. Often, firms start simple, hosting mindfulness and meditation sessions, reimbursing employees for subscriptions to mental health resources, and sending out regular reassurances and company updates from the senior management. Additionally, offices are incorporating biophilic elements, indoor greenery, and sunlit outdoor work areas to offer employees a soothing, welcoming environment to work from.

Space Matrix, Shanghai

Having access to professionals like therapists and counsellors at work is going to become more important in the coming months and employers should create a dedicated space for in-house therapy sessions. These spaces will need to be soothing, comfortable and above all, acoustically managed for optimum privacy. Of course, remote access to such professionals will also be necessary, so that people who are working from home can enjoy the benefits too. Many companies are already adding mental wellbeing breaks to their existing sick leave policies. Encouraging people to use them when needed will go a long way in normalizing mental health conversations in the workplace.

3. Encouraging communities around workplace wellbeing

Previously, health and fitness strategies were more individual-focused, with people going to the gym when they had a free hour or heading to the nap room when they needed a break. Now, however, community-oriented wellbeing strategies are more common, as they are designed to help employees stay connected despite being physically apart.

Apart from improving workplace engagement, group fitness activities help for another reason — health resolutions work better when people are accountable to one another. For instance, while a step tracker alone might not be enough to motivate people to get up and about, hosting a daily step challenge is likely to prompt friendly competition among team members. Similarly, group nutrition targets can be more engaging rather than individual reminders. Non-fitness related options can include book clubs, game nights and movie nights aimed at helping people connect based on shared interests.

4. Addressing health and nutrition

As people return to the office after months, they may be anxious about safety and hygiene. You can put uneasy minds at rest by being more demonstrative and visibly practicing updated health and safety protocols. This can start with health screenings and temperature checks right at the entrance, along with hygiene kits being handed out as people enter the space.

From a space planning point of view, update the office layout by limiting access to certain seating areas and distancing workstation clusters. This will help incoming employees understand the seating protocols in the work areas. Introduce strategic reminders and signages to nudge employees towards proper hygiene and distancing practices, install sanitation kiosks and ensure visible cleaning by housekeeping staff — these measures are important not just to maintain an infection-free environment but also to address anxieties about working in the new post-pandemic workplace.

Another important consideration — the building’s ventilation strategy. Recirculated air and poor filtration can transmit airborne viruses throughout the space, while low humidity levels compromise the immune system and makes one more susceptible to illnesses. The usage of improved air filtration systems, humidifiers and ventilation systems can help reduce these risks. In fact, operable windows will become commonplace now as they can be opened up to let in fresh air instead of relying on air conditioning. Even when relying on circulated air, smart HVAC units can help make the system more responsive based on occupancy and availability of fresh air.

Adobe, Bangalore

In the New Normal workplace, open spaces like balcony seating and rooftop work cafes will be used more often for informal meetings, smaller discussions, coffee breaks and even focused work — and employees should be encouraged to use these spaces more often than closed meeting rooms. Apart from being the healthier option right now, exposure to fresh air and sunlight offers mental stimulation too. Stocking healthier food and snack options in the pantry, providing immunity-boosting infused water, and ensuring safe handling of all edible items are other steps that will become important in the coming days.

ServiceNow, Singapore

5. Addressing connectivity-related burnout

The last few months have blurred the lines between employees’ work and home lives — and as a result, many people are finding themselves never quite logging out at the end of the day. Being constantly connected has an adverse effect on one’s mental health, and we are seeing a huge spike in issues like Zoom fatigue and digital burnout.

Simply planning more wellbeing activities and events will not be sufficient here. In fact, adding in more calls to an employee’s schedule might actually prove counter-intuitive — someone who’s had back-to-back calls all day may actually feel more stressed out at having to attend another hangout, even if a social one. Tackling this will involve longer-term solutions. Employers will need to introduce new policy guidelines to set digital boundaries, and a top down approach might be needed to bring about a real change.

About the Author:

As a Director, Global Client Solutions, Nishar Fatema manages global clients in North America for the design and execution of their projects in APAC. Her career has spanned many roles — architect, workplace design and business strategist — and is backed by a proven track record in workplace design methodologies and business strategy and a deep focus on workplace design & build and employee engagement & experience. She has work experience in five countries: Singapore, India, Germany, Iran and the USA, and has traveled to more than 51+ countries. Nishar has been an invited speaker for CoreNet Global North America, EMEA and APAC, Future Office event, ASDinnovate, CoreNet NYC chapter virtual event – as a moderator, solo presenter, and co-speaker. She has also authored a research piece “Understanding of an ornamentation in Islamic architecture” contributed to a book on vernacular housing of North India called “MATRA: The measure”.

About Space Matrix

Founded in 2001, our design practice has evolved into a dynamic, agile, 21st century digital enterprise; a design consultancy that specializes in workplace design. We have developed a unique client focus that creates and delivers profitable, sustainable and future-ready workplace solutions. Our continuing mission aims to continue revolutionizing the delivery of design and build services in both Asia and globally. We have relevant project experience in over 55 cities and 14 office locations in Australia, China, India, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore (HQ), and the United States.