All of this adds up to a “perfect storm” around designing for a diverse, demanding, distributed, and (often) disengaged workforce doing new types of collaborative office work, but still searching for the new work environments that will support new work styles. Against this background, organizations are looking at ways to improving well-being across the diverse span of the workforce as the first building block in raising productivity. Some of the well-being problems that workforces experience can be laid at the door of inappropriate employment policies, inadequate training, insensitive management, or unreliable IT systems, but undeniably the work environment itself is now under real scrutiny.
So what can be done to improve workforce well-being? In a partnership with Research Design Connections in Chicago, WORKTECH Academy reviewed the available academic research in the field of environmental psychology and design. Four factors emerged from this review, highlighting the most common themes in the field:
Control: Well-being is enhanced when people have a comfortable level of control over their physical environment and their working life—when there is some choice in how, where, and when they work, but not too much choice and control, as this can be disorienting.
Messaging: The silent messages sent via the design of the workplace can make employees feel good; spaces communicate to employees that they are respected by their organization.
Alignment: The design of the workplace improves personal well-being and supports knowledge worker performance when it directly supports the tasks that people actually need to do.
Refresh: Workplaces that provide opportunities for people to refresh mentally—after they’ve become cognitively exhausted by doing knowledge work—make a valued contribution to well-being.
The themes of control and messaging relate to conveying respect to workers; alignment and refresh support getting work done. By far the largest body of research focuses on a “sense of control” as a key driver of well-being and happiness at work irrespective of the age, gender, ability, or culture of the employee. This control takes many forms—control over work-life balance, time, tasks, interactions with others, and patterns of commuting, for instance. The ability to exercise control by finding people and resources within the building when you want them, or to connect seamlessly, should not be underestimated. But this aspect also relates to the design of the work environment itself.
A sense of control in workplace design is expressed through individual control over physical environmental conditions (heat, light, air); choice in terms of different types of workspace to use (not just the standard desk); freedom to reconfigure your workstation (height-adjustable desks are increasingly popular); personalization (hacking your workspace is a growing refrain); and participation in the design process itself.
But too much control can be damaging to well-being. Some studies suggest that a carefully curated set of options is more pleasant for workers than unlimited variability. So, for example, a lighting system with a half-dozen carefully selected pre-set options is likely to boost employee well-being more than one that allows light color and intensity to be combined in millions of ways.
The use of silent, non-verbal messaging, which has become a vital part of workplace design, is also essential to improve well-being. More than a decade ago, a UK report by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and the British Council for Offices (2006) reported that, “Whether or not the message is being consciously managed, staff will interpret the physical clues around them to evaluate the organisation and their relationship to it.”  This process has since accelerated and there is now growing emphasis on what researchers Moezzi and Goins have referred to as how “occupants read organizational values into physical systems and care not only about doing their work but about how they are treated.” 
When it comes to alignment, research scientists have learned a lot about the types of environments in which we work well. The key variables which can affect alignment with tasks (both routine and those requiring high concentration) often relate to the use of color, light, and material finish. The theme of refresh is similarly angled at how our environment can support work, in this case by recognizing that after we’ve had to concentrate for a period of time, we become mentally exhausted and require help to restock diminished levels of cognitive energy. This recognition is vital: we have long recognized that physical manual labor is exhausting but have been far more reluctant to acknowledge the issue of burnout and exhaustion in the white-collar workplace.
What restores our energy levels at work? Indoor plants, views of nature, daylighting, inspiring artworks, and spaces for privacy all crop up in the research literature as potential ways to reboot the brain after cognitive overload. In my own research, I have made recommendations that dedicated spaces should be provided for knowledge workers not just to concentrate and collaborate but also to contemplate and recuperate. Such spaces are often green spaces offering individual control of ambient conditions, an escape from the madding crowd of the large, noisy, open-plan office.