A study that evaluated an office relocation to a greener and open space in which active design features were introduced to encourage staff movement and interaction has concluded that individual behaviour change must be prioritised to achieve the best health and wellbeing improvements.
According to the researchers, whose findings were published in the journal WORK in December, this is one of the first studies to evaluate behaviour change using a socio-ecological model that covers four levels: the policy/organisational level; the built environment; the social/cultural environment through a relocation; and the introduction of a new Ways of Working directive.
To reach its conclusions, the study by Loughborough University and Affinity Health at Work used a mixed method evaluation to compare the pre and post-move experiences of participants drawn from a large UK regulatory agency employing 3,924 workers.
The pre-move setting covered two city-based buildings that were within walking distance of each other in a built-up inner city business district.
Although the surrounding area had a large indoor shopping mall, a nearby marina and two small public green spaces, the natural outdoor spaces and facilities were limited.
The main building was fully occupied by the regulatory agency while 70 employees occupied part of a floor in the second building. Both were open plan offices with limited break-out areas, communal kitchens and lunch/coffee areas. The main building, however, did offer a number of facilities, including a restaurant, a gym, bicycle storage, and shower rooms.
Although both buildings had physical Local Area Network (LAN) for internet capabilities, there was no Wi-Fi.
As the study found, this limited workers’ movements in the open workspaces. It also resulted in very little hot desking; staff usually worked in the same area alongside the same colleagues week in, week out.
In contrast, the new building is located just outside the inner city in a district that has businesses and residential neighbourhoods with good infrastructure. Situated near indoor and outdoor sports and leisure facilities, the new location is also close to large public green open spaces that include gardens, acres of wetlands and meadows and a waterfront all within a 10-minute walk.
‘[The study] shines a light on the importance of the physical workspace but also the role psychology plays in using the spaces provided'
The purpose-built office space was designed using the Active Design 2010 guidelines to encourage more daily physical activity in the workplace as well as increase activity-based working and improve employee interaction.
The new building features an open central staircase; lifts separated from the stairs; abundant natural light; a greater number of break-out areas with standing tables as well as seats; a range of quiet workspaces; and Wi-Fi capability.
Importantly, employees can adjust the height of all the sit-stand desks and there is also a strictly enforced hot desking and clear desk policy.
To further encourage movement and interaction, a new Ways of Working directive was introduced that gives employees more flexibility on how and where they want to work.
According to the researchers, all 3,924 employees who relocated to the new building were invited to take part in the evaluation which covered surveys, accelerometers, blood pressure assessments, organisational sickness absence records, building audit and interviews.
In the end, 600 participants completed the baseline survey and 767 completed the post-move survey. The researchers note that, of these participants, 221 complete matched cases were available for analysis, taken from employees aged between 23 and 75. Just under 65% were female staff members.
Sixty participants volunteered for the health assessment and accelerometry data from which 54 provided pre and post-blood pressure measurements and 50 participants provided at least three valid workdays of pre and post activPAL data, collected using an activPAL3 micro device.
The survey questions assessed employee physical activity by looking at a range of different measures both pre and post move. These included how many days in a typical week they did physical activity for 30 minutes or more, enough to raise their breathing rate; how often they used the stairs on a typical workday; and time spent per day walking to work and walking around the office environment.
The survey also measured sitting time and estimates of how many face-to-face interactions they had with colleagues in their team and outside their team.
Participants were also asked whether they felt the office design had made it easier for unplanned work-related interactions with colleagues, unplanned social interactions with colleagues, effective communication with team members, other teams and with their manager. The survey also asked whether their manager supported and encouraged them to use different workspaces in the old and new building and agile working.
Participants were specifically asked to score how satisfied they were with the work and building space in both environments, covering areas like air quality, lighting, thermal and ambience. In addition, they were asked to score their satisfaction levels in terms of access to outdoor spaces.
The researchers assessed how engaged the participants were by how energetic, enthusiastic and immersed they were in their work. They also assessed participants on job satisfaction and job performances. Using the Management Standards Indicator Tool, they assessed employee job control, job demands, and manager and peer job support.
According to the research team, validated measures were used to assess musculoskeletal symptoms, mental well-being and overall quality of health. Self-reported sickness absence provided by 221 participants was assessed by using the total number of workdays missed in the past three months due to sick leave. The researchers also collected data on age, gender, ethnicity, work hours, job contract, department and job role.
In addition to the survey results, the researchers also looked at six months’ of sickness absence data, covering three months before and three months after the move, drawing on records kept by the employer and accessed from those employees who had given permission via the survey.
For the individuals who volunteered for the health assessment and accelerometery data, the researchers measured arterial blood pressure from the left arm in the sitting position using a semi-automated recorder.
Three assessments were taken by trained researchers with each measurement separated by a two-minute rest period and the mean systolic and diastolic blood pressures recorded from the second and third assessments were calculated.
Physical activity and sedentary behaviour were assessed to provide a valid measure of sitting, standing and stepping time using the activePAL micro device.
The study results offered some interesting insights into individual behaviour. On the plus side, survey respondents reported spending significantly less time sitting per day after the move. They also reported more time walking to work as well as at work. The activPAL data also revealed that participants had significantly less occupational sitting time at the new building.
However, participants spent significantly more time sitting per day in their commute and stair use decreased post move. The researchers also found there were no meaningful improvements in the amount of days of physical activity.
Respondents reported that the larger office space and layout in the new building has contributed to increased interactions with team members and made it easier to have unplanned social interactions with colleagues. It has also made it easier to communication with other teams.
They have also found improved manager support for agile working and encouragement to use the building’s facilities and space.
However, there have been no significant changes when it comes to easier communication with team members or manager, nor in having unplanned work-related interactions with colleagues.
Perceptions of air quality, satisfaction with lighting, thermal and ambience satisfaction and with building space has significantly improved post-move.
The researchers also found that post-move, participants’ mental health and wellbeing significantly improved.
However, there were mixed results on musculoskeletal complaints. Although there have been reports of significant reductions in musculoskeletal complaints for lower back, lower extremities and upper extremities, the researchers found no meaningful effects have been observed for neck and upper back musculoskeletal complaints or in overall quality of health.
Results from the blood pressure measurements revealed that post move, participants have significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
Finally, although participants work vigour appeared to improve significantly following the move, the researchers concluded that there were no statistically meaningful effects in job satisfaction, work absorption and dedication, job control, job demands, work-related support and self-reported or objectively measured sickness absence.
The researchers conclude that the results demonstrate that relocating to a new workplace built with active workplace design features ‘can have some health promoting effects, a positive impact on some types of interactions and change worker perceptions of the workplace’.
However, they advise that future studies should examine how the different levels of a socio-ecological model interact to impact on employee health and wellbeing and job-related outcomes in an organisational change toward an active workplace design.
‘This was a brilliant opportunity to examine what features of the office really make a difference to health and wellbeing,’ says Dr Jo Yarker, director at Affinity Health at Work.
‘It shines a light on the importance of the physical workspace but also the role psychology plays in using the spaces provided – supporting people to use the features of the workspace, be it social spaces, sit-stand desks or internal staircases, through leveraging behaviour change strategies, can help organisations realise the true benefits of good workplace design.’