By Libby Sander
Many Australian companies are embracing funky new design features that maximise relaxation and homely chill zones in an effort to lure highly skilled professionals. While these features certainly hold appeal, most workers are looking for more than just neat design when they choose their ideal workplace.
Consulting firm Accenture recently made the news after installing a “Zen room” in its Melbourne offices to attract millennials to its workforce. Designed so that employees can take time out to relax, meditate or think through problems, the space is fitted out with hanging pod chairs, couches and a fireplace. Technology is banned.
And Accenture is not alone. Google has sleep pods and fish tank relaxation rooms with massage chairs in its Sydney office. Hammocks, indoor gardens, mini-golf, pool tables and even in-house bowling alleys are increasingly common fixtures.
Research shows that these types of spaces can accelerate recovery from cognitive fatigue as well as reducing stress. While not new, quiet spaces or relaxation rooms are intended to enhance well-being, increase engagement and improve performance.
Workplace engagement is a significant issue for employers, with levels of engagement continuing to fall. Studies have shown that only 28% of millennials are engaged at work.
Work stress is serious business
The consequences of work stress are of significant public interest because of their association with ill health, including cardiovascular disease and mental illness. Employers continue to experiment with workplace design, as it plays a powerful role in influencing stress. Alterations to design, materials and layout can have both positive and negative outcomes.
Open-plan offices have been a prevalent feature of workplaces for decades. Now more and more companies plan to implement hot-desking environments, where employees have no fixed desk. Research on open-plan environments has conclusively shown that employees struggle to perform effectively due to issues with noise, interruptions, distraction and loss of privacy. If you are interrupted, it can take up to 23 minutes to regain focus on the task.
One employee I spoke with during a workplace study commented that they had counted being interrupted 80 times in one morning. The interruptions had included an impromptu birthday morning tea in the workstations a few feet away, two colleagues having a stand-up argument, and another employee conducting a loud conference call on speakerphone in the open work area.
While it might seem like a folly, the design of relaxation or “zen rooms” has arisen in response to these and other challenges of modern workplace design and work. The photos of the relaxation spaces shown here have both an aesthetically pleasing and a domestic feel, designed to make employees feel relaxed and at home.
When work feels like home
Creating workplaces that don’t feel like offices is gaining popularity. Dropbox’s new Sydney’s office is intentionally designed to appear like an “Australian living room”. But is there any science behind the ideas, and is it likely to make any difference to recruits?
New research has shown that workplaces specifically designed to be aesthetically pleasing and beautiful led to increased levels of trust among new employees who perceived the employer to be more trustworthy as a result. Additionally, the higher levels of trust went on to predict coworker ratings of learning behaviour.
The use of natural materials such as wood and stone, rather than concrete and laminates, has been shown to increase creativity. Additionally, the same study showed that the use of cool colours and attractive details was helpful to creativity.
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The benefits of the inclusion of indoor plants and/or views of greenery are supported by evidence showing that exposure to nature resulted in decreased heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol, a stress hormone. Another study showed that workplace greenery improved perceptions of air quality, concentration, satisfaction and productivity.
Relaxation spaces, often closed off from the wider office and fitted with relaxing furniture and good acoustics, address the key complaint of modern workplaces – noise.
Both single-talker and multi-talker distractions in open-plan offices result in higher levels of distraction and lower cognitive performance, according to research, as well as increased levels of annoyance and mental workload.
A key advantage of relaxation spaces are that employees are able to control noise and distraction. The ability of employees to exercise personal control over elements of the environment appears to mediate some of the negative effects.
Lighting levels, access to attractive views such as art, feature installations such as fireplaces, and proximity to windows have been shown to have direct positive physical effects.
Cool office design just one factor among many
While these examples show that the workplace itself is important, there are broader drivers of interest to job-seekers and millennials in particular.
A recent study by Gallup highlighted that opportunities to learn and grow, quality of the individual manager and management overall, interest in the work, and opportunities for advancement were ranked in the top 5 by millennials, gen X and baby boomers.
Empirical research has supported these findings, showing that interesting and flexible work along with good relationships with supervisors and colleagues were rated most important for millennials.
Though millennials seek work-life balance, time flexibility is only one aspect of a flexible environment. Millennials also seek flexibility in terms of employment with different types of contracts, role flexibility and flexibility with location.
Organisations seeking to increase loyalty need to ensure they are balancing attractive workplaces and flexibility with effective management and growth opportunities.
Libby Sander is an Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Bond Business School.