It was a privilege to join the Wellbeing Expert Panel for this the second meeting of year 2, with the focus now moving firmly towards designing wellbeing policy recommendations as part of the New London Agenda.
We are all acutely aware the heavy toll the pandemic has had on the nation – from a macro-economic perspective but also in presenting very individual and personal challenges to our physical and mental health and wellbeing. Being isolated and physically disconnected from our friends and colleagues and often also disconnected from green & blue space and nature in cities, goes against some of our very most basic needs as human beings. With this context in mind, the panel commenced the meeting with a discussion on space standards and the changing needs of office workers.
Has the way we work and therefore the space we need for work changed forever? Ruth French considered the role of the office as space to socialise and collaborate with colleagues – a view supported by Phil Coffey who sees offices as critical in connecting colleagues and particularly young team members who often do not have suitable space to work from home and can be quite isolated. Office space needs to allow for more collaborative working with integrated technology for hybrid meetings rather than the more traditional banks of desks approach. It’s also entirely foreseeable that the size of offices will not reduce, given that workers will want to be together on the same days.
A level of hybrid working will surely remain once the pandemic has passed, with organisations deciding on what the appropriate balance is for them and their teams. Mei-Yee Man Oram posed that this could lead to a new housing typology to more easily accommodate working from home, extending into community work-spaces closer to home with smart tech to monitor productivity.
Arguably, as Nivene Powell highlighted, a short-term challenge is overcoming pandemic induced anxiety around travel and social interaction. A positive slant on this is more uptake in active travel, which then requires more consideration on office facilities (cycle storage, showers etc.) as well as staff safety concerns.
There is of course a need to spend time and money on our high streets to protect them into the future. These are also great spaces for collaborative working and rather than just creating enclosed office ecosystems for internal working, we should encourage people out of the office to engage with a wider community than just our colleagues. Romy Rawlings supported this in seeing an uplift in conversion of outdoor spaces into 'work' environments.
Maybe it’s time for systemic change in the Landlord/tenant relationship. The focus needs to be on the wellbeing of people rather than purely land value. We also need a clear understanding and common language around what constitutes a healthy building – with different certification schemes focussing on different aspects (from WELL to BREEAM to the EPC), it’s not always clear what path to follow.
This is not to say that buildings should be designed within a set of parameters that removes beauty or restricts freedom of design – quite the opposite in fact. Understanding how architecture can enhance the wellbeing of people is a fundamental starting point. Biophilic design is a good example of this – not only connecting people with nature but also significantly improving the quality of internal air.
The panel also noted some interesting examples of strategic thinking around wellbeing from other UK countries – notably the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 with similar discussions taking place in Scotland as well. Social prescribing and the prevention agenda are gaining momentum as they are delivering tangible savings to the NHS. Keeping our communities healthy is paramount and the nature of our built environment is a key factor.
A clear outcome of the meeting was to consider wellbeing framework models and whether as a global capital city, London should have a formalised wellbeing standard.