Workspace designers over the past half-century have habitually undervalued their role in human health and wellness. Many of the spaces we work in actually impede not only our health, but also our productivity.

For corporate leaders focused on human resources, wellness, productivity, and operations, designing your workspace for human health is a major opportunity to create value. This opportunity is especially important if your organization relies on employees at high levels of cognition, e.g. legal, medical, finance, professional services, technology, etc.

There’s a plethora of new research on this topic:


  • STALE AIR makes employees less productive. Low ventilation rates affect decision-making and cognitive functioning. In a controlled study that compared workers in spaces with varying VOC and ventilation rates, the best quality air i.e. low VOC and high ventilation rates produced major gains in cognitive functioning. The group with access to high-quality air produced cognitive gains of 131% in crisis response, 288% in strategic thinking, and 299% better information usage.
    [ Source: TH Chan School of Public Health ]
  • OPEN OFFICE PLANS are despised by employees; sound complaints are three times more common than visual privacy complaints. And no, it’s not a matter of forcing your employees to adapt. A 2014 study by Steelcase and Ipsos found that workers lost as much as 86 minutes per day due to noise distractions.
    [ Source: Harvard Business Review ]
  • Increased VENTILATION rates decrease absenteeism and associated costs from lost output by $400 per employee per year.
    [Source: Harvard School of Public Health ]
  • Humans are intrinsically and biologically drawn to NATURE. This is referred to as biophilia, introduced by Edward O. Wilson in his 1984 book Biophilia . It has been included in green and healthy building standards because design that reconnects us with nature can reduce stress, improve cognitive function and creativity, improve our well-being and expedite healing.
    [ Source: Terrapin Bright Green ]
  • A decrease in HEALTH COMPLAINTS, such as tiredness and coughing, has been reported in office and hospital workers when plants were added to the work environment.
    [ Source: Journal of Environmental Research & Public Health ]

Where to begin?

Understand the current health of your spaces and establish the right goals for your new or existing space.

  1. Take stock of the health attributes of your existing portfolio. Conduct a wellness survey or employee satisfaction survey, and determine which facilities are in line for some changes.
  2. Discuss with your leadership the goals you’d like to achieve: increased worker productivity, reduced absenteeism, increased engagement, higher recruitment and retention rates, etc.
  3. From there, determine how your facility improvements can help support those goals: better air quality, healthier food, democratized access to natural light, free address for temperature and sound control, etc. Look into certification systems for help: the most accessible and comprehensive is the WELL Building Standard , which is similar to LEED but focused on human health and productivity.
  4. Bring in an expert to work alongside your design team in a support and advisory role “landlord, internal real estate team, architects, designers, engineers” to make it happen. At Third Partners, we are passionate about helping our clients achieve productivity and wellness goals in their facilities, to the benefit of their employees and guests.

It’s quite simple: buildings affect our health, and healthy people make better decisions. Organizations have many available options to improve productivity in both new and existing facilities by simply improving how their occupants experience air, water, sound, and light in the space around them.

John Haugen is a co-founder and principal at Third Partners. He is a WELL AP, a LEED GA, and is passionate about creating healthier and more efficient workplaces. John and his team will help you identify opportunities and make smart decisions that achieve your wellness, health, and productivity goals in your spaces.

JD Capuano is a consultant, MBA professor and member of Third Partners™ network of experts. His work ranges from setting and operationalizing sustainability strategies to using data analytics to achieve meaningful outcomes. He also works with clients to achieve healthy, efficient office spaces.