Work Life – Getting the balance right

The next time you check your emails, read a tweet, or sit through that Monday-morning planning meeting at work, consider this: through the course of a single day, you devour more information than a man in the Middle Ages would have consumed across his entire lifetime. This is not fake news; this is cold, hard science. In 2011, researchers at the University of Southern California found that the average human mind processes 175 newspapers-worth of information every single day. In 1986, that figure was 40. Today, it is certainly more… and that’s before you even shut down your computer.

The modern workplace has become a phantasmagoria of facts, figures, demands and deadlines, all shooting around our neural pathways like rush-hour traffic on the M25. It is constantly evolving. Uninterrupted access to email means work never stops; we have an app for everything from banking to newspapers, to-do lists to dating. All day, we are pushed and pulled from place to place – a presentation here, a coffee catch-up there, a brainstorm in the breakout room. Then there are the hundreds of decisions we make every day, from how to reply to an email to which sandwich to buy at lunch. To put it another way, the human brain has never been so busy.

But what if we told you that a workplace revolution is sweeping quietly across London?

This isn’t the blue-sky fantasy of a Silicon-Valley billionaire. It’s happening now. And, according to scientists, the benefits are unignorable, for staff and for business. “The single greatest advantage in the modern economy is a happy and engaged workforce,” Shawn Achor – happiness guru and author of international bestsellers The Happiness Advantage and Big Potential – wrote in 2011. “A decade of research proves that happiness raises nearly every business and educational outcome: raising sales by 37%, productivity by 31%, and accuracy on tasks by 19%, as well as a myriad of health and quality of life improvements.”

His claims are backed – if a little more modestly – by research from the University of Warwick, who found that happy employees are 12% more productive than unhappy ones. “The driving force seems to be that happier workers use the time they have more effectively, increasing the pace at which they can work without sacrificing quality,” said one of the report’s authors, Dr. Daniel Sgroi. So, how can an office make you happy? There are many environmental factors that affect how we feel about the place we work. Things like lighting, noise, air quality and office layout. Cultural factors play a big part, too, and they’re often mashed into our physical surroundings. An office that provides a thoughtfully-designed breakout room or a charming café, for instance, is likely to foster a collaborative culture (good for business!) where staff feel valued as human beings (good for staff!).

Then there is the way we pass through our places of work. Open stairwells, glass walls or open-plans can turn an office from a space of shadows and solitude to one of chance interactions and ideas. “It’s that quick chat we have with a colleague on the way up to the office that might just be the most valuable part of our day,” explains acclaimed architect Fred Pilbrow, whose latest project, The Market Building, sits at the heart of Wood Wharf.

It’s not just the office space that experts say should soothe our souls for a happy work/life balance. Many of London’s newest workspaces are being built on or near an array of amenities.

Food markets are one, offering workers the chance to ditch the meal deal “desk-lunch” for a bounty of sweet and savoury and everything else in between. Also, they are a place to take a break from the office, meet friends or colleagues or simply repair to the open air for a midmorning stroll.

Talking of strolls, with around eight million trees in 3,000 parks, three million gardens and two National Nature Reserves, London is one of the most verdant cities on earth. Overall, 47% of London is green space, and 60% is classified as open space. This pays off: scientists have long proved that nature can provide stress relief, increase social interaction, encourage physical exercise and even help soothe mental illness. Then there’s the water. A canal, a pond, even a fountain – it doesn’t matter. The faintest tinkle of water can cheer you That’s according to the UK’s Blue Gym project that found people who live or work in sight of water are calmer, happier and healthier.

There is, of course, one core element without which any of this works: to achieve a true work/life balance, you have to have a life. Shops, bars and restaurants within walking distance of the office are becoming a staple of the modern office set up. “Socialising with your co-workers is essential for your career,” Alexander Kjerulf, another happiness guru and bestselling author, told Forbes Magazine in 2013. “If you’re not able to relate to your co-workers as human beings and build positive relationships, your career will suffer. Socialising and getting to know them as people will help you to communicate better, trust each other more and work better together.”

All this, he notes, points to one simple fact: good workplace relationships are one of the most important sources of workplace happiness. And while those may be initiated beside water coolers or exiting end-of-quarter meetings, they are nourished over drinks and food, walks along the riverfront or a mooch around the shops. They foster empathy, group worth, collaboration.

So productivity at its best is not about working longer hours, sacrificing lunch breaks, or checking emails on iPhones over dinner or in bed. It is about cutting through the clutter, being smarter with our time, and happier with our lives. Places like Wood Wharf and others sprouting around the capital beg the question: why design a place where people have to work, when you can design one where people want to work?


Interview by Matt Blake