Cleansing the office

Workplace expert Leigh Stringer looks at five ways to create a healthy, sustainable work environment.


By 2020, millennials will make up 50% of the global workforce. Like their parents’ generation – the baby boomers – this cohort is highly influential. What they think, what they care about and how they see the world is shaping every facet of our lives today. Though there is variation across this sizeable group, there are some common themes.  

Some of the latest research on millennials by US consultancy Gallup shows that more than a pay cheque motivates them; they also want to work with purpose and in a way that supports their wellbeing. Millennials want to work in a place that taps into their personal passion and allows them to flourish, while also supporting a greater social mission. And they are not alone. Studies show that the rest of us, who have been in the workforce a while, are realising we want this too.

So how can organisations create an ‘uber-impactful’ work environment that supports the greater good – going beyond just provisioning employees with the basics, and instead taking sustainability to the next level? Here are five strategies which do just that.

1. Design the work environment to support autonomy and ‘choice’  

Studies show that people who feel more ‘control’ in their work and work environment are less likely to suffer from stress and illness and see an increase in productivity. This is particularly true for millennials – part of flourishing means managing how, when and where employees work. 

  • Change where employees work. Many people can work effectively and efficiently at home, in a satellite office, co-working facility, a park or a coffee shop. Working in this way requires good mobile technology and the right protocols to pull off (so everyone knows how to reach each other), but it can be incredibly empowering.
  • Adopt a more flexible schedule. Flexible work schedules are an alternative to the traditional 9-5, 40-hour work week. They allow employees to vary arrival and departure times and include programmes like job sharing or a compressed work week.  
  • Reconfigure the work area. Take a look at how employees work and explore alternatives to sitting in one position all day. For example, the FluidStance motion platform looks like a skateboard with a frame below it that is bow-shaped. It’s a desk accessory that could work well with a standing desk or next to a high-top table. I’ve also seen folks try Bosu balls and other "core strengthening" exercise equipment when they are standing and working. 
  • Even if an organisation does not provide desks that move up and down with fancy accessories, it may be possible for workers to regularly change or move more often by standing at a table in the breakroom, or walking during conference calls. Making small adjustments, such as moving or adding a computer monitor, turning on a task light or re-orienting furniture can make a major difference to posture and productivity.  

Interestingly, many of the strategies that support individual autonomy and choice at work can also positively impact the environment by reducing real estate and/or carbon emissions (from commuting).

2. Nurture ‘biophilia’  

We have a strong desire to be in and among nature. It’s only natural – for most of human history we spent our entire time outdoors. This preference, often referred to as biophilia, was introduced and popularised by Edward Osborne Wilson, who suggested that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. 

The most obvious way to integrate natural elements into the workplace is to incorporate real plants, water and views to nature into buildings. Another is to create features in the workplace that mimic nature, such as artwork, photographs or the use of natural materials. I particularly like the Philips Leaf Lamp which looks like either a tree or clouds, depending on which one you use. It can be shipped flat (which minimises carbon footprint and shipping costs) and is made of felt and wood.

3. Locate a business by a park or public transportation  

The proximity of a home or office to parks and other recreational facilities is consistently associated with higher levels of physical activity and healthier weight status. The same goes for proximity to public transport – there is a link between access to public transportation and physical activity, since transport use typically involves walking to a bus or subway stop. 

In one study, A Morning Stroll: Levels of Physical Activity in Car and Mass Transit Commuting by Richard Wener, train commuters walked an average of 30% more steps per day and were four times more likely to walk 10,000 steps per day than car commuters. Of course, locating an office by a park or near public transport also positively impacts air quality – for employees and the rest of the planet.

4. Give a workplace a ‘green’ or ‘healthy’ stamp of approval

There are a number of healthy building standards emerging, many of which are drawing on excellent research. Applying them to a building is a meaningful way to measure whether a workplace is meeting the goals set out for it.  

Two tools that have received a great deal of buzz lately on the health and wellness front are the WELL Building Standard by Delos, and the FITWEL Standard developed by the Centers for Disease Control and US General Services Administration, and administered by the Center for Active Design.  

Just like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, using tools such as these send a strong message to employees, but also to the marketplace that green and healthy buildings are good
 for business. 

5. Lead by example

One of the most influential tools to encourage green or healthy behaviour in an organisation is you. Adopting changes into your own life will give you the knowledge you need to convince others to change. If you take on reducing paper use, recycling, biking to work, eating better and rethinking your work patterns with the environment and your health in mind, you are more likely to understand the changes required to behave and work in a different way. You are also more likely to be listened to by the people you are trying to convince. Practice what you preach.  

Leigh Stringer is a Senior Workplace Expert for EYP Architecture & Engineering and is researching employee health and productivity in conjunction with the Harvard School of Public Health, the Center for Active Design, and other leading organisations. She is the author of ‘The Healthy Workplace: How to Improve the Well-Being of Your Employees – and Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line’ and ‘The Green Workplace’. Learn more at