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By Tazie Taysom, Commercial Director at ARTIQ, the UK’s leading art consultancy

“Ditch the desks and ditch the boardroom! Tell your people to bring their trunks and they will love working for you.”

So said Robert Dowling, CEO of Deanlow Consulting in Ontario in 2016, after revealing that his employees spent their days paddling around a company swimming pool with laptops to promote creative thinking.

We’re five years on, and whilst people may have scoffed at Dowling’s enthusiasm for an ‘Aquatic Work Environment’ at the time, the Covid-19 pandemic is causing a sea change in attitudes as to what the office environment could, and should, be.

Mental wellbeing in the workplace is on the agenda like never before. A recent FT survey found that more than 60% of UK respondents’ mental health had been negatively affected by Covid-19, higher than any other country surveyed. For some people, the novelty and flexibility of working from home has turned on its head. Whereas before there was no opportunity to work outside of the office, there is now no option to return for weeks, perhaps months.

People across the UK are placing a higher value on their mental wellbeing, with the combined effects of isolation, anxiety, illness and bereavement all taking their toll. We may only be scratching the surface of the problem, with experts forecasting the threat of a mental health epidemic enduring well beyond the point at which we leave the worst of the pandemic behind us.

The onus is now on businesses to demonstrate to their workforces that they are invested in their mental and emotional wellbeing, that they are taking steps to protect it, and that they are working to cultivate an aesthetic and culturally relevant environment that enables people to feel comfortable and reach their potential.

Under such a scenario, offices are set to be transformed into cultural hubs that offer a point of difference beyond just a place of work. This trajectory is not new, but it has been exacerbated by the office’s existential crisis during the pandemic.

While this might not lead to ping pong and pool tables being installed across the square mile, it is likely to result in the physical transformation of corporate office spaces.

In the last few decades, a series of quiet revolutions have already transformed the way that offices are used and conceived. High walls and cubical hierarchies have been replaced by team-based, open-plan layouts, and a revolution in flexible working has made a worker’s physical presence in the office far less essential.

Now, some businesses are taking a lead in redesigning their spaces to better inspire their workforces in a post covid-world, and those that do will put pressure on the slower adopters. Interestingly, this it is leading to an influx of corporate art collections, as well as the purging of outdated and socially irrelevant artworks. Some companies are even looking to include experiential art installations, to add a layer of employee interaction that makes the office feel more culturally relevant in the age of working from home.

We are consequently seeing a rise in the number of businesses championing employee values through their office design, and according to the CIPD, 44% of organisations reported taking a strategic approach to employee wellbeing in 2020.

International banking group Investec, for instance, has recently installed a curated collection of London and South African artists, to show their passion and commitment to promoting diversity. Likewise, Deutsche Bank, which boasts one of the largest corporate collections in the world, announced last year that it would be selling its household names, in favour of new, more culturally relevant art, that would improve “the contemporary quality” of its workspaces.

With equality and tolerance becoming one of the defining narratives of the pandemic, businesses like this that are championing issues related to sexuality, gender, race, and mental health will be the ones that come out on top. This is because physical and emotional wellbeing are tightly interlinked, so having the happiest, healthiest employees requires a holistic approach to office design. Research by Dr Craig Knight has also shown that employees are more 15% more motivated, engaged and have greater job satisfaction in visual and creative environments, with productivity increasing by more than 30% when participants have a say in creating their workspaces, or selecting the art within them.

Engaging employees and supporting their mental wellbeing is therefore no longer an optional extra in a landscape of flexible working, but the key to building a stronger workforce, and stronger business in the years to come. Only by adapting and evolving – within the office and outside it – can companies stay culturally relevant and continue to engage and retain their employees in a post covid era.