Would you agree that these are some of the top challenges large corporations face today?

  • Attracting skilled knowledge workers
  • Declining productivity due to workforce health problems
  • The skyrocketing cost of providing healthcare benefits

These challenges are motivating companies to address wellbeing in the workplace with wellness programs and even workplace design.

Recent CBRE research presented at the CoreNet Global Summit revealed that more than half of surveyed companies already provided programs to address workforce health, and 91% expect to increase health and wellness programs in the years to come. Many are turning to active design guidelines to improve health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Active design is a philosophy that was originally developed to improve public health by building city infrastructures to encourage more activity. However, active design is becoming a global movement that is also driving the design of the modern workplace.

Why companies are investing in active design for the workplace

According to research by the non-profit Center for Active Design, American workers spend upwards of 1700 hours at their workplaces each year. Not surprisingly, those spaces can have a tremendous impact on their health. Workers often spend more than half their waking hours sitting in a vehicle during commute time and sitting at a computer the rest of the workday. The lack of movement has resulted in skyrocketing rates of obesity and diseases like diabetes. That’s why sitting is being called “the new smoking” by health experts.

Not only does this health crisis reduce workers’ quality of life, but it costs their employers in increased absenteeism and lower productivity, as well as rising heathcare expenses.


Active design solutions address these issues by incorporating environmental changes, policies and programs into the workplace that encourage employees to move more throughout the workday.

As an added bonus, these strategies can also help companies with another critical problem: the so-called “war for talent” that has companies vying for highly skilled knowledge workers. The millennial generation in particular are placing a high value on a well-designed workplace in choosing their employer. They expect their workplace to support their lifestyle, and are drawn to companies that demonstrate an interest and commitment to their wellbeing.

If your company is looking for ways to support health and wellbeing in the workplace, here are some proven ideas put forth by the City of New York in their Active Design Guidelines.


Active design ideas to get people moving in your workplace

1. Design your space to encourage walking

The idea behind this active design strategy is to give people a reason to walk around your workplace. Shared spaces such as team collaboration lounges, food service locations, and even printer/copier rooms should be placed within a pleasant walking distance of individual workspaces. Typically that means giving them a central location rather than tucking them away in a corner. Removing trash cans from individuals desks also encourages people to walk to place trash in the communal bin.

2. Include strategically-located staircases

Grand, open staircases are the hottest design feature in modern offices today. And that’s not only because it looks cool. Staircases that are highly visible and easily accessible (sometimes centrally located in the main lobby, within the main office space to connect floors, or even near the kitchen) encourage workers to use them instead of elevators. One of the most effective active design strategies is to design spaces so that stairs are the primary means of travel between up to 4 floors.

There’s also another benefit of incorporating everyday stairs into your active design workplace strategy. In an emergency, workers may be safer in environments with integrated stairs since safe exit paths are not tucked away behind closed doors.

3. Include integrated vertical circulation system in high rises

Even in a high-rise building, a combination of staircases and elevators can encourage more movement. One strategy is the use of skip-stop elevators that stop only on designated floor. Workers can be encouraged to use centrally-located staircases within workspaces to get to adjacent floors. Additional accessibility to elevators can be provided for mobility challenged employees.

This active design strategy can also cut elevator maintenance expenses and reduce the wait time for employees when they do need to use the elevator. And it has the added benefit of encouraging collaboration between people on adjacent floors.

4. Provide active furniture

Take a walk around a modern workplace, and you’ll probably see sit-stand workstations, treadmill desks, and possibly even cycling workstations (in all honesty I’ve never seen one, but apparently they are out there!). Workers of all ages are realizing that working does not necessarily require sitting. Phone calls, answering emails, and even other types of focus work can be accomplished while getting exercise at the same time.

While workers may not always want to take the time to do a yoga class or work out at the gym during the workday, these active furniture options let them build a little more activity into their day.

5. Include dedicated & convertible exercise spaces

That being said, many workers can benefit from taking an exercise break at a strategic point in their workday, whether at lunchtime or to combat a mid-afternoon energy slump.

Dedicated exercise spaces, such as yoga rooms, running tracks and even swimming pools, allow them to do so without leaving the office. Don’t forget to provide outdoor space for exercise whenever possible, including bike and pedestrian paths. Some tech companies with large campuses even provide bikes for people to travel between buildings.

More tips to get employees to use your active design features

Have you tried to implement health and wellbeing programs in the past, and then wondered why workers were not taking advantage of them? The “if you build it, they will come” strategy is not enough to change behavior. Take the following strategies into account as you create and implement your active design plan.

6. Understand workplace utilization patterns

Successfully incorporating active design requires a deep understanding of the utilization patterns in your workplace. You can’t place stairs and collaboration spaces in a central, high-traffic location unless you understand how people prefer to use space and can analyze patterns.

Utilization tracking technology, such as occupancy and lighting sensors, card readers and network technology give you the reliable data you need to design your workplace around actual usage by your business teams.

Learn more about how to track space utilization with this informative guide: Managing Workplace Utilization.

7. Location is key

According to the Active Design Guidelines, people are more likely to use staircases located within 25 feet of your entrance and encountered before they get to the elevator. However, locating stairs near the elevator is a good thing: people tired of waiting for the elevator will opt to use the stairs.

The same can be said about locating other active design features like exercise spaces: make them available within principal paths of travel.

8. Make active design features visible and attractive

Using grand, architectural staircases can be preferable to squeezing into a crowded elevator. Use glass enclosures for visibility, as well as appealing colors, materials and finishes that reflect the company’s brand and design aesthetic. Incorporating artwork, greenery and even outdoor views can go a long way to increasing use of a staircase by employees.

The same goes for your outdoor paths and walking spaces: make them beautiful and people will want to spend time using them.

9. Build in collaboration spaces

Make your staircases and active design spaces into hubs for collaboration and social activity. Install comfortable lounges on staircase landings to encourage people to stop for a chat.

10. Promote them!

Help your employees decide to take the stairs instead of the elevator. Put up strategic signs by the elevators reminding people to use the stairs. According to the Active Design Guidelines, this simple practice can up stair use by up to 50%.

Some tips for signs:

  • Remember to include multi-lingual messages
  • Use large, easy to read fonts
  • Include motivators like the number of calories burned by taking the stairs or time saved waiting for the elevator

11. Remove barriers

Get rid of the barriers that keep people from using your active design spaces. For example:

  • If you must use staircases with doors because they also must serve as fire doors, don’t limit access by requiring an access code or card swipe.
  • Wondering why people aren’t using the treadmill desks or taking yoga? Providing locker rooms with showers can make a world of difference for employees.
  • Encourage people to bike to work and around your campus by providing bike racks, ideally on the ground floor of the building.

Learn more about work space design and wellbeing in the workplace:
Wellness Implications of the Activity Based Workspace
Workforce Health: Is Your Workplace Helping or Hurting?

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