Restorative workplace: a place for refuge, a place for work – some insights from the year 2020

Published 3 februari, 2021

Erik Skärbäck and Anna Bengtsson

Department of Landscape Architecture, Planning and Management, and the Department of People and Society, SLU

The pandemic has drastically changed our working behaviours and environments. Erik Skärbäck, professor at SLU, and university lecturer, Anna Bengtsson, share their insights from their project ‘Restorative workplace’, which designs research-based tools for planning and designing workspaces that meet our mental, social and working needs.

Our changing working routines

Ever since Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM), founded by Le Corbusier in 1928, brought light and fresh air into urban life and developed architecture as a social art we have followed these principals. They revolted against the ugly and smelling dense city, unhealthy by emissions in water and air. However we also lost some of the qualities many people today wish for, such as workplaces and food-shopping places reachable within walking or biking distance from our homes. The modernism resulted in a new structure in which we sleep, work and recreate in different places. Later, city-planners have accepted that we go to school on a fourth place and shop our food on a fifth place. Now, because of the pandemic, we are asked to stay home, work from home, do the schoolwork from home, communicate over phone and internet and limit our social contacts to our closest household. And the stock market reactions shows that it works well for some business sectors, but is catastrophic for others. The impacts are so disperse that they seem impossible to overlock and govern from an overall planning perspective. The general conclusion is “Take care!” and “Show responsibility for yourself and others”.

Now, our transportation needs tend to decrease and we need to question our long-term estimations of future transport increasing. Why travel each day if you can work from home most of the time? Before Covid-19 the urban organism did grow without major protests and we support the transport system together by paying our taxes. However, travelling is time consuming and working from home obviously saves time. We have learned that we can communicate and cooperate well at distance over the internet. We get more and more used to create, develop and produce at distance.

But Homo sapiens is a social species, with a brain developed of stimulation through all our senses over a couple of million years. Suffering from the lack of both social interaction and natural stimulation is a psychological risk factor that cannot be easily eliminated in therapeutic conversations or cured with medicine. Life today is different from life on the savannah, but our brains have not changed much. We have basic needs of safety, stimulation and orientation in place and time. But, do we build work environments that support our needs for stimulation as well as relaxation?

Connecting our physical environment to our mental needs

Research from SLU Alnarp describe a range of qualities meeting different mental needs, e.g. “ refuge places with prospect of the surrounding”, “places to dream away”, stimulating sounds of nature and places where we can meet and socialize. Such qualities are valuable not only for curing and rehabilitation, but also for prevention of mental illness, for stimulating concentration, wellbeing, and empathy and to promote creativity and productivity. There seems to be a rich connection between how we feel and the qualities in the physical environment surrounding us.

Research about such health promoting environmental qualities has recently been operationalized in a Vinnova funded project named Restorative Workplace. The overall idea is to develop research-based tools for planning, designing and managing physical environments that promote stress relief, well-being, creativity and work ability in and around workplaces. In the project, researchers at SLU Alnarp work together with representatives from a variety of workplaces and a number of large estate owners, to develop knowledge and methods for how to use research evidence to improve workplaces. Over thirty different estate projects (existing buildings or projects in development) participate in the tool development so far. The projects included represent different phases of planning, i.e. program, construction, building and management. In the next phase of the project, 2021-2022, we hope to implement the methods in the ordinary planning, development and management work of the estate owners, in Sweden and internationally. 

Three people standing on a street looking at a paper.
Project image. Restorative workplace. Photo: Anna Bengtsson

The real life challenges of Covid have contributed to our project development

Obviously the pandemic has challenged our project, like so many others. For instance, our meetings and workshops were conducted on digital platforms instead of live meetings. However, since most people in the project were well versed in the project when the pandemic began, this worked out very well and we also found that new members came smoothly into the project context even when we could not meet in real life.

Since the project focus on restorative workplaces, the discussion about our own experiences of working conditions during the pandemic fed naturally into the project, and we have found that the pros and cons of working from home are fruitful to consider in the project in the future. For instance some of us experienced qualities in the home environment that contributed much to our working conditions, such as closeness and access to natural impressions through windows, on balconies, in gardens and in parks. The situation also shed light on the physical environment at our ordinary workplace and emphasized the importance of being able to work in privacy and the opportunity to work more flexibly in different group sizes and with different tasks, both indoors and outdoors. An attractive and functional workplace should enable relaxation as well as widely varied tasks; from routine work to creative work and from concentrated alone work to social cooperation. The project restorative workplace aims to provide us with tools to develop physical environments that meet the diverse functions of a workplace indoors as well as outdoors, and at the same time promote our well-being and our prosperity at work.

With the insights from the pandemic 2020, the project’s purpose has been broadened, partly because it becomes increasingly important with attractive workplaces to attract those who otherwise prefer to work at home, but also to the extent that the home may become a significant workplace for more people in the future. The project and the tools that are developed could then also be useful in the development of housing and residential areas as well as in planning processes, and for overall issues concerning community development.

Anna Bengtsson & Erik Skärbäck
February 2021

About the authors

Erik Skärbäck is a professor at the Department of Landscape Architecture, Planning and Management, SLU.

Anna Bengtsson is a university lecturer at the Department of People and Society, SLU.



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