Many law firm leaders are asking how they can “get people back to the office.” That question needs to be reframed to, “How can we draw people back?” Forcing employees to return to the office is not an effective strategy. The answer: Create office spaces where employees feel safe, included, and valued, with design strategies that support their health and wellness.
You are probably subconsciously aware of many factors in your office space that impact your health and wellness, including: poor acoustics; lighting that’s too dim or surfaces with a high level of glare; harsh spaces that are void of any natural elements; and “stuffy” conference rooms that make you feel sleepy. The latest research demonstrates that these factors can significantly impact not only your health and wellness, but also your performance at work.
Below are some challenges and opportunities, and a summary handout to help you get started.
How does the physical office space intersect with health and wellness?
Before the pandemic, Americans spent an average of 90% of their time indoors (and one-half to one-third of their waking hours in office spaces), where levels of common pollutants can be two to five times higher than outdoors.
Additionally, the research demonstrates how improved air quality translates to quantifiable cognitive benefits. One example is the COGfx study. As a summary, researchers compared a “traditional” office space to various contexts and found:
- When the level of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) – one of the most common indoor pollutants – was reduced, cognitive scores increased by 61%.
- When VOC levels were reduced, and ventilation rates increased, scores improved by 101%.
And the largest increases in cognitive scores were in the areas of crisis response, information usage, and strategy. For law firms, who rely on lawyers to respond to crises, analyze information, and provide their clients with strategic advice, improved air quality is also a key business driver and risk management strategy.
Air quality can sound daunting, but there are a variety of support professionals and a range of strategies that employers can leverage.
You may have personally experienced an office setting where you were distracted because the temperature was too cold (or too warm). There is a growing body of research that demonstrates that humans perform well at a very narrow range of temperature. As further explained by the authors of Healthy Buildings, how indoor spaces drive performance and productivity:
“Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found a 10 percent relative reduction in performance when the temperature fell out of this narrow optimal range.”
Moreover, these aspects disproportionately impact the performance of certain building users — particularly women. This is because the thermal comfort “standards,” which govern facility operations in most commercial spaces, are based on the clothing choices and metabolic rates of men in the 1960s. Yet the metabolic rate of women can be up to 32% lower.
There are various reasons why office spaces are kept at certain temperatures, but brushing off valid concerns and failing to adjust environmental conditions to support all building users has significant – and disproportionate – impacts.
Again, there are a range of practical strategies to address thermal health, including workspaces with a range of temperature zones, allowances for personal fans and heaters (along with safety instructions), or a flexible dress code.
Intersections with equity work
Everyone deserves the right to a space that allows them to do their best work, yet “traditional” office spaces simply do not support all users – and that needs to change.
If your firm wants to attract, mentor, and support diverse leaders, your office design needs to reflect and support this intention. We are seeing an increasing number of employees “interviewing the building,” and asking about many of the features outlined in this article.
Inclusive restroom design
Restrooms labeled “men’s” and “women’s” can be unsafe spaces for many individuals. For example, the 2015 US Transgender Survey, the largest ever survey to record the experiences of transgender people in the United States, ties restroom design to severe negative health impacts:
- “More than half (59%) of respondents avoided using a public restroom in the past year because they were afraid of confrontations or other problems they might experience.”
- “Nearly one-third (32%) of respondents limited the amount that they ate and drank to avoid using the restroom in the past year.”
- “Eight percent (8%) reported having a urinary tract infection, kidney infection, or another kidney-related problem in the past year as a result of avoiding restrooms.”
There are many ways to create restroom spaces that do not subject users to harassment and safety concerns, and more professionals have an expectation that there will be more inclusive options. These options can range from inclusive signage (with training and support), to re-design to a single, larger restroom space with individual (floor to ceiling) stalls and a large, common sink area.
Support for a neurodiverse workforce
There are also a variety of office design strategies that provide support for a broader range of human experience, from neurotypical to neurodivergent. Office design strategies that provide support for a neurodiverse workforce include considerations related to lighting, temperature, texture, smells, air quality, safety and security, spatial organization, spatial character, acoustic quality, and degree of stimulation.
For many users, welcoming, inclusive spaces come down to choice: the ability to choose a workstation, or transition to areas with different temperatures, light, or sound levels, as needed.
Again, there are numerous ways that existing office spaces can be re-designed to provide a wider range of choices and support services. One low-cost example is ensuring clear wayfinding: can clients, guests and employees easily find the front desk, restroom, their workstation, etc.? This can be as simple as adding clear signage at key touch-points.
Avoid Design Disconnects
Law firms are increasingly instituting policies and programs that support attorney health and wellness – and these are very important. That said, office design is a key determinant as to whether employees actually receive the full benefit of those policies.
For example, if a firm institutes a policy that provides for wellness breaks, but the office space does not have a room (or enough room) to actually take a quiet, private break, the policy is useless.
As another example, many firms are implementing policies designed to support new parents, but their offices lack the actual support services needed by new parents, including privacy, comfort, refrigeration, and a space devoted exclusively to lactation support.
Conclusion and Additional Resources
Your firm’s office space is a physical manifestation of its values – it’s the first touch point for clients and employees who visit the firm. This prompts a key question: what does your office space say about your firm and its values? If you don’t know, a good first step is to survey your employees, clients and guests – and listen to what they say.
Then, consider starting your journey by responding to the prompts in the attached handout and consulting with professionals who can support your efforts.
Sustainable Strategies offers an online course for healthy law firms at this link.
 Healthy Buildings, p. 96.
 This research uses gendered language; more inclusive research needs to be conducted.
 Updated data is expected soon, the 2022 survey closed, with updated results expected in 2023.
Nicole DeNamur (she/her), Owner, Sustainable Strategies PLLC
Prior to launching Sustainable Strategies, Nicole practiced construction and insurance coverage law. Her work focuses on creating collaborative spaces and uniting diverse groups to mitigate climate change through the built environment. Nicole maintains numerous sustainable building credentials, including WELL AP and Faculty, LEED Green Associate, Fitwel Ambassador, and EcoDistricts AP. She is an Affiliate Instructor at the University of Washington, Department of Real Estate Studies, where she teaches the course, Risk and Reward in Sustainable Development. Nicole authored a chapter in Health and Well-Being for Interior Architecture (IDEC 2018 Book Award), published by Routledge. Nicole serves on the Board of the American Institute of Architects in Seattle, which awarded her an Honorary Membership in 2021 for her leadership on holistic sustainability, and legal stewardship of sustainable architecture and development in the Seattle community.