When mindset met environment

by Tiffany Paczek
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An in-depth look at the relationship between workplace environment and employee well-being, through the University of Sydney’s research into the Positive Built Workplace Environment. By TIFFANY PACZEK.

Welcome to the age of the new Millennial, where – in the workplace at least – flexible working rules, salary isn’t everything and agile spaces are key. And here, a positive workspace thatpromotes a healthy mindset and employee well-being is a high priority for many of those with their nose to the grindstone. Even for those not actively seeking new employment, workplace culture plays an important role in employee satisfaction, wellness and, ultimately, whether or not they remain with their current company.

A business is built on its workers – they are the legs on which it stands, the drivers of profit and success, and the cogs within the corporate machine that keep it turning. Their importance should not be underestimated, and neither should the effect of their mental health on their ability to do their job well. And if workers’ mental health affects their job performance, and job performance affects the success and profitability of a business, then surely the business should concern itself with its workers’ well-being.

The University of Sydney has conducted world-first research into studying the relationship between a positive workplace psychology and mental well-being. The university’s Coaching Psychology Unit introduced the concept of the Positive Built Workplace Environment (PBWE) – “a holistic approach to workplace well-being where positive workplace psychology extends beyond HR functions into building design, interiors and the social environment of a workspace”.

The study ‘Towards a positive psychology of buildings and workplace community: delineating the benefits of the Positive Built Workplace Environment’ was conducted by Professor Anthony Grant, Sean O’Connor, Ingrid Studholme and Ariella Berger. It includes an in-depth qualitative case study of International Towers, Tower Two and Tower Three at Barangaroo Sydney looking at how a PBWE promotes sustainable high performance – both organisational performance and employee well-being.

To date there has been minimal research looking at how the physical built environment and the management of the physical space can influence important psychological factors such as positivity, competence, autonomy and relatedness and create a sustainable high performance workplace environment. This is where Grant and his team come in.

Grant established the world’s first Coaching Psychology Unit at the University of Sydney, where he is its director and researches and teaches the psycho-mechanics of positive change – the psychological, environmental and behavioural factors that facilitate purposeful, meaningful change. His new concept of the PBWE “links the strengths of the positive physical workplace environment with the humanistic and high performance aspects of positive leadership”.

Grant says, “The Positive Built Workplace Environment is really about a workplace that is built, designed and operated in a way that allows the people who work there to consistently produce high performance, and it also allows those people to consistently experience high well-being. It really is as simple as that.

“When we start to unpack that simple notion, we have two key characteristics. One is a physically designed workplace that allows communication and for people to work efficiently in groups, while also providing respite in the form of quiet, private spaces that satisfy certain tasks or needs, and it also requires the leadership to facilitate the growth and well-being of the individuals who work there.”

Towers Two and Three © International Towers

Essentially, a PBWE is an environment that is designed and operated in such a way that, by providing the optimal physical conditions and resources, it enables employees to deliver high performance and maintain both personal and organisational well-being. And, importantly, the PBWE promotes high performance that is both sustainable and consistent.

The key physical components of the PBWE are facilities and precincts that utilise flexibility in their design, alongside a building property management team that actively advocates for the positive values of inclusiveness, respect and engagement. The PBWE also encompasses a ‘green building’ ethos, which incorporates the principles of sustainable development and refers to both the structure of a building and the application of processes that are environmentally responsible and resource efficient throughout its life cycle.

According to Grant’s study, a well-designed workplace layout and a green working environment can:

  • increase organisational productivity by 19 percent
  • increase individual performance on cognitive tasks by over 61 percent
  • reduce respiratory complaints and headaches by 30 percent and help people sleep better, and
  • deliver significant return on investment (ROI) – for example, an investment of US$40 per person on improving air quality can result in a US$6500 increase in employee productivity.

The study also found that a positive psychological workplace environment is equally important. It states that “employees have three core psychological needs that, if ignored, reduce performance and well-being within the workplace”. These three needs are a sense of:

  • autonomy
  • competence, and
  • relatedness at work.

The PBWE can be measured through its impact on employees’ sense of these three needs, as well as through a new adaptation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

The research conducted at the towers at Barangaroo Sydney delves into the notion of a positive psychology of the built workplace environment through exploring the lived experiences of individuals, teams and organisations in these spaces. It seeks to portray potential links between the physical attributes of such workplaces and employee performance and well-being and organisational culture.

The research involved qualitative interviews with custodians, staff and other key stakeholders in the community at International Towers. Many participants commented on:

  • the impact of working in well-designed ‘green’ environments and how much they supported job performance
  • their appreciation to determine where, when and how they worked
  • the increased sense of autonomy and how it felt empowering
  • noticeable improvements in performance in both quality and quantity of their work, and
  • the open style of working and its benefits.

Many also highlighted their enhanced sense of well- being and made explicit links between the building design, leadership and individual well-being.

© International Towers

The study explores the relationship between the physical attributes of contemporary workspaces and employee performance and well-being, and it looks at the notion of the ‘flourishing workplace’. It then presents three models that can be used to understand and explore the PBWE. These are:

  • the Positive Built Environment Scale, which uses ‘self-determination theory’ (a theory of human motivations positing that all individuals have three basic psychological needs – for competence, autonomy and relatedness) as a framework for a proposed questionnaire with which to measure the psychological aspects of the PBWE
  • an adaptation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a psychological framework with which to evaluate the physical aspects of the PBWE, and
  • a theoretical model of the relationships between the various constructs.

Using an adapted version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, certain areas can be addressed within the workplace and its physical environment in order to create a self-actualising (be-your-best) workforce. These are ‘belonging’, ‘self-esteem’ and ‘self-actualisation’. Grant’s report notes, “Belonging needs can be addressed or encouraged by the use of physical space, which should be designed to facilitate positive interactions and connections between individuals and groups. When a worker feels they belong at work they are far more likely to develop a sense of purpose.

“Self-esteem needs can be enhanced at work by the sense of respect and appreciation within the environment, as well as the pride in the relationship to the building and building culture.

“Self-actualisation needs can be enhanced by shared common values, a sense of ethics and a lack of prejudice – along with the inspiring environment itself.”

Furthermore, the research also revealed that positive leadership significantly enhances personal and organisational performance and well-being.

“Values-based leadership is important at all levels, including the tenant organisations, the building designers, the building management team and the building service staff, and congruency between all of these adds significant value to the experience of working in the building,” the report states.

“The values and positive culture demonstrated by building managers can add a significant sense of purpose, pride and well-being in tenants and their employees.”

Grant says, “For many years we’ve seen the benefits of positive psychology in the workplace, including values-based leadership and values-based workplace environment or design on employee well-being. However, it is only now we are seeing the next wave of this workplace shift, where the two high-impact fields are brought together in a powerful integrated model.

“We are also seeing a more sophisticated approach to the structure of the workplace environment beginning to emerge where open-plan, flowing workspaces are balanced with accessible private rooms and workspaces. This is facilitating a shift from a hot desk set-up to a more genuinely cooperative workplace environment,” Grant says.

“Beyond this, there are now fantastic examples of where this purposefully well-being oriented environment is structured to allow serendipitous ways of meeting, which is of course where we see some of the best workplace innovation emerge.”

Recognise Gallery © International Towers


One’s physical environment has long been recognised and understood as having significant impact on mental health and performance. So, naturally, one’s workplace environment dramatically impacts both mental well-being and organisational productivity and success. Consequently, businesses and organisations now seek to work in buildings that offer spaces and environments that better facilitate individual, team and organisational performance.

Grant’s report notes, “Such performance enhancement may occur through providing a physical workplace environment that maximises the effective use of space and resources. Over the years, organisations have tried a wide range of design approaches including cellular office layouts, open-plan designs, hot-desking, and more recently, ‘New Ways of Working’ (NWoW) and activity-based flexible offices.”


A ‘flourishing workspace’ can be understood as a workplace that is “designed and operated in a way the provides the optimal physical, psychological and cultural conditions that enable employees to deliver consistently high performance, while simultaneously maintaining and enhancing employees’ well- being and creating a constructive positive organisational culture.”

Drawing from Anita Fuzi’s[1] work, Grant writes, “Co-working spaces are creative and energetic places where small firms, freelancers and start-ups can interact, share, build and co-create on a ‘rent-by-the-month’ basis and they provide support and facilities to enable entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses.”

These creative, community-based, interactive workspaces have shown to produce greater levels of innovation, creativity, teamwork and better quality work, according to Tammy Johns and Lynda Gratton in their Harvard Business Review article ‘The third wave of virtual work’[2]. And in ‘The impact of the ambient environment and building configuration on occupant productivity in open-plan commercial offices’[3], Mulville, Callaghan and Isaac found strong links between positive ambient office environmental conditions – for example, access to sunlight, views and air-conditioning – and positive behaviours and productivity in the workplace.

Grant also draws on the research from Allen et al (2016)[4] to support the notion that ‘green’ offices increase performance and well-being. The research found that, compared to ‘standard office conditions’, improved air quality could increase performance on cognitive tasks by 61 percent, and in some cases by over 100 percent. A 2017 study (MacNaughton[5]) looked at employees in 10 different green-certified buildings and found that employees had 30 percent less respiratory complaints and fewer headaches. Additionally, employees had improved cognitive performance by almost 27 percent and also slept better at night, as measured by sleep quality wristbands. “Such green office environments can deliver significant financial returns on investment,” Grant says.

He also highlights, “The key findings from the study were in two categories. The first category really was about what’s already known. The second category is about what’s happening at International Towers, and how it relates to our understanding of positive workplaces.

“We already know that a well-designed workplace can increase cognitive functioning by 61 percent – that you get better engagement and better sleep quality, and people are overall physically and emotionally better off within a well-designed environment. What we found with the International Towers study was that there is this synergetic effect between the built environment, and the leadership and the values that are espoused and enacted within it.

“We established the importance of having spaces to concentrate within the workspace, and spaces where people can simply look out and enjoy the vista and easily absorb natural light, because when we do that it triggers a real biological response – we feel physically better when we can do that. And when you combine that with leadership that values you as a person, genuinely, that allows you to make mistakes and exercise autonomy and make choices so you feel like you’re working with some meaning, that’s when the magic happens.”

Tower Two lobby © International Towers

Grant says of the PBWE, “In this next generation model, which is uniquely reflected within the International Towers environment, we can see the three basic human needs of self-determination or autonomy, competence and relatedness being brought together by the design and management of this new generation of workplaces – the Positive Built Workplace Environment. Lots of organisations have open-plan, free flow workspaces, but very few have also harnessed a specific set of human needs and values and encouraged the leaders to enact those values across all levels of the workplace.

“It is the synergy between positive leadership, positive design and positive values that makes the real difference. In today’s complex business environment, being high-tech or ‘green’ is not enough – [the research at] International Towers, Tower Two and Tower Three has shown Australia and the world how to combine sustainability, aesthetics, design and – most importantly – positive principles to create a truly flourishing workplace.”

A PBWE puts the onus on the building property management team to actively promote positive values such as inclusiveness, respect and engagement. The principles were put in place throughout International Towers, Tower Two and Tower Three, with environments designed to encourage and inspire cross-functional team interaction, including open spaces, visible gathering spaces, transparent activity rooms and connectivity between staff areas and event tenancies.

International Towers general manager Tony Byrne says the savings to industry can’t be underestimated. “By taking an inside-out approach to well-being, employers would be rewarded with greater innovation and customer-facing outcomes, while reducing work-related stress at the same time,” he says. “Creating optimal conditions for employees, in collaborative settings such as International Towers, has a bonus of being a drawcard for new and top talent, particularly Millennials.”

The data gathered from Grant’s research indicates that a PBWE does indeed have a significant impact on those who work there, and when positive values are supported and enacted by the building management and the design team, this creates a strong foundation for a positive and inclusive culture. It goes beyond the current research to date, extending from building design, internal fitout and leadership to include the importance of the role of building management in contributing to a positive workplace environment. The combination of these factors has the potential to enrich the lived experience of organisations and their employees.

Grant concludes by saying, “As the nature of work evolves and changes at an ever-increasing pace, we hope that our research helps further develop our understanding of how to better develop positive workplace environments that will support future organisational and individual development in a sustainable, humanistic fashion.

“My message for leaders is that if you want to create a truly flourishing workplace that has both high performance and high levels of well-being, changing and adapting your physical environment to support positive cultural changes is hugely important.” ●

Recognise Gallery © International Towers


[1] A Fuzi. (2015). ‘Co-Working Spaces for Promoting Entrepreneurship in Sparse Regions: The Case of South Wales’. Regional Studies, Regional Science, 2(1), 462-469.
[2] T Johns, & L Gratton. (2013). ‘The Third Wave of Virtual Work’. Harvard Business Review, 91(1), 66-73.
[3] M Mulville, N Callaghan & D Isaac. (2016). ‘The Impact of the Ambient Environment and Building Configuration on Occupant Productivity in Open-Plan Commercial Offices’. Journal of Corporate Real Estate, 18(3), 180-193.
[4] J G Allen, P MacNaughton, U Satish, S Santanam, J Vallarino & J D Spengler. (2016). ‘Associations of Cognitive Function Scores with Carbon Dioxide, Ventilation and Volatile Organic Compound Exposures in Office Workers: A Controlled Exposure Study of Green and Conventional Office Environments’. Environmental Health Perspectives, 124(6), 805-812.
[5] P MacNaughton, U Satish, J Guillermo, C Laurent, S Flanigan, J Vallarino, B Coull, J D Spengler & J G Allen. (2017). ‘The impact of working in a green certified building on cognitive function and health’. Building and Environment, 114, 178-186.


A Grant, S O’Connor, I Studholme, A Berger. University of Sydney and International Towers. (2018). Towards a Positive Psychology of Buildings and Workplace Community: Delineating the Benefits of the Positive Built Workplace Environment.

This article also appears in the August/September issue of Facility Management magazine.

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