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The heart of office: The kitchen’s crucial role in workplace wellness and productivity

July 23, 2018

By Blake Jackson

How designing space for mindful eating can create lasting benefits for office culture and creativity

The alarm goes off and you wake groggy from another restless sleep. You sleepwalk to the shower, brush your teeth, and barely savor two sips of coffee before you realize you’re late. You skipped breakfast again, so, you scarf down something from the vending machine while catching up on emails. By lunchtime you’re headed to the nearest drive-through and then right back to the office to eat alone at your desk.

You’ve crossed paths with the vending machine three times today, far more than the number of times you’ve encountered colleagues, who also take lunches at their desks. What were their names again?

As we consider opportunities to optimize workplace design for productivity, efficiency, and employee wellness, it’s important to consider the vital role mindful eating plays in the workplace.

The National Retail Federation’s Headquarters in Washington, D.C., exemplifies ideal space for mindful eating with an open, flexible kitchen area for collaboration and interaction.

Why mindful eating matters

Eating is a joy that brings people together, often informally, not only to nourish our bodies but also to provide a necessary break for our minds to relax and refuel. That’s particularly important in today’s demanding work culture.

By designating space for communal eating in the workplace, we can accomplish both personal and corporate benefits. This communal setting facilitates a democratic space, where silos and ranks comingle to share stories, ideas, and build relationships through inclusiveness. Additionally, evidence shows that workplace socialization ultimately increases productivity.

What better place to facilitate this than through accommodating the simple and necessary pleasure of eating together?

Defining space for mindful eating

Mindful eating requires a space that traditional, pragmatic galley kitchens cannot facilitate.

For mindful eating to flourish, spaces need to be open, welcoming, accessible, centrally located, and be able to facilitate both work and leisure activities. Third-party, health-focused rating systems have identified the need for such spaces to be programmed into facilities, awarding projects for incorporating these health and wellness spaces.

Among these standards, Fitwel awards points for having a “multi-purpose” space, as well as “healthy eating” aspects such as free access to drinking water, “healthy” vending, hand washing signage, and even on-site fruit and vegetable gardens/farmer’s markets. WELL does the same, requiring fruit and vegetable options to be sold on-site and even notes portion control through dishware sizing and appliance standards. One of WELL’s main features, Mindful Eating, awards credit for providing an eating space to accommodate a minimum of 25% full-time equivalency (FTE) occupants, which, if programmed in, substantially enables the ability of a space to promote healthy eating practices and socialization.

For mindful eating to flourish, spaces need to be open, welcoming, accessible, centrally located, and be able to facilitate both work and leisure activities.

Putting the pieces together

With so many aspects of healthy eating, there is an illusion that a mindful eating-focused space differs drastically from the traditional office kitchen setup. In fact, both “typical” and “healthy” eating spaces include the same basic components: furnishings, cabinetry, and appliances. The main difference is in the sizing and specification of materials.

This common misconception inspired me to place the requirements from LEEDv4, Fitwel, and WELL into an illustration (as seen below) for a hypothetical workplace (30,000-square-foot leasable space and 150 occupants). While all strategies are not required, they purport an optimized guideline for improving both resource efficiency and occupant health:

  • Seating for 45 (30% FTE) > 25% minimum (WELL optimization)—overall space 1,150sf (~4% area)
  • Recycling collection (LEED prerequisite)
  • Healthy vending (WELL precondition; Fitwel criteria)
  • Vegetable garden 160 sf > 1 sf/FTE (WELL optimization; Fitwel criteria)
  • Low-flow fixtures/EnergyStar Appliances (LEED credit; WELL precondition)
  • Informational signage (LEED innovation credit; WELL precondition; Fitwel criteria)

*Note: this study presumes specifications to meet tenets of all systems.

Aspects 1-7 of a “healthy eating space” for LEEDv4, WELL, and Fitwel compliance.

Aspects 8-12 of a “healthy eating space” for LEEDv4, WELL, and Fitwel compliance.

Programming is crucial

The major decision enabling mindful eating is making the proactive choice for programming. We are asking programmers to make space; designers to specify certification-compliant appliances, seating, and amenities; and purchasers to reinforce the design intent during operational usage.

With sufficient space, any or all aspects can be easily incorporated. If planned at the beginning, cost premiums can be avoided through redistribution of funds and/or area for other programs, such as minimizing the number of formal conference spaces needed. The 12 aspects listed in the above diagrams, are all supported by evidence-based research that supports healthy outcomes.

A better tale to tell

In the lounge off the elevator lobby, there is a selection of fresh fruits and yogurt for breakfast and snacking. You find yourself taking breaks from your desk to socialize with other colleagues in the lounge as well. 

These small but heathy choices throughout the day have helped you sleep better, and you even find yourself motivated in making homemade lunches to enjoy with colleagues in the lounge. Through conversation you find there is an interest in yoga, so you introduced a “yoga after hours” in the lounge for anyone who wants to participate. 

Your company is offering you the amenities and perks that help you feel rejuvenated and focused on your job, but more importantly, they provide and foster an environment that keeps you connected to the people around you.

Three-dimensional representation of a “healthy eating space.”

  • Blake Jackson

    Blake is a passionate architect who specializes in designing and implementing stewardship (sustainability, wellness, and resiliency) for a variety of projects and industries.

    Contact Blake
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