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The pursuit of happiness (in the workplace)

Research shows we spend 90% of our time indoors, which has an enormous impact on our wellbeing and productivity. Could “healthy” buildings help us feel better, too?

Brendon Hooper, Contributing Editor , Modus
11 January 2019

Research shows we spend 90% of our time indoors, which has an enormous impact on our wellbeing and productivity. Could "healthy" buildings help us feel better, too?

When commercial property company Landsec considered moving to a new headquarters in London, it knew it had to offer its employees a radically different workplace than before. A pre-move survey of its existing premises found staff were fed up with uncomfortable work stations and unsatisfactory levels of lighting, air quality and temperature.

The developer selected a 10-year-old building from its own portfolio, 100 Victoria Street, and to help improve employee satisfaction and productivity, it decided to refurbish the office to the highest standards for office wellbeing it could achieve. "The impact the physical space has on workplace culture is profound, and intrinsically linked," explains Ed Dixon, Landsec's sustainability insights director. "So, from the outset, considerations around wellbeing were integral to the refurbishment."

Using the WELL Building Standard as a framework, the refurbishment introduced measures to improve air quality and maximise access to natural light, and added extra communal spaces such as meeting pods, sofas and informal work areas. Staff were encouraged to try activity-based working, such as using sit-stand and treadmill desks – that allow you to jog or walk while you work – while showers were provided for cyclists and runners, and a free juice and healthy snack bar introduced.

Vindicating Landsec's decision, the 2017 refurbishment achieved both BREEAM Outstanding and WELL Silver certification in recognition of its sustainability and health and wellbeing credentials. Meanwhile, a Leesman workplace satisfaction survey found that 88% of staff thought the new office design enabled them to work productively, against a global average of 67% – and a 20% improvement on Landsec's previous office.

It is estimated we spend up to 90% of our time indoors and, as chronic health conditions rise globally, promoting physical activity and raising wellbeing in our buildings is one of the most meaningful interventions architects and designers can make. Health-boosting measures, such as providing access to natural light, fresh air, green space, leisure facilities and affordable healthy food, help raise productivity at work, but are also some of the most cost-effective ways to attract and retain talent.

“We knew that this office could become a showcase for what the rest of the company could do. In that respect, the office becomes your brand for attracting great talent, and a physical manifestation of the product you are selling to customers.” - Ed Dixon, Sustainability Insights Director, Landsec

Well on the way

Such a philosophy is apparent at Delos Solutions in New York. Since 2014, the wellness real estate and technology firm has spearheaded the formulation of the WELL certification. The standard is the first in the industry to focus exclusively on the ways that buildings, and everything in them, can enhance comfort and health for users. At present, 960 projects are engaged with WELL certification across 35 countries.

For Janna Wandzilak, director at Delos, spending a little more money on improving physical and mental wellbeing in the workplace should be a no-brainer for most organisations. "Research suggests that better air quality, and access to natural light and biophilia [a person's connection to nature] brings better focus and decision-making skills," she says. "If employees function better, this will have a positive effect on a company's bottom line."

Located in Manhattan's Chelsea district, the Delos office is itself a showroom for many of the best techniques for raising workplace wellbeing. "For example, all of our work stations and computer monitors are height adjustable," says Wandzilak. "There is also a thermal 'gradient' that changes across the office, so you can move to a warmer or cooler area, depending on your preference. This encourages staff to move around, too."

As well as treadmill desks and bike-seat desks – at which you can cycle while you work – there is a variety of spaces for people to occupy, such as a terrace, a cafe, focus rooms or collaboration areas. "On the nourishment side, we've positioned our cafe right where you enter the office, so not only can you get a fresh, healthy snack, it also acts as an integral community space," Wandzilak adds. "Staff are provided with a free, healthy lunch three times a week, too."

Five steps to a healthier office

Ann Marie Aguilar, director of operations, Europe, International WELL Building Institute

1. Let there be light

Natural light typically tops the list of most desirable office attributes. Designing for this helps keep better track of employees' circadian rhythms, but can also be attained with new circadian lighting systems.

2. Adaptable workspaces

Employees need freedom to use different spaces for different activities – quiet zones for thinking, open areas for collaboration – and the flexibility to adjust their workspace, for example with sit-stand desks and task lighting. These also encourage movement and interaction.

3. Diversify project teams

Encourage non-core members of a project team to work alongside architects and designers. Facilities managers and human resources professionals, for example, have much to share when it comes to policies and practices that lay out how the workplace will be utilised and managed daily.

4. Nurture some nature

Our connection to nature cannot be underestimated. Incorporating design through materials, sounds, patterns and colours that mimic the natural world can improve physical and mental wellbeing by reducing stress and absenteeism, and increasing productivity.

5. Nourishment is key

Make healthy choices easy in the canteen: label ingredients and offer healthy snacks to kick-start positive eating habits. Also provide accessible drinking water, as even low levels of dehydration can impair cognitive ability and energy.

Jane Wakiwaka, sustainability manager at the Crown Estate in London, says that achieving a high-level wellbeing certification for the workplace is all well and good – but it is just as important to consider how the standards are maintained. Last September, the land owner and developer's St James's Market headquarters became the first office in Europe to be awarded Platinum, the highest level of WELL certification. As well as having a high-quality base build, careful thought was given to the selection and procurement of paints and materials with low-volatility organic compounds, to help maintain healthy indoor air quality levels for years to come.

Better wellbeing in the workplace is no longer just a "nice to have", says Wakiwaka. "There is a strong understanding and an improving awareness of how the built environment can have an impact on people's mental and physical health and, what's more, people are now demanding workspaces they feel good in. To remain competitive, we need to react to this. Up to 90% of a business's costs will be staff related, so anything we can do as a landlord or developer to help staff productivity can only be a benefit."

Promoting better wellbeing and health in the workplace is becoming a priority at the highest levels across the property world. Last October, Knight Frank India entered into a memorandum of understanding with Delos to advance healthy buildings throughout the country. Commenting on the alliance, Shishir Baijal FRICS, chairman and managing director of Knight Frank India, said: "Economic growth historically has been at the cost of health and happiness of its working population. Our alliance with Delos ... will ensure that people, who are the essence of our progress, experience an enabling environment keeping their physical and mental wellbeing in focus."

Of course, some companies will find undergoing such health and wellbeing transformations easier than others. "Companies like Landsec that are able to take an organisation-wide approach to health and wellbeing will be able to achieve certifications such as WELL more quickly than those who have to negotiate with others sharing the building," explains Dixon.

Therefore, the role of "chief wellbeing officer" has to become fundamental to the operation of offices in the future, and respected at a senior management level, says Dr Steven MacGregor, CEO of the Leadership Academy of Barcelona and co-author of Chief Wellbeing Officer. "The role will be key to minimising negative health impacts, sickness and absenteeism."

He adds that we shouldn't forget there are inexpensive approaches to wellbeing – from indoor plants to moving the location of the office printer – smaller, effective nudges can improve people's health. "We ignore employee health at our peril," he states. "Wellbeing must be taken seriously."

To find out more about the role that the built environment can play in improving wellbeing, read RICS' latest insight paper at rics.org/citieshealthwb

  • This article originally appeared in the January 2019 edition of Modus
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