Workplace wellbeing is now embedded in the very bricks and mortar of the building

For some time now, the debate about how the workplace adds to the bottom line of an organisation has focused increasingly on the subject of wellbeing. There are plenty of good reasons for this, with the issue subject to both the push of employers as well as the pull of employees. Everybody thinks it’s a good idea and it’s easy to see why. Wellbeing is about business ethics, recruitment and retention, productivity, physical and mental health, work-life balance, absenteeism and the management of a flexible workforce, and all the other things that underpin the success and health of an organisation and each individual. It suggests a more positive approach to the workplace than either health & safety or occupational health, both of which remain disciplines more focused on reducing risk and harm than promoting positive outcomes, as is the case with wellbeing. Neither is it about something as raw and nebulous as productivity, which remains difficult and even impossible to measure for knowledge and creative workers and only offers a single dimension on a key workplace issue anyway.

Wellbeing is also an issue that is perfectly attuned to a new era of work in which the old demarcations of time and place no longer apply. As these constraints have disappeared so too have those between the various professions that take decisions on workplace design and management, including executives, finance directors and people working at all levels in general management, FM, HR, IT and real estate. So it is no surprise to find that an issue like wellbeing has become one of the primary goals of firms in the modern era.

One of the most remarkable features about this shift is the way that wellbeing has become a major concern for the commercial property sector. Wellbeing is no longer the sole preserve of human resources, facilities management and other disciplines ostensibly more directly connected to the subject of workplace design and management. While we’ve been aware of the link between workplace design, productivity and wellbeing for decades, there is now a growing and more sophisticated interest in embedding wellbeing in the very bricks and mortar of a building.

The first major organisation out of the gates on the current link between wellbeing and building design was the World Green Building Council. In 2014, building on an even earlier study, it published its report Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices: The Next Chapter for Green Building, which linked a range of building characteristics with wellbeing including indoor air quality, thermal comfort, views of nature, access to daylight, acoustics, active design and workstation density. Last year, it brought its findings completely up to date with the publication Building the Business Case, which also incorporated a number of new factors including location and access to public transport and other amenities.

They are not alone in driving the agenda forward. The first version of the WELL Building Standard was released in 2015 by the International Well Building Institute. According to the IWBI, “buildings should be developed with humans at the centre of design” and the standard focusses on all of the important elements for which evidence exists for improving productivity for a building’s occupants. Those elements are categorised as air, water, light, nourishment, fitness, comfort and mind, a direct parallel with those identified by the Green Building Council.

This standard also establishes the link between wellbeing and environmentally friendly building design. Earlier this year, the Building Research Establishment (BRE) and the WELL Building Institute published a joint briefing paper outlining how certified BREEAM credits could be used to demonstrate compliance with the WELL Building Standard (WELL) post-occupation. Following the 2016 announcement of an agreement between the two organisations to ‘pursue alignments between WELL and BREEAM’, the document, Assessing Health and Wellbeing in Buildings, has been created to make it easier for those wishing to obtain both a certified BREEAM rating and a WELL Certified rating.

The latest organisation to enter the arena is the British Council for Offices (BCO). It has announced the launch of a  major research study into the links between wellbeing in offices. Wellness Matters: Health and Wellbeing in offices and what to do about it is a year-long project which aims to provide ‘definitive guidance on how to enable office Health and Wellbeing across a building’s lifecycle’. The BCO claims that the study has been commissioned ‘to critique existing health and wellbeing measurement and certification, identify the most recent and relevant medical evidence justifying a proactive approach to Health and Wellbeing in the built environment, and give guidance on the business case for investment in this space beyond simply improving productivity.’

The aims of the BCO in producing the report are made clear in both the original briefing document and a statement from Bill Page who Chairman of the British Council for Offices’ Research Committee. “The health and wellness agenda is, rightly, growing in importance and prominence,” he said. “Wellness Matters will respond to this, and will look to provide practical advice to BCO members on the issues surrounding Health and Wellbeing in offices and what they can do about it. There is still a perception in the industry that Health and Wellbeing is just something an occupier does in its fit-out and staff management and by association investors, developers and designers need not concern themselves. We fundamentally challenge that – there are opportunities throughout a building’s lifecycle to enable change. Successful intervention should manifest in shorter voids for developers; greater income retention for investors and healthier, happier staff for occupiers who will gain from better recruitment and retention.”

There is some urgency in this initiative because the next edition of the BCO Guide to Specification is due to be published next year, shortly after the culmination of the Wellness Matters study. The Specification Guide is the most widely recognised standard in the commercial property sector for best practice in office development.

One of the challenges the Guide has faced in recent years is keeping pace with changes in the market. As we have pointed out before, certain aspects of previous editions have dated quickly, not least the use of space standards. This is inevitable given the pace of change in the modern world, so it’s great to see a proactive stance taken on what we should now consider the most important factor in the way we design offices; namely how they nurture the wellbeing of the people that inhabit them. It is also a tacit recognition that this cannot be something that is addressed solely with the design and management of the workplace, but must come from the top down and ground up, embedded in the culture of the organisation and the very bricks and mortar of the building.

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Sion Davies is the Managing Director, London for Area Sq. He can be contacted via @SionAreaSq

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