Can your office space make you healthier?

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For the last few decades, workplace strategy and design have focused primarily on function and footprint. While this has resulted in cost efficiencies by fitting more bodies onto smaller floor plates, the process paid scant regard to employee wellness.  
Throw in longer working hours and it’s no coincidence that mental health problems have emerged as the number one cause of workplace disability claims in Canada.

Nevertheless, against this backdrop, a burgeoning trend in workplace design is aiming to prove that the office can be an environment which is actively beneficial to the health of employees.

If you read that last sentence hunched at your desk, late at night under the glare of strip lighting and have just finished your dinner by eating a third pack of candy from the vending machine, you’re probably thinking it sounds ludicrous.  However, the WELL Building Standard, the first building standard to focus on enhancing the health and wellbeing of the people that occupy a building, aims to combine work with wellness.
As with any new certification, there is always trepidation to be a first mover and many companies will understandably want to take a ‘wait and see’ approach.  However, our decision to pursue WELL Building certification in our Vancouver and three Toronto offices reflects our belief that, in the next 10 to 15 years, business leaders will look back and think it was strange that we didn’t take human centric approach to designing the workplace.  A place where, it’s important to remember, the average worker spends over half of their waking hours.

The elements of WELL and their benefits for employees

The WELL Building Standard is defined as “a performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and wellbeing through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind.”

What we have found from the process of pursuing WELL certification is there are real-world and measurable benefits to employee engagement and satisfaction levels. In fact, if we take a look at air, light and comfort, these elements of WELL dovetail very closely with the top three features that several studies report that employees would most like to change about their office to improve overall well-being and satisfaction at work.  Namely, internal air quality (‘IAQ’), temperature control and greater access to natural light. 

As such, at our Toronto and Vancouver offices, no employee is sat more than 25 feet from natural sunlight or views.  In order to lessen the impact of electric lighting on employees, we installed a circadian-relevant lighting system that automatically adjusts to brighten or dims based on the level of natural light outside.  A Northwestern University study in Chicago revealed that office workers who have less exposure to electrical lighting are more alert, active, have longer and less interrupted sleep and report markedly better results in quality of life assessments.  Furthermore, all individual workstations are sit-stand desks to encourage improved fitness, reducing the well-known health impacts of sedentary behavior that most traditional desks encourage.

Pollutants in an office’s air can cause dizziness and headaches, plus aggravate allergies and asthma, making IAQ critical in reducing incidents of respiratory illness and related absenteeism.  As a result, the IAQ in our Toronto and Vancouver offices are in the top 1% of all offices globally.  This has led to our staff reporting that they feel fresher, more alert and experience reduced allergy symptoms. That’s not just a placebo effect talking, research from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recorded a 35% decrease in short term employee absence when internal ventilation rates were doubled at a test office.

WELL certification also takes square aim at background noise, which has been cited as one of the key causes of stress and distraction among office workers.  It sets out to create ‘acoustic comfort’ and an environment where employees can be more productive and focused.  Our offices utilize noise cancelling diodes, which are strategically placed throughout the space, that emit white noise to reduce the distance that background noise can travel.  Boardrooms, meeting rooms, phone and focus booths all feature felt paneling to absorb noise, keeping the conversation inside the room to reduce background noise and increase privacy.

The practical health benefits of WELL aside, it’s important to consider that the office has evolved from simply a destination where your employees complete their tasks.  Today, leading companies now look at the office as a medium to enhance their culture and brand.  It has become a powerful tool in attracting and retaining the best talent.  As such, with the workplace environment becoming a greater point of differentiation between companies, it’s a real statement of intent if an employer can say to current and prospective employees that ‘we are investing in our office space to give you the healthiest environment possible.’ 

By being early adopters in pursuing WELL Building certification, the benefits have been two-fold.  Firstly, having experienced it first-hand, we are in a better positon to counsel our clients through the process.  Secondly and, most importantly, by creating what is objectively one of the healthiest office spaces in Canada, we have provided concrete and daily evidence of our company’s commitment to our people’s well-being.  It’s no secret that the war for talent is heating up, and in an environment where we have clients telling us anecdotally that they were losing out on prospective employees to a rival firm which gave staff an iPhone instead of a Blackberry, these clear-cut points of differentiation matter even more.

By: Ashley O’Neill and Lisa Fulford-Roy

Ashley O’Neill is Vice President, Corporate Strategy at CBRE. She is coordinating the transformation of CBRE’s offices across the country as part of a strategic multi-year project.
Lisa Fulford-Roy is Managing Director, Workplace Strategy at CBRE. With over 20 years of experience, Lisa leads CBRE’s Workplace Strategy Initiatives in Eastern Canada.

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