Why wellbeing at work is more important than ever
The pandemic has brought concerns over wellbeing into sharp focus. As employers attempt to lure people back into the office, catering for their mental as well as physical health is now a top priority.
“Wellbeing is finally impacting on workspace design and it is long overdue,” says Ron Bakker, founding partner at PLP Architecture. “It is only recently that we have started to focus on how a physical space makes people feel. Finally the property sector is becoming less concerned with how many people you can squeeze on a floorplate and is instead creating environments that improve quality of life at work.”
The introduction of the WELL Building Standard has certainly helped focus minds. The certification provides a framework to ensure new-build or refurbished offices meet the needs of their occupants.
“Since the first lockdown, we’ve seen a four-fold increase in projects seeking certification and they now account for 4.7bn sq ft of space,” says Ann Marie Aguilar, senior vice-president EMEA at the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI). The standard was launched in Europe in 2017 and the UK has by far the highest take-up, with 1,670 projects engaging with one of its programmes. “People worry it is an expensive process, but fees are equivalent to $1 per person, with the programme focusing on delivering healthier spaces through design protocol, policies and facilities management,” says Aguilar.
The spaces we occupy have a major impact on our health
Ann Marie Aguilar, IWBI
“There is a growing appreciation that the spaces we occupy have a major impact on our health, and making changes to the built environment leads to better wellbeing and improved business outcomes.” Projects accrue points across 10 areas: air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind and community. It encompasses everything including the use of natural materials, controlling acoustics and promoting organisational transparency.
“It’s a very useful checklist to ensure you provide office occupiers with an enhanced experience”, says Ilyas Aslam, chief operating officer at Quadrum Global. The developer is working on 11 Belgrave Road in Victoria (pictured above), one of only six buildings to be WELL ‘Platinum’ pre-certified.
The building promotes better physical and mental health through a series of features, including a sophisticated air-filtration system supported by screens that inform occupants about levels of air quality.
It has invested in smart controlled heating and cooling systems to help people control their immediate environment; circadian lighting that mimics the natural progression of sunlight throughout the day; and 14,000 sq ft of communal facilities where people can eat, drink and exercise.
“Employers are now using office space as an HR tool, and supporting mental health and wellbeing is a critical component,” says Aslam. “For developers, that will mean giving up more lettable space for plants, communal areas or amenities, but that is what it takes to create better environments.” Prioritising workers’ mental health is about not only what happens inside the building but also offering access to quality outside space. At 11 Belgrave Road, Quadrum has transformed a car park into communal gardens. The gardens are accessible to all occupiers, offering timber seating, pollution-filtering plants and spaces to connect with nature.
“People need to connect with the outside world for the sake of their wellbeing and it’s important to offer external spaces for them to work in, escape to or socialise in,” says Lucy Arthur, operations and marketing director at AshbyCapital.
Wellbeing features at the developer’s 130,000 sq ft office and retail scheme The Kensington Building include landscaped terraces as well as 5m floor-to-ceiling-height offices to maximise access to natural light.
Arthur adds that outdoor space can support a variety of different uses. “Our Future Works building in Slough, Berkshire, also has a communal roof terrace equipped with space for meetings, plus opportunities to interact over a game of table tennis or time out on the bean bags.”
That chance to interact with colleagues and other tenants is key to the WELL ethos. Feeling part of a community is important for our mental health. AshbyCapital’s app has a social wall to keep users informed of events. Developers large and small are working hard to provide more opportunities for people to make connections beyond the workplace.
Elsewhere, at Green Park, Mapletree has been marketing its wellbeing credentials for more than 20 years. The 195-acre business park with its centrepiece lake is designed to help occupiers connect with nature, and the latest office building 400 Longwater Avenue has been WELL accredited. The park has a 9,000-strong community and the ability to create opportunities for people to come together is particularly beneficial to physical and mental health.
“We run 450 activities and classes every year,” says Nicole Coulson, Mapletree’s lifestyle manager. “That involves everything from carnivals and food festivals to open-water swimming and boot camps. Occupiers love to meet, network and collaborate.
“We also offer mental health workshops and talks, encourage people to share their experiences on our portal and train mental health first-aiders to offer support to colleagues.”
The office can no longer function as a battery-farm line of desks
Noel McGonigle, Savills
Property firms are also taking steps to improve the working environment for their own staff. From agents to architects, the industry is reassessing how workspaces, policies and procedures can be adapted to create happier workplaces.
Construction and property company Thomas & Adamson (T&A) used recent office moves to prioritise staff wellbeing and mental health. “We manage so many office projects and were determined to lead by example,” says senior partner Alastair Wallace.
“We were running a business modernisation programme with the key themes of people, technology and premises, and saw Covid-19 as an ideal opportunity to be brave and do things differently.” Lockdown demonstrated that staff could successfully work from home, so T&A decided to turn its office space from a place to get your head down at a desk between 9am and 5pm to an attractive space in which to socialise, collaborate and enjoy spending time.
“We wanted to entice people back to the mothership by putting their wellbeing at the forefront of the project,” says Wallace. “The first thing you encounter on arrival is a coffee shop by day and wine bar by night. Inside the office, we’ve broken down barriers with a completely open-plan design with a choice of spaces to work and interact in, including lounge areas and breakout bars.”
Array of benefits
Beyond the physical space, T&A has introduced 9am Monday morning fitness sessions and is focused on developing an array of benefits and awards that ensure talent is recognised and rewarded. Savills has also amended some of its working practices, according to head of HR Noel McGonigle. “If we’re to take wellbeing seriously, the office can no longer function as that old-fashioned battery-farm line of desks,” he says.
“The pandemic has made us all reassess what is important to us and that needs to be reflected in the workplace.”
Savills now allows line managers to agree with staff where and when they work, rather than having hard-and-fast rules. At its offices, spaces have been created to facilitate collaboration, learning and development.
“We also have to provide the infrastructure to allow people to be the best version of themselves, offering opportunities for them to be fit, healthy and free to talk about their mental health,” says McGonigle.
The company has a busy events calendar focused on wellbeing and marking key dates including World Suicide Prevention Day.
The business has trained more than 200 mental health champions and offers services including access to a virtual GP and online counselling sessions.
“Our data shows that there is a high take-up of these types of resources,” says McGonigle. “Mental health is still something of a taboo and as an employer it is our responsibility to be very vocal about our commitment. It’s about embedding it in the culture and putting your money where your mouth is.”