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Ashley O’Neill
Ashley O’Neill

Leadership Lab

The new frontier in health and wellness: your office Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

Picture the scene: you get into the office at 8 a.m. You pick from a variety of locations to work from, all of which have access to natural light and views. You’re feeling a little stiff from sitting too long, so you raise the height of your desk so you can stand. The air feels fresh and, despite being an open plan office, Dave in finance’s phone call about his upcoming weekend plans is nothing but a faint muffle. Five-thirty rolls around and you leave with as much energy as when you started the day.

If you’ve just read the above while hunched over your desk under the harsh glare of strip lighting, without a window in sight and you have just knocked back your sixth cup of vending machine coffee, you might rightly think that scene appears fanciful. However, a new building standard is helping to change the way we create workplaces to put employee health and wellness at the forefront of office design to make the above scenario a reality.

The WELL Building Standard, the first standard to focus on enhancing the health of employees that work in a building, has been created to firmly combine work with wellness. That might sound like a lofty goal, but the pursuit of WELL Certification can appeal to even the hardest-nosed executive by boosting the bottom line through increasing staff productivity, attraction and retention.

So what does WELL Certification mean in practice for employers? Firstly, it’s about creating a workplace that meets those most basic of human needs of your staff, namely access to natural light, good air quality, acoustic comfort and ambient temperature. That might not sound like rocket science, but these basic human needs have been often overlooked in the past. So much so that in countless office studies, natural light, internal air quality and temperature control are routinely cited as the top three things office workers would most like to change to improve their wellbeing and satisfaction at work. These three rudimentary elements almost always outrank flashier office features such as onsite gyms or free food offered within the workplace.

Access to natural light is a core element of the WELL Building Standard, here with a view from CBRE’s Vancouver office.

At CBRE’s new offices, all employees sit within 25 feet of natural sunlight and the lighting system automatically adjusts to dim or brighten based on outside conditions, reducing exposure to electric lighting. According to a Northwestern University study, workers who are less exposed to synthetic electric lighting are more alert, sleep longer with less interruptions and report markedly better results in quality of life assessments.

By drawing from outside air and filtering out particle impurities, rather than simply recycling stale internal air, which many HVAC systems do, we have created an internal air quality which is in the top one per cent of offices globally and better than most homes. Our employees have reported feeling more alert, while experiencing a reduction in allergy related and cold like symptoms. These anecdotal results are supported by a recent study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory which recorded a 35 per cent decrease in short-term employee absences when internal ventilation rates were doubled at a test office.

To combat sedentary behavior, rebuked by many health professionals as ‘the new smoking’, all our employees have ergonomic sit-stand workstations so they can alternate between standing and sitting throughout the day.

In total, there are more than 100 features of the WELL Building Standard. These range from creating acoustic comfort by deploying white noise emitting diodes to reduce background noise, a leading cause of stress and distraction, to providing filtered water within 30 metres of workstations to encourage better hydration. However, the features are all united by their purpose, to create an environment that supports healthy behaviour.

We have been asked many times why we decided to pioneer the pursuit of WELL Certification in Canada and, as with any new certification or trend, there is always trepidation to be an early mover. However, we believe that in the next 10 to 15 years, business leaders will look back and think it was strange that there was a time when offices were not designed using this human-centric approach. When you consider that the average Canadian spends more than half their waking hours in an office, employers have the opportunity to make a considerable impact on their employees’ daily lives through their real estate decisions.

Outside of the health benefits, investing in WELL Certification addresses an issue top of mind for all employers – human capital. Employee salaries are almost always a company’s largest cost, representing typically 60 to 70 per cent of overhead, whereas real estate accounts for only 10 per cent. Yet, it’s no secret that the war for talent is heating up by the day and the office is no longer simply a place your people congregate to complete their tasks. It has become a vehicle for companies to enhance their culture and a real differentiating factor in being able to attract and retain the best talent.

Today, we’re in a climate where we have clients telling us anecdotally they are losing prospective employees to a rival firm because it’s offering staff better smartphones. So, accordingly, being able to say to your employees that you have created one of the healthiest work environments in Canada is a powerful differentiator.

Ashley O’Neill is vice president of corporate strategy at CBRE. Ms. O’Neill manages the development and implementation of CBRE’s workplace transformation program across Canada as part of a multi-year project focused on employee and client engagement through wellness and sustainability.

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