Max Goode, an Associate Partner at Carter Jonas in London, gave this question some thought as a panel member at YEP London’s Wellbeing in Commercial Design Seminar, hosted in Carter Jonas London headquarters earlier this year.
Max is firmly of the view that wellbeing is an important facet of the commercial property market.
The importance of employee wellbeing
‘Employee wellbeing has become a top priority for employers.
’ says Max, ‘For this reason, our event focussed on the importance of wellbeing in the workplace, how architects and developers can incorporate this with greater consistency in future office buildings, and what this means for planning and development.
‘It’s not just about providing a fruit bowl: we’ve learnt that incorporating effective wellbeing starts with early design and feasibility work, such as increasing the size of windows and introducing sufficient plant to provide air filtration. Like sustainability, wellbeing began as a “nice to have” but it’s certainly here to stay.
Associations with sustainability
There are many parallels between wellbeing and sustainability, and much that the implementation of the former can learn from the latter.
‘Another common feature is a lack of a clear definition: one which can result in wellbeing meaning different things to different people – or nothing to anyone. In fact our event began with the panel describing what wellbeing meant to them, and the five panellists all gave very different answers.’
The World Health Organization’s definition, which dates back to 2014, is that wellbeing is a state in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her own community.
While not relating specifically to the workplace, this definition applies to workplace design just as it does any other facet of life.
‘Embedding wellbeing in the workplace will require a common definition
,’ says Max, ‘And the WHO definition serves the purpose. Productivity is particularly important in workplace design, as is employee engagement.
Earlier this year, the British Council for Offices (BCO) released an early update to its Guide to Specification
, which provides expert advice on how to specify office space to take wellbeing into account. The update advises designers on how to create healthier offices that support changing working patterns, while reducing carbon emissions. Its new recommendations include:
- Adoption of 10m2 space-per-person
- Minimum sustainability target of BREEAM ‘Excellent’ and 5 Star NABERS UK target for new buildings
- Aspirational targets for operational and embodied carbon use to meet net zero carbon goals
- Increased levels of outdoor air supply
- More efficient lighting installations
- Reduced power and cooling loads
- Higher performance facades
- More flexibility in the range of structural spans for office space
It is impossible to focus on change without taking into account the considerable impact of Covid 19. The pandemic unleashed the greatest experiment in working practices we have ever seen. With very little warning – even a chance to be allocated a laptop and buy a suitable office chair - millions of people across the world were working from home.
The future of healthy workplaces
For many, the working from home revolution delivered the perfect work/life balance, one that they will be reluctant to relinquish. And so there is an uncomfortable contradiction at the heart of the wellbeing in the workplace revolution: the fact that for many, wellbeing is best addressed through not working in an office. The BCO guidelines aspire to create better offices, with more space for everyone, but will ultimately come at a cost. Are the changes enough to tempt commuters back to the workplace, or is investment in the workplace a high stakes gamble with no certainty of success?
Max explains, ‘Wellbeing in the workplace is partly a response to Covid, but not only because it provides an environment which competes with home working. It also compensates for the many omissions that have been brought about by remote working: supporting corporate culture and identity, encouraging collaboration, providing employee support and of course, enabling more effective management.
‘Just as wellbeing lacks a definition, it also lacks conclusive research to support its adoption. Fortunately this is changing, as increasingly specialist companies are conducting research in this arena.
‘With more substantive research in place, there’s a possibility that the current guidance can become future policy. The difference between guidance and policy would be significant, making the difference between an aspiration and a minimum standard to which all developers must comply.’
A return on investment
This raises the question, is the considerable investment in wellbeing one which all companies should be obliged to make? Or do onerous costs make office-based jobs unviable for some sectors, giving charities and other not-for-profit organisations no alternative to home-based working?
‘Research carried out to date gives a clear indication that money spent on employee wellbeing will provide a good return on investment
,’ says Max. ‘We are already starting to see a two tier approach to wellbeing in the commercial market, and lack of policy will only increase this.
‘In planning there are numerous examples of new initiatives which have initially been met with resistance by the market: increased affordable housing targets, CIL, and more recently biodiversity net gain. But the planning system is adaptive and exists to deliver the best possible outcome through balance. There will invariably be situations in which pre-application discussions lead to benefits being traded to produce the best scheme for the specific circumstances. Good planning policy allows for this.
‘Developers will take a view based on viability but also on the prospect of a successful planning application. If wellbeing policies are met, a scheme will stand a better chance of approval. Policy provides a necessary ‘stick’ to accompany the ‘carrot’ of guidance.
‘Inevitably there will have to be exceptions, such as refurbishments of listed buildings which would form a potential material consideration to the application of policy. We have recently gained planning consent for the refurbishment of a Grade 2 Listed building in central London. In this instance it would have been challenging to make alterations to the external appearance of the building through creating larger windows or installing additional plant, but other wellbeing adaptations were made which the Council supported.
‘The downside to policy is that it is so slow to implement. But in the meantime there is an opportunity for local authorities to lead the way. Some have already done so.
‘In the private sector, we have succeeded in achieving planning consent for Barwood Capital in the London Borough of Richmond and the refurbishment of ‘CAMPUS’ Reading International provide 177,500 sq ft of ‘wellness’ focused workspace, for which the developer is in the process of achieving a ‘Platinum’ WELL accreditation.
As exemplars such as these inform research, and research helps clarify a definition and a case for wellbeing, the case for a policy will emerge. As with sustainability, that may be slow, but overtime will become integral to good office design.