Office workers' wellbeing

The concept of smarter, more environmentally-friendly buildings – which use fewer resources such as water and energy – has become almost commonplace over the past few years, but the latest frontier in sustainability goes beyond the fabric of a building and focuses on the health and wellbeing of those that use them.

A new report from the Urban Land Institute, Picture of health – The growing role of wellbeing in commercial real estate investment decision-making, says the trend is "being embraced by building owners and developers despite little concrete evidence yet that incorporating wellbeing features can increase rents or a building's liquidity".

So why do building owners embrace such change without an obvious financial return? The reason is that changes are increasingly being demanded by tenants – it is yet another way to attract or retain workers in the face of increasing competition for talent, according to the research which was sponsored by E.ON.

This is not altruism on the part of tenants, but good business. For the employer, that focus on attracting and retaining the right talent by providing a healthier environment has wider consequences in a cut-throat economy. “The difference of six months to get your product out before your competitor can be the difference between life and death, so spending more on office space for the best productivity could be literally worth millions," says one analyst in the report.

The rise in the importance of wellbeing is strongly influenced by the move towards more shared and flexible workspaces, typified by co-working brands such as WeWork. The research found “this flexibility is changing how traditional real estate needs to be managed to be successful: a more intensive operating model is required, more capital expenditure and day-to-day management to foster the right culture. Technology is also enabling this trend."

While these changes do not automatically create better wellbeing, they help to improve workers' environments because according to the report, “wellbeing also needs a flexible working environment, requires strong operational management, and can be supported with technology".

When design consultancy Hilson Moran moved to a new office in Manchester, it used the WELL Building Institute's seven concepts to guide its fit-out, focusing on air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. This meant it considered areas such as air quality, acoustics and reducing the amount of toxic substances used in everything from carpets to paint.

British Land, in its Broadgate development in the City of London, is focusing – among other factors – on the public spaces of the development. Not only does it provide bars, restaurants and outdoor seating, it is also applying to turn the central square of the scheme into a public park.

As well as incorporating physical changes such as ensuring more natural light in buildings and designing offices so that staff are encouraged to interact with each other, tenants are also overhauling human resources policies to increase the focus on mental health, creating workcafes where people can work as well as grab some lunch, and offering discounted gym memberships and wellbeing areas.

This new enthusiasm for wellbeing is happening even though the evidence supporting it is currently mostly anecdotal. Once research shows investors that tenants want such features, and are more likely to rent a building – or stay there – if these features are incorporated, they will become the norm rather than the exception.