Americans spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, and that includes racking up an average of 50 hours a week in the office. Long hours, stress and the lack of physical activity of many office jobs can take a toll on people’s health.
But, what if office buildings could actually help people become healthier? What if they could promote a healthy lifestyle and "engage" employees to make healthy choices in their workspace? This concept is relatively new, but it’s one that the commercial real estate industry is taking seriously.
Real estate professionals are looking into what wellness means for their existing properties and new development, as more and more research shows that buildings affect health. Strategies could be as simple as offering healthy vending-machine snacks rather than soda and chips and encouraging tenants to take the stairs by adding signage, better lighting and even piped-in music.
HEALTHY SPACE MATTERS
Companies are focusing on employee health and wellness as a way to improve productivity, cut healthcare costs, decrease absenteeism and attract and retain top talent in a competitive marketplace.
Human capital represents the majority of a company’s expenses—more than rent or utilities—so, as more tenants demand a healthy physical environment for their employees, more building owners and property managers are stepping up and making improvements to their properties. "There’s a significant body of research and evidence showing that the built environment actually is linked to our health and wellbeing," says Kelly Link, a workplace strategist at architectural firm Perkins+Will’s Minneapolis office. "It’s really starting to gain traction now because of this trend of wellbeing and wellness in the workplace, and people are just expecting that these days. The bar has been set pretty high."
Businesses also are using their workplace as a recruiting tool, and that includes touting healthy perks. That’s a smart move, since 78 percent of millennials see workplace quality as important when choosing an employer, and 69 percent will trade other benefits for better workplaces—even salary, according to CBRE research. It’s projected that millennials will make up roughly half of the workplace by 2020.
"There’s definitely a war for talent," notes Liz York, chief sustainability officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "How are you going to get the smartest, hardest-working people to choose your company? Space matters. We used to try to attract them with our great buildings, but it’s not enough. They have to be healthy, too."
HOW DO YOU MAKE BUILDINGS HEALTHIER?
While certifications like LEED focus on sustainability for buildings, there now are healthy building certifications focusing on the health and wellness of people working in the buildings. One certification is Fitwel, developed by the CDC and the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which partnered with the Center for Active Design to administer the program.
Fitwel promotes healthy workplaces by improving indoor air quality and encouraging increased activity, social interaction and healthy food options. Fitwel has 63 strategies designed to contribute to healthier office space, including bicycle parking, stairwell design, outdoor spaces and proximity to public transit. Each is weighed by the strength of evidence that it works and its health impact. Fitwel can be used by building managers to improve their space incrementally, even those with smaller budgets. "You can now say that putting up a sign about using the stairs, [for example], is more impactful than investing in blinds," says Joanna Frank, president and CEO of the Center for Active Design. "You can actually start to prioritize design and operational strategies based on impact."
"We wanted to make this system easy, so that you don’t have to be an expert [in] health to start to change the health-promoting aspects of your building," York adds. "We wanted to give this system over to a building manager or someone responsible for the yearly maintenance of the building. They have a budget to do their maintenance and improvement, and we want to get some of these health-promoting items on their to-do list."
The WELL Building Standard from the International WELL Building Institute is another healthy building certification. CBRE’s new global corporate headquarters in downtown Los Angeles became the world’s first commercial space to achieve WELL certification in 2013. The headquarter’s features include air filtration systems, sound-damping walls, energy-absorbing flooring, water hydration stations, fresh food options and wellness activities like yoga classes.
WELL is performance-based and certification requires an outside consultant. Buildings need to be recertified every three years.
These types of certifications may benefit a tenant’s bottom line when it comes to productivity; recruitment and retention; and reduced absenteeism. But, they also impact building owners, because tenants are now making space decisions with employee health, wellbeing and productivity at the top of their priority lists.
SIMPLE STRATEGIES THAT WORK
Of course, much of this work can be done without a certification. "For a facilities manager or operations manager within a company, there’s very low-hanging fruit [options] that they can take advantage of that are low-cost and easy," says Link, who is a Fitwel ambassador. Property teams can be active partners in this effort.
Strategies include offering fresh food options, filtered water and walk-off mats at entries (which can catch contaminants from the outdoors). Others include signage in the bathrooms to promote hand washing; a green-purchasing policy for cleaning supplies; and a tobacco-free environment, both inside and outside the building.
Building professionals also can encourage movement by adding staircase signage. An upgrade to the aesthetics of the stairwell could be accomplished with a fresh coat of paint or with some art.
Property teams that want to cater to a better work-life balance for their tenants also can consider things like adding a dedicated, comfortable lactation room for mothers returning to work after having a baby. "Providing a lactation room allows the employer to…support that returning employee during one of the hardest transitions in the human life stage," York says.
Other suggestions include adding wellness rooms, bike storage with showers, outdoor spaces, access to a fitness center and better lighting. "It’s a lot of simple stuff and immediately actionable," Frank explains. "This stuff all incrementally changes behavior."
When people feel like their physical environment is designed with them in mind, they feel included and they’re able to work within the spaces in a way that supports their individual needs and preferences, according to York.
A WELLNESS RENOVATION
Zeller Realty Group, which owns the 1.1 million-square-foot Fifth Street Towers in downtown Minneapolis, reinvented the property to meet today’s tenants’ needs—including employee health and wellbeing. In fall 2017, the company unveiled a multimillion-dollar renovation that added amenities like an outdoor rooftop patio with televisions and skyline views, a relaxing tenant lounge, an indoor "bike hub" with bike parking, a repair shop and locker rooms with showers.
The space also includes a new staffed fitness center, vending machines with healthy snacks and a wellness center with private wellness rooms—including spaces for mothers who are nursing, as well as reclining "nap pods" for tenants to recharge.
Kevin Connolly, general manager at Zeller, says there’s research on the productivity benefits of sleep. According to NASA research, 20 minutes in one of these nap pods takes an individual into a deep meditative state, which equates to two hours of sleep, and "you’re refreshed and rejuvenated and ready to get back to work," he explains.
Connolly says the renovation was designed so people can perform at their highest level. "And, it’s not going to end there," he adds. "We’re going to look for ways to continue to refine our amenities package. We’re really seeing and hearing that health and wellness, wellbeing, engaged employees and productivity are important to decisionmakers."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Liz Wolf is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer with 30-plus years of business and commercial real estate reporting experience. She previously served as editor of the Minnesota Real Estate Journal.