Editor's note: In "Office Space," HR Dive explores all things office design. Today: WELL Certification. If you have an idea for another workspace design-related article or want to show off your own office, email HR Dive Associate Editor Katie Clarey at [email protected].
As employers explore ways to support worker health, they often launch wellness programming ranging from free yoga classes to on-site physical therapy. HR professionals who aim to ensure their organizations prize the well-being of employees may want to investigate how their mission could be furthered by another element: office design.
To ensure a workplace promotes the health of those who work inside it, some organizations seek certification from the International WELL Building Institute. "Through WELL, companies are demonstrating to employees that they prioritize their health, well-being and happiness," International WELL Building Institute President Rachel Gutter told HR Dive in an interview.
The original WELL standard, WELL Building Standard v1, helps organizations optimize health and well-being through design, operations and behaviors in seven areas: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. The latest version, WELL v2, builds on the original standard to emphasize equity, according to a report from WELL. The standard is equitable because it "provides the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, inclusive of all demographic and economic groups and with special consideration of groups of the least advantage or vulnerable populations," the report says.
Under WELL v2, projects can achieve three different levels of certification based on how many points they accrue. With 50, 60 and 80 points, projects earn WELL Silver Certification, WELL Gold Certification and WELL Platinum Certification, respectively.
Organizations build up points by meeting certain standards laid out by WELL. WELL v2 draws upon 11 "concepts": air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, community and innovations. Aside from innovations, each concept includes at least one precondition — a standard each organization must satisfy to receive certification. Projects do not earn points for the preconditions, but they must earn at least two points per concept (or at least four points combined for the air and thermal concepts).
Four preconditions are listed under the air concept, for example. Organizations seeking certification must ensure a basic level of indoor air quality, "deter smoking, minimize occupant exposure to secondhand smoke and reduce smoke pollution," provide proper ventilation and minimize pollutants. This concept also provides 10 "optimization" options organizations can add to bulk up their WELL scorecard. These optimizations range from operable windows to microbe and mold control.
A case study in engagement
Organizations that use the WELL standards to create workspaces can expect to see returns on their investments, according to Gutter: "Companies that have achieved WELL Certification in their offices have reported lower turnover rates, reduced absenteeism and improved productivity."
This characterized DPR Construction's experience after it renovated a 20,000 square foot vacant office space to house its Washington, D.C.-based workforce in Reston, Virginia. It began the $6.2 million project in 2015 and completed it in July 2016 with design partner SmithGroup, earning WELL Gold Certification. It spent less than $100,000 on WELL certification, including certification costs, pre-testing, labor for documentation and research. The firm will pursue similar certification in new office spaces it's building in Austin, Texas, and Sacramento, California, according to a spokesperson.
Before it reconstructed the Reston office, the firm's D.C. quarters gave off what DPR Construction Project Executive Chris Gorthy described as "law firm vibes." Its new workspace exchanges the stuffy atmosphere for one that invigorates its inhabitants. "Our employees, visitors, owners can come in and feel like they're immediately comfortable when they come in our doors," Gorthy told HR Dive in an interview. "We really started to think about it as an investment for our people."
In a white paper, DPR quantified some of the the new office, designed to meet WELL standards, made on its Reston-based workers. Employee engagement increased by 29%, the report found — a "tremendous" change, Gorthy said. "It's really an incredible opportunity for us to show to our people we care about them."
The jump in engagement may be explained by data on employee satisfaction DPR collected before and after it moved its D.C. workers to the Reston office. Satisfaction in hosting visitors, clients or customers jumped by 46% after the move. Satisfaction in relaxing and taking a break improved from 23% to 88%, according to information DPR provided to HR Dive.
The changes brought by the new office improved satisfaction in work activity, as well.
Matching construction to culture
As employers consider WELL certification or any other measure designed to uplift employee health in workplace design, they must ensure their workplace culture enables employees to make use of the features and amenities implemented, Gutter said. "We know that mindful eating and meditation throughout the day can improve both productivity and focus, but if you don't have a culture that encourages people to break for lunch or pause to breathe, then your dining area and meditation room are going to go unused," she said.
DPR recognized the importance of culture as it introduced its Reston workers to its new prioritization of nutrition. The new kitchen offered small cans of Coke and boasted signs signaling nutritional information of snacks. Some employees saw this as a decree forbidding them to eat food typically regarded as unhealthy at work, so DPR had to help them understand its intent to make available, not mandate, healthy options.
"There's just an education piece to get people away from being so scared they couldn't bring in leftover pizza from home for lunch," Gorthy said. Gorthy emphasized that DPR wanted to give people the choice to eat healthy; it still orders pizza from time to time, he said, but it also orders salad.
Other employers pursuing WELL certification will encounter other challenges. As they do, Gutter said, it's important for leaders to model their own pursuit of wellness. "That's why I make an active effort to let my team members know that I'm ducking out for yoga, taking a walking meeting or unplugging for vacation. Knowing how much my lifestyle and behavior impact those of my staff has actually been tremendously motivating," she said. "With all of the daily stressors of the job, tending to my own well-being can feel like a luxury that I can't afford. Sometimes it's easier to do it for the team that it is to do it for myself.