A room with a view: sustainable offices for new ways of working

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The link between sustainable workplace design, employee engagement and health and well being will play an increasing important part in business decisions in companies that place employees at the centre of their strategy.

In a recent survey of leading organisations domiciled across the globe carried out by commercial real estate services and investment firm CBRE, 67% of those interviewed reported they had implemented a workplace strategy to attract and retain talent.

This represents a 20% increase from the previous year (48%). Crucially, the second most popular reason to implement a workplace strategy was the desire to increase employee productivity (46%), up from 37% last year.

In this instance workplace strategy can be defined as the co-ordination of an organisation’s work patterns to enable peak performance and reduce costs.

The results show a marked shift by companies towards ‘people-centric’ issues. The survey, now in its fifth year, polls real estate decision makers at global corporations – collectively occupying approximately 200m sq metres worldwide – to understand their objectives and associated challenges across a broad range of issues. The respondents represent companies headquartered primarily in western Europe and North America spanning multiple sectors, of which the largest are banking and finance, professional services, and technology and telecommunications.

People-centric employers
To understand this gear change, we must first look back to the midst of the economic slowdown. At that time the key business challenge for companies was cost management, containment and reduction.

While this is understandable, when cost alone becomes the core strategy driver it creates a potential disconnect between companies and their employees. Today, most companies acknowledge these factors cannot be managed in isolation as evidenced by a third of respondents (33%) citing labour and skill shortages as a key business challenge, up from 21% last year.

In addition, the workforce featured heavily as an explanation for companies’ location decision-making. For example, approximately half of the respondents (46%) cited talent availability as a key factor behind location decisions, while 30% highlighted the cost of labour as a key driver. Both responses were 10% higher than the corresponding figures the previous year.

These figures show that companies are increasingly prioritising employee needs when making business and real estate decisions. A key driver of this is creating the optimal working environment, which is where sustainability and a new type of office ‘fit-out’ is coming to the fore.

In many instances office designs haven’t changed essentially in decades, the norm being fixed linear desks with little additional space for collaboration or occasional concentrated working. Furthermore, there is a traditional association between reward for seniority or promotion and private office space. This is set to change with new intelligence emerging.

For example, at CBRE offices in London, on average 60% of desks are occupied at any time during standard business hours, meaning over a third of desks are not fully utilised. If the one-desk-per-person policy is rationalised and the leftover space is re-purposed to create alternative work settings, it begins to transform the office environment.

The optimisation of space can be used to provide more collaborative space to encourage discussion, innovation and ultimately improved working relationships, communication and learning for employees. This approach inherently creates a less traditional and hierarchical mindset, where enclosed offices become shared spaces within the workplace to be used by any employee based on the task at hand, irrespective of seniority.

Furthermore, some ‘cutting-edge’ firms are continually experimenting with new office designs and fresh ideas to engage their employees. With an emphasis on employee health and wellbeing, relaxation areas including sleeping pods, garden areas for staff to unwind, art and music could all play an increasing part going forward.



Embedding sustainability
A knock-on effect is a drive for sustainable initiatives to be embedded in future workspaces. A programme called Workplace360 has been developed in CBRE and adopted in 21 of our global offices so far, including Amsterdam and Madrid in Europe.  The programme utilises a number of measures to create an office for the future. Most staff do not have assigned desks but rather are encouraged to move around, connecting with a wider range of team members and internal business units whilst storing possessions in personal lockers.

Alternative ways of working have also been introduced to facilitate staff self-selecting the most appropriate and supportive work setting to get their tasks completed. These include focus rooms, space for teleconferencing, open collaborative seating arrangements, and ample places for team work.

Particular attention is paid to allowing information and work tools to follow employees in the day-to-day working environment including cloud-based file management, follow-me printing, and online and site-based support services. This allows employees to be mobile throughout the day, protecting confidentiality of sensitive documents while minimising waste.

Just as crucial is the quality of the indoor environment as a key factor in a healthy and productive workspace. Access to natural and artificial light without glare, heating, cooling and ventilation that includes fresh air and access to views are features increasingly sought by companies. Balancing these features with energy efficiency is critical to maintain control of costs and environmental impacts. This can be achieved through the use of energy efficient lighting and air conditioning systems equipped with sensor controls to operate only when required.

Designers are increasingly incorporating biophilic design elements, or aspects of nature into workspaces. This trend builds on research in the healthcare and education sectors that shows improved human performance and stress reduction through contact with, or views of, natural landscapes. Initiatives include internal planting and the creation of landscaped areas for employees to view and experience.

These initiatives are adopted with the goal to optimise the health, wellness and productivity of office occupants, and thus improve business performance.

WELL building standard
A recent addition to the ‘green’ building ratings universe that seeks to address this area of increasing concern is the Delos WELL building standard. Launched in October 2014 and focusing purely on human wellness within the built environment, the WELL building standard identifies specific initiatives and practices to enhance the health and wellbeing of a building’s occupants.

Administered by the International WELL Building Institute – an American public benefit corporation – and now in association with the US Green Building Council’s LEED rating system, the WELL standard was developed with input from medical researchers and it includes initiatives in seven categories: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind.

CBRE’s own Los Angeles headquarters were developed using a pilot of the scheme in association with Delos and includes features such as smart lighting systems, energy absorbing flooring, advanced air purification, water filtration systems and anti-microbial coatings on all surfaces.

Location, location, location 
In addition to the internal environment, attention is also being paid to workplace location and the external environment. Amenity-rich locations with easy public transport accessibility are crucial, with 65% of the surveyed companies stating these factors are important for building selection and to attract younger employees. A key reason behind this is that work, in particular for the so-called Y Generation, is seen as an all-encompassing experience.

This is also evident in The Future of Work and the Workplace, a report published in October 2014 with results of a survey carried out on behalf of property developer and manager Genesis. It shows that 85% of interviewees responded that work and life will become more enmeshed by 2030.

Increasingly, a good salary alone is no longer enough. Employees want to work with like-minded intelligent individuals on exciting, creative and rewarding projects and increasingly in urban locations. In essence they are valuing lifestyle and happiness over money. This supports the increasing importance placed on workforce satisfaction and its impact on business decision making. Companies and organisations that fail to respond to this trend are likely to suffer.

Interestingly, the ‘people-centric’ features that companies are beginning to value are in fact long recognised ‘green’ building features. This is very positive news, as it means sustainable business practices are being increasingly adopted, just referred to under a different name.

Looking ahead, the common misconception that sustainability is low on the list of priorities for owners and occupiers of buildings will change. After all, a truly sustainable building is one that meets the needs of its stakeholders – owners, occupiers and investors – in the long term. Evidence is pointing towards the fact that big picture sustainability is becoming mainstream for a suite of companies.

The cost of labour, more often than not, is the single largest expense for companies, so the impact of improving productivity through shrewd working strategies can be material. With the correct advice, employee wellbeing and engagement can be enhanced concurrently with addressing corporate environmental goals, which will positively influence a company’s profitability, culture and brand. A healthier and happier workforce can be really beneficial for all stakeholders.

Rebecca Pearce is head of sustainability EMEA at CBRE



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