ULI Toronto News

How high-quality work environments and employee wellness impact the “War on Talent”

By Danny Tseng, SYLLABLE

In any business, high-caliber staff are the biggest assets a company can have. As a result, a “War for Talent” is ongoing as organizations compete to attract the best talent out there. Companies are offering competitive packages and perks while landlords are raising the bar for high quality buildings. On top of that, research shows that happier employees lead to higher productivity and overall benefits to a company’s bottom line.

In a ULI Toronto panel lead by Ruth Fischer, Managing Director of National Occupier Services at CBRE, held at the WELL-Certified Toronto office of CBRE on September 12, four industry experts were asked to share their expertise on the ongoing and ever-evolving effort to attract and retain the best talent through providing high-quality work environments.

Peter B. Smith, Senior Vice President of the International WELL Building Institute, noted that health is derived from 4 main areas: genetics, access to quality health care, lifestyle choices, and physical and social environments. However, the latter two determines 90% of health because the majority of our time is spent indoors. “Since 90% of the money spend by corporations are human costs, such as salary, benefits, insurance while the other 10% is on utilities and rent, the health and wellness conversation is about 90% of the pie,” said Smith. Furthermore, about 85% of the population suffer from chronic diseases so the big challenge here is to find ways to introduce preventive medical strategies. The WELL certification initiative strives to bring together the seemingly disparate parties of health science, business, and building science to think of ways of introducing passive medical preventive strategies in buildings in which people spend 90% of their time. “For this reason, architects have more impact on the health of the public than doctors,” proclaimed Smith. “This paradigm puts engineers, architects, and developers as agents of public health.”

Conceptualized in 2008 and launched in 2014, there are currently 35 countries with WELL-certified buildings. The certification is a consensus-based standard that is peer reviewed and based on 10 concepts that address design and operations elements as well as policy and programming of the organizations occupying the space. Certified buildings undergo 3rd party auditing to ensure quality control. Currently, industries pursuing the certification are financial, technology, healthcare, and even developers and engineers looking inward at their own facilities.

Panelist Lisa Fulford-Roy, Managing Director of Workplace Strategy at CBRE, noted that a 2017 occupier survey completed by executives reported that wellness in the workplace enhanced productivity and employee engagement. Furthermore, another study confirms a correlation between productivity and engagement and improved overall business performance and results. Using CBRE’s own metrics, a sense of engagement or feeling invested can lead to better retention and employer attractiveness. When it comes to millennials, who live a fully integrated lifestyle with blurred boundaries between personal lives and work, wellness is a critical aspect in the workplace. Since the WELL certification is a passive program, wellness principles are seamlessly baked into their natural behaviours: from stand-up desks, hydration systems located 30’ from workspaces, and other benefits.

Another important consideration is to communicate the benefits of wellness policies to employees and the importance behind them. Fulford-Roy noted that CBRE has a no-eating-at-desk policy that was difficult to implement at first. But once in place, employees had clean desks that were also client ready. Yet, the biggest benefits was driving people to the Rise Café, which became a social hub for the office by forcing colleagues to dine and gather and talk where they otherwise would not.

Marlee Kohn, Manager of Sustainability at Oxford Properties Group, noted from a developer and landlord’s perspective that it boils down to customer satisfaction because it directly affects financial returns, tenants retention, and operating procedures. “Oxford takes pride in delivering excellence so making well-being a commitment for us was a natural fit towards customer satisfaction,” said Kohn. The MMP Tower in Vancouver, a 35-storey commercial office owned and managed by Oxford (CBRE is also a tenant) is an example of a WELL (Gold) Certified building. The stairwell was opened up to encourage movement between the two levels and amenities such as a gym and bathing facilities. Indoor air quality was improved through the use of filters and other features include circadian lighting and biophilic design that brought in natural elements. Fulford-Roy noted that to provide quality air, modifications to the existing building had to be made where a separate air intake was supplemented by the landlord. CBRE negotiated putting a grill in the façade and locating it to avoid negative air coming in.

Wellness may seem like an intangible concept to measure. However, TD Bank put this concept to the test through a comparative analysis. Irena Stankovic, Manager of Enterprise Real Estate Environmental Outreach at TD Bank noted that the bank operates, manages, and occupies 25 million square feet of retail and corporate space in Canada and the United States. With such enormous holdings, the bank often thinks about how to manage and occupy operational footprints and what strategies are needed to attract and retain top talent. In 2016, TD became the world’s first WELL Gold Certified office under Version 1. It was an initiative taken up by leadership as an opportunity to develop a workplace strategy that optimized the employee experience.

With its very first project located in Toronto’s downtown core done in collaboration with Cadillac Fairview, a comparative analysis was done by TD where one floor of their audit group had standard building upgrades while the other floor was in a WELL-certified space. This provided an easy way to compare metrics using the same line of business and function to compare results and metrics. The WELL floor reported a higher satisfaction rate and outperformed in all categories with the air supply ventilation and water reportedly improving overall cognitive function. The data received from the occupancy survey had a 100% satisfaction for employees and they were incentivized to remain with the bank. For TD, the way to win the war on talent is through creating innovative spaces and designs, which is a new frontier.

The case for wellness is also emerging as a recruitment strategy tied to human resources. Aside from the passive functions of the building, policies and programs are also being developed alongside design choices in WELL-certified spaces. “In real-estate, we talk a lot about dollar per square feet, but we would also encourage organization to think about dollar per person,” said Smith. These features pays dividends on staff retention and engagement, which benefits the HR team and breaks down walls in many ways by bringing various stakeholders to the table. Therefore, if 90% of operating cost is human capital, health and wellness is now becoming important. Furthermore, Fulford Roy noted that the last two CBRE clients were hired by their HR department, indicating corporations are starting to give HR a seat at the table for executive decisions.

Is WELL becoming a recruitment tactic? Kohn sees it as a two-fold strategy. First, it comes down to customer satisfaction: if a tenant requests it, they deliver. Secondly, on the corporate side, Oxford has recently launched Sustainability 2.0 with wellbeing as one of the four main commitments. “This means we will incorporate world class features and amenities that support the success of our customers and have them live healthy lives,” said Kohn.

Overall, attracting and retaining talent is about the total experience. The values and mission of an organization, how the company’s vision is translated in the physical space for employees or clients, and many other factors are all part of the puzzle. Whether it’s the landlord offering quality facilities or an organization offering great employee perks, wellness features are just one critical aspect to winning the war on talent.

Read the new Urban Land Institute (ULI) report, The Business Case for Healthy Buildings: Insights from Early Adopters.

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