Staff costs typically account for about 90% of a business’ operating costs. So even the slightest improvement in employee comfort can lead to an increase in work efficiency and translate into saving millions globally. How can employers make work more pleasant then? The World Green Building Council invited 60 experts from 40 organizations and 20 countries to analyze several hundred research papers. The result? A report underlining that the key is to find Zen-like office space.
The annual absenteeism rate due to illness in the US can cost employers up to $2,500 per employee per year. Poor mental health specifically costs UK employers £30 billion a year, while in Australia the number is around $7 billion. The conclusion is simple: a healthy employee is of crucial importance for the company. The “Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices” report provides strong evidence that a properly designed and arranged office in a green office building positively contributes to employees' health.
“The strategy of sustainable development comprises several areas. The first is selecting a certified office building and technical solutions that will result in water and energy savings. The second is applying sustainability programs that will educate employees in recognizing that even a small change in habits may contribute to the protection of the environment. Another area is the awareness of the fact that sustainable solutions can have a positive impact on employees, their wellbeing and efficiency and, in the long-term, the company itself. The proper configuration of air conditioning systems will result in employees’ being healthier. For the company, less sick leave saves both time and money,” comments Ewelina Karpińska, CEE Sustainability Coordinator, JLL.
The building is essential
Research included in the report shows that office workers with access to natural daylight received 173% more white light exposure during work hours than their colleagues without access to windows. Therefore they slept on average 46 minutes more per night. In addition, due to the improved quality of sleep, they were more productive during the day. The WGBC asserts that many factors influence health and productivity – from air quality, ventilation, the aforementioned daylight access, thermal comfort and acoustics to space arrangement, the presence of greenery both in and outside the office as well as the color of the walls and access to amenities. Most of these factors are regulated by the standards of green building.
“Moving into a green office building can reduce the amount of sick leave by up to 40%. This kind of building must possess specific parameters in order to pass the certification process. For example, the level of fresh air in rooms is 30-40% higher when compared to the standard office. In order to provide employees with optimal conditions, the company can apply temperature regulation systems in smaller areas. This makes working in a green office building more pleasant, resulting in a potential 5-15% increase in staff efficiency,” says Katarzyna Zawodna, President at Skanska Property Poland.
See the interior through green-tinted glasses
Apart from solutions regarding the building itself, the WGBC also specifically highlights aspects related to office space arrangement. It underlines the fact that the activity based workplace system, which is becoming increasingly popular, results in an increase in staff efficiency. This was proved by the managers of Planotronics company, a global producer of electronic equipment, whose actions were included in the report. By reducing the number of conference halls from 18 to 5, creating places designed for concentration as well as individual tasks, teamwork and informal meetings, absenteeism dropped from 12.7 to 3.5% while workspace satisfaction increased from 25 to 85%.
Such an office, with a full range of options, was developed also by Skanska. Atrium 1 building in Warsaw, Poland is mentioned by WGBC as a model example of applying numerous green solutions that positively influence work efficiency.
“New space arrangement was a small revolution for our staff. We had to drop the habit of sitting at our office desks, which, in fact rarely happened. Now, we have the opportunity to choose a different working place every day because there are no desks assigned to employees. This enables us to create, among other things, creativity areas, places for tasks requiring silence, relaxation spheres as well as places for informal meetings. This arrangement encourages better communication and integration,” comments Katarzyna Zawodna.
The importance of employee integration is underlined by the WGBC. Research conducted in one of Bank of America’s call centers shows that by providing employees with common areas and opportunities to create informal social networks, the company was able to reduce the level of stress and cut employee turnover from 40% to 12%. This translated into an estimated saving of $15 million per year in the bank's call center costs in the whole country.
Another key aspect of office space arrangement based on staff activity is providing workplace ergonomics.
“According to research by Eurostat, Poles are one of the busiest European nations. We work 2 hours a week longer than the average citizen in the EU. Office space ergonomics are essential if we want to avoid ailments caused by long hours of working in front of the computer. 70% of employees complain about physical discomfort in offices. Furthermore, according to the latest research, sitting for several hours increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes1. Therefore, sit & stand solutions, which are working places equipped with adjustable desks, are becoming increasingly popular. They enable the changing of position from sitting to standing and encourage the employee to be more physically active during the day,” says Zuzanna Mikołajczyk, Brand Manager and Management Board Member of Mikomax Smart Office, a company specializing in the optimization of office space which has developed space arrangement projects for EY, Qatar Airways and Narodowy Bank Polski.
An office that is close to nature
The report also presents facts that seem to be obvious. Biophilia, a phrase coined in 1943, suggests that because humans are intrinsically of nature, we need contact with the natural environment to sustain our health and wellbeing. It was already proved over 20 years ago that employees with access to “green views” are less frustrated and more patient. The latest research included by WGBC undoubtedly illustrates this – in a Californian call center, staff processed calls 7 to 12% faster when given the opportunity to look through a window and see greenery. In addition, computer programmers without access to windows spent 15% more time on their primary tasks and 15% more time talking on the phone or to one another.
"In green certified buildings, access to daylight is provided in 75% of the space's area. This stems not only from the glass panes but also from a specifically designed facade and a guarantee of a suitable floor area. Office space arrangement is also very important. It is crucial to locate office desks near windows, bathrooms deep inside the floor as well as limiting the number of separating walls or, at least, providing glass partitions in order to create as much daylight as possible,” adds Katarzyna Zawodna.
In offices, it is worth focusing on plants or nature's forms and shapes through design. If you cannot arrange space using plants and greenery, you can use art. According to research, pictures depicting nature have been pointed out by employees as having a positive effect on their concentration and mental strength regeneration.
Chief Wellbeing Officer wanted!
A combination of factors influencing employee health and wellbeing requires a thorough analysis. The WGBC report proposes a scheme for company research on which to base further conclusions. Three spheres should be taken into consideration: organizational, perceptual and physical. The organizational sphere includes all factors that have a direct influence on the company’s finances, for example absenteeism, medical costs and staff turnover. The perceptual sphere comprises employees’ attitudes towards their workplace. This can be measured with self-perception surveys. The physical sphere includes, for example, air pollution and access to daylight. By monitoring all of these factors, employers will be able to measure staff health, satisfaction and efficiency.
Many companies already have a wealth of data regarding how to improve working conditions. They may come from HR and financial departments as well as facility managers. The process of gathering this knowledge and properly applying required solutions into the working environment could be entrusted to someone appointed to a new position - Chief Wellbeing Officer. When 90% of company’s costs are staff costs, this can be a gilt-edged opportunity.
 Sustainability, Victoria and the Kador Group, 2008
 Office As Effective As Outsourcing, Skanska Property Poland, 2014
 Thomas J. and McCrae P. , Art Works! The importance of art in the workplace in Work and Place, 2012