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Birmingham's Workplace Wellness Revolution: Can It Deliver?

Is the wellness trend part of a real revolution in the Birmingham workplace, or is it a superficial extra?

A timely report from the British Council for Offices, and a new wave of wellness-focused coworking and serviced offices, promise an answer.

Ahead of the Bisnow Birmingham State of the Office Market event on 6 December, the developers and property managers leading the wellness agenda explore whether the campaign's high aspirations may be hard to deliver.

Happy office worker computer smile
Full of joy, isn't he?

Every commodity, whether it is soap powder or office floorspace, periodically needs reinvention. Without a sense that it has kept up with changing times and consumer aspirations, or better still, is racing ahead of them, no producer of commodities can expect to maintain sales.

Sometimes the language of workplace wellbeing and health feels like the washes-whiter magic ingredient promise of the soap powders. Add some plants (remembering to call it biophilic design), encourage people to use the stairs, and try to keep the place at a comfortable temperature and bingo, you have a wellness workplace. In the meantime nothing has been done to tackle the main causes of unhappiness and ill health in the workplace: poorly paid, unrewarding jobs.

Is this fair? “For us it's all about creating office environments that are pleasant, so people don’t feel like battery hens. It’s about a place that is respectful of people and where people can thrive,” Circle Property Chief Executive John Arnold said.

“Of course it’s not entirely a philanthropic idea, because better offices let faster, because occupiers aren’t foolish and will pay regard to wellbeing and health along with the usual issues of location, access, convenience and so on," he said. "But it is certainly true that they want spaces that appeal to staff that are bright, light, spacious, and they want that extra ambiance that sends out the right messages.”

The main lesson for developers like Arnold is that making healthier workplaces does not mean a violation of normal commercial practices. Exactly the opposite, it means successfully meeting a strong market demand for better quality, less pokey workspace. What could be more commercial than that?

“Developing offices used to be all about engineering the best ratio of gross to net floorspace. So you ended up with tiny toilets you couldn’t sit down on, and small reception areas — and it was a hugely efficient way to build but it wasn’t appealing," Arnold said.

"One building we own — the 16K SF block at 36 Great Charles St., Birmingham — had a reception area so pokey that people turned on their heel the moment they got through the door. We tripled the reception area by losing some office floorspace. It’s a pleasant place now."

So is wellness an extension of good, prudent office property asset management, mixed with a savvy product-differentiating marketing pitch to recruitment-conscious occupiers?

“Probably a mixture of both,” Arnold said. “The cynic will say it is all about product differentiation, although there is nothing wrong with that because the ultimate test of what we’re doing here is that somebody wants to let the building, and if every property is broadly comparable you need to distinguish it somehow. But wellness is not all fad and fashion, because we want to create buildings that stand the test of time.”

It's A Question Of Culture

Somerset House Temple Street Birmingham
Somerset House, Temple Street, Birmingham

Coworking group Headspace open a new 12K SF Birmingham outlet in January in Circle Property’s Somerset House. According to Managing Director Fabrizio Nicola-Giordano: “Support on physical and mental wellbeing is something we take really seriously across all of our spaces and Birmingham will be no exception.”

“And whilst some coworking spaces are all about free beer and boozy nights, it’s fair to say that we’re much more focussed on healthy, wholesome fun including tea tasting and group yoga. “

This impacts on the design, Headspace says. “We found that greater access to daylight can enhance employee satisfaction in the workplace," Nicola-Giordano said. "There’s also evidence to suggest that greater exposure to daylight can reduce stress levels. Obviously there can be limits to how much operators can do in this respect, depending on the nature of the space you’re occupying, but these factors certainly feed into our thinking when we’re on the lookout for new spaces or developing existing ones.”

But in the end wellness is just a small part of what workspace is about. “We see providing support on employee wellbeing as an important perk and something that helps our members foster a healthy working environment for their teams,” Nicola-Giordano said.

In the end, it is corporate culture that matters, not the goodwill of the coworking provider or the landlord. “It’s true that any employer’s culture and values will be influenced, in large part, by their own staff and working environment, but I certainly think there’s been a sea change in attitudes in recent years about the role that workplaces can play in supporting this,” Nicola-Giordano said.

Talk to a specialist in human resources who also understands the property business like Bruntwood director of human resources Jennifer Atkins and it rapidly becomes clear that whilst office design matters, office culture matters a lot more.

“Wellness has to be more than a marketing tool," she said. "It has to be about a culture. We’ve trained our leadership on trust, sharing and connections in the workplace and that helps on open honest conversations which helps people find the right balance in the workplace because technology means the demands on staff are getting greater and greater.”

“It all has to start from the leadership, from the top, and it mustn’t just be nice words but real support from the board,” Atkins said, who said her board had shown nothing but support. Walk-and-talk meetings are now commonplace and you will not find the HR team making life difficult if you are away from your screen.

“Yes the floorspace is important, but the culture must come first with things like promoting flexible working, supporting staff in various ways, and the design of the floorspace makes that easier. A well-designed office really can encourage people to be healthier, to be up and moving, especially as the line between work life and home life blurs. I’d say that by designing an office with wellness in mind you are showing that your office culture has embraced wellness and has a respectful culture for employees.”

Well Workplace Equals Higher Value Workplace

Headspace serviced offices
Headspace serviced office facility

The British Council for Offices’ new report, “Wellness Matters: Health and Wellbeing in offices and what to do about it” was launched in Birmingham last week.

Argent Regional Director Rob Groves is the chairman of the BCO Midlands and East Anglia committee. He says the property industry is getting a grip on wellness issues. "The work achieved in Wellness Matters represents a significant step forward in the industry's understanding of health and wellbeing and provides a definitive guide on how to tackle the issue," Groves said.

Cundall partner and fellow BCO committee member Rob Van Zyl says that the wellness agenda and the march of technology go hand in hand, and neither have stopped marching yet.

“Thanks to improvements in data collection and the prevalence of more affordable and widely adopted technology, business is becoming increasingly better informed of the impact of wellness," he said.

“As the landscape continues to evolve, offices and workplaces of the future will develop to meet the needs of occupiers, reflecting our growing understanding of why wellness matters. Discerning occupiers increasingly demand offices that prioritise health and wellbeing for all manner of reasons, from reducing absence and improving productivity to attracting and retaining staff. Those that fail to take adequate measures to improve health and wellbeing will increasingly find it difficult to attract occupiers.”

Like apple pie and motherhood, nobody is seriously questioning that wellbeing is a good thing. It has a growing role in property management, fit-outs and workplace design. But in the end wellbeing succeeds or fails because the occupier's human resources team wants it to thrive (or lets it die). Even the best architect or property manager cannot overcome that.

To join the conversation at the Bisnow Birmingham State of the Office Market event on 6 December register here.