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Manchester's Workplace Wellness Revolution: Can It Deliver?

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

A new Salford office for healthcare giant Bupa, and a timely report from the British Council for Offices, promise an answer.

Ahead of the Bisnow Manchester Office Mania event on 8 November, the designers and 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? According to the designers of Manchester's latest wellness workplaces it certainly is not.

Bupa's new 147K SF offices at Salford's MediaCity, with an interior fit-out by ID:SR Sheppard Robson, brings together 2,000 staff from three buildings.

The ground floor provides flexible break-out workspace for use by employees and visiting clients, as well as a highly visible reception area, a 250-cover restaurant offering fantastic views over the Manchester Ship Canal, a café and facilities for cyclists. There is also a wellbeing suite located on the fourth floor, containing a contemplation room, occupational health and a first aid room. As well as physical wellbeing, the design engages with the principles of biophilic design, forging connections between people and nature.

“Considering wellbeing in the workplace was a key consideration when designing this project influencing how we planned the floorplates right through to the final finishes chosen," ID:SR Sheppard Robson associate partner Marie Leyland said.

 “Bupa wanted to create an opportunity for staff to live the brand, to live longer and happier lives. That’s what we want out of the fit-out.”

Achieving that objective requires the full co-operation of the Bupa leadership team. “They all need to be on board. So, for instance, their contact centre had a lot of vending machines. Now we’ve replaced that with a café with longer opening hours, so there’s good food, and then the management has to make sure there’s opportunities for people to leave their desk. If people can’t leave their desk then it won’t work. This really isn’t just about making places look nice.”

How deep does this go? Leyland said she “feels like this is more than a fad”.

“Being able to attract and retain staff is much easier if the workplace is more human, softer, less corporate, and that will affect the bottom line.”

The Business Case Needs To Be Strengthened

Salford office  ID:SR Sheppard Robson
BUPA's new Salford office, fit-out designed by ID:SR Sheppard Robson

If some of the language of wellbeing stretches credibility, it shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the real core of good sense, Workman Sustainability and Wellbeing Manager Nick Hobbs said.

“Today the business case is not as strong as it will be,” he said. “Yes, the evidence base for wellbeing in the workplace needs building, I wouldn’t argue with that. The background is that occupiers want more productivity, less absenteeism, and landlords want improved rents and asset values, and tenants to stay put, and wellness can help with this.

“This is being driven by the incredible access we have today to information on health and wellbeing via wearable technology. Look five to 10 years ahead and it's not much of a jump to imagine staff monitoring internal air quality and temperature, and if staff know then so must occupiers and landlords.”

They key to making workplace wellness real is to calibrate and certify, Workman partner Anthony Boothman said. The arrival in Manchester of certification bodies like those specialising in particular areas of wellness (cycling is likely to be first), and broader certification agencies like Well and Fitwel, will change the city’s approach.

“Manchester is a key target outside London for the certifiers, who are offering a service roughly equivalent to WiredScore for digital connectivity,” Boothman said.

“Manchester has some catching up to do, but we are already making progress on some of the aspects of placemaking that have a role in wellness,” he said.

It All Depends On The HR Team?

Phil Doyle, Chairman of the BCO Northern Committee and Director at 5Plus Architects, Manchester
Phil Doyle, chairman of the BCO Northern Committee and Director at 5Plus Architects,

The British Council for Offices’ new report, “Wellness Matters: Health and Wellbeing in offices and what to do about it” will be launched in Manchester later this week.

Health and wellness in the workplace is growing in importance and the Wellness Matters project has created a practical guide to achieving health and wellbeing in offices," said Phil Doyle, chairman of the BCO Northern Committee and director at 5Plus Architects. "Working with leading medical and academic experts the research has reviewed the existing evidence base of leading sustainability and health and wellbeing standards. 

“The result is an outcome-focused framework against which these standards have been mapped. By doing so the study provides a concise point of reference for clients and their advisors as well as design and construction teams and sets out the best practice guidance for implementing and achieving health and wellbeing across the office life cycle.”

But like the soap powder that washes whiter, wellbeing in the workplace must also respond to increasingly choosy customers.

"The workplace consumer has become much more choosy about the type of space they will work in,” CBRE Executive Director John Ogden, said. Sit/stand desks, better snack options and opportunities to walk away from the screen are a part of the mix, but Ogden says that technology is doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

"Workplace technology is putting people first and helps with the whole wellbeing agenda," he said. "Predictive analytics tools help create a better working environment for individuals and 78% of those surveyed in a CBRE poll stated that they were planning to increase their investment in workplace technology in the next two years.

“Companies that promote wellness and facilitate health and wellbeing through nutrition, amenities and social environments also create a culture of worth amongst their employees and in turn this helps to attract and retain the best talent."

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 Manchester Office Mania event on 8 November register here.