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Working in Buildings With People

The pandemic proves how important workplaces are to work-life balance

For a while now “woke” business culture has been trumpeting the importance of work-life balance. Not long ago tech giants like Facebook and Google built campuses that all but removed any reason for employees to go home. Potential employees flocked to these companies that not only looked good on resumes but provided perks perceived to improve their lives. Now, in a 180 degree move, these same companies have announced the option to work remotely through summer of 2021. So, this begs the question, what happens when an office-centric company culture that uses campuses as proof that they care about their employees goes remote? The pandemic could be an opportunity to prove how important the workplace is to work/life balance.

There is a global mental health crisis. According to the World Health Organization, more than 264 million people suffer from depression. The United States consumes two-thirds of the world’s production of antidepressant drugs with an overall suicide rate that increased 35 percent from 1999 to 2018 and reached the highest suicide rate since WWII. In the UK, it’s estimated that one in six people experienced a mental health problem in the last week. In Africa, more than 25 percent of women are believed to suffer from depression with 85 percent having no access to mental health treatment.

This crisis for many has seemed like a rolling nervous breakdown. Forty million Americans have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and 3.3 million businesses have shut down. Research shows that the vast majority of Americans are two paychecks removed from bankruptcy.

The pandemic has also revealed that the not-so-pretty reality of working from home is often anything but #blessed. The ongoing struggle to balance our work, family and social lives has gotten exponentially harder now that we have nowhere to hide from our workloads. Many of us, like to admit it or not, have digital addictions and right now we are locked in our homes with our unhealthy fix. The journey to joy can feel like a full time job in itself and being confronted by others’ (often misleading) happiness through social media can lead to even more anxiety and stress.

A problematic rhythm

What happens to work-life balance when you live in your office? Well, the first thing is you usually work more. One Harvard study found that only half of surveyed employees were able to keep their workdays to ten hours or less. Fortunately, this improved a bit as days stretched into months and people found a new rhythm. 

Failure to adapt to this new work from home rhythm has become problematic for our businesses as well. Companies are struggling with a new remote-based culture. Those touting the tools like Slack and Zoom, but those have their limitations. In some forums, as we have all witnessed, people will say things online that they won’t say in person. This can lead to an immature gossip culture and has given rise to what is now known as “Slacklash.” People will not say online what they would in person. Digital meetings are productive but often people don’t feel as free to engage in the interpersonal conversations that can help people connect. 

The pandemic has presented businesses with the chance to truly support a healthy, happy lifestyle for their employees. Buildings have the unique opportunity, and responsibility, to provide the environment companies need to flourish.

Boomerang offices

In a piece that declared his love for New York City while shaming those that left, comedian and director Jerry Seinfeld said, “Energy, attitude and personality cannot be ‘remoted’ through even the best fiber optic lines. That’s the whole reason many of us moved to New York in the first place.” To bring people back, offices need to understand what people want and build spaces to enable work.

The energy of teamwork and feelings of community feed happiness, fight loneliness and build a sense of accomplishment. But these feelings aren’t consistent across all individuals, companies or offices and that’s important for the real estate industry to take into account. What works for a Millennial-majority tech firm may not work for a rental car company with a median age of 50 with two kids in high school. The employees of these two companies do not necessarily want all of the same services or amenities out of a building. “Know your occupant, know their journey, know their needs,” explained Vincent Dermody, Managing Director at CohnReznick. “Change your paradigm from being a supplier of space to an enabler of work. Pitch the office as a place to go to sociallaborate. Want a kid-free Monday? Get down to the office and hang out with the team.” 

Current and future budgets are tight and idealism can be expensive. If buildings wonder how “happy” can be shown in ROI calculations, buildings with happy people improve the companies they work for, too. Companies with happy employees are likely to renew their leases or expand their current offices. Back to truly caring about employees, happiness is associated with a reduced risk of disease including stroke, diabetes, and high blood pressure and research shows workers are thirteen percent more productive when happy.

The common virtual style of work has physical barriers which reduce clarity and effectiveness of communication due to missing cues like gestures and body language or mute button misuse. As for career paths, studies show women and people of color are less likely to speak up in Zoom meetings. The associated anxiety of sending a direct message to a superior dwarfs the stress of a conversation happening naturally in a hallway. If companies are trying to do the right thing by their employees, having an office HQ could be the foundation to build a truly caring culture upon.

What the health

While building owners work with tenants to create happy-inducing spaces, there is a prioritized focus on health. Buildings can add touch-free hand sanitization and temperature checking stations or take a leap to larger and expensive projects like HVAC upgrades and operable windows. The intended result of the upgrade or addition answers where to start.

With the exception of amusement parks, the rank of basic needs demands that people feel safe before they can feel happy. Fortunately, data-backed health trends and advancements in technology can help build this trust. From building management and automation systems to occupancy sensors and access control data, office buildings are now intelligent and have improved occupant comfort and building health. The real value is in what is done with that data and how it is shared with occupants.

In 2016, relaying this information became more structured with the start of Fitwel certification. Created by the CDC and the GSA to evaluate and rate the health-affecting aspects of built environments to improve occupant wellbeing, the healthy building certification system is in over 40 countries and impacts over one million people. Fitwel joins other certifications like LEED or WELL that have become well-respected standards.

“It isn’t good enough for a company to say they care, they have to demonstrate it,” said Joanna Frank, President & CEO of the Center for Active Design, which operates Fitwel. “Trust is a fundamental part of our mental health. We need to be able to trust both our community and anyone that has power over you, which includes building management.” Frank continued that many aspects of our physical environment give us cues to whether or not to trust with a big one being maintenance. An architect by trade, she explained that feelings and attitudes are just as measurable as air quality measurements.

Grass is always greener

We all know, and probably crave, that feeling of relaxation and rejuvenation when we step outside for a walk and take a deep breath. Access to nature and outside greenery has a positive impact on our mental health but we only trust a location if greenery is well maintained; poorly maintained greenery actually has a negative impact on mental health. While landscape maintenance is easy to evaluate, it has been historically more difficult for occupants to know the cleaning and maintenance protocols within commercial buildings.

Whether building optimization software that alerts to inadequate or dirty conditions or software that schedules elevator usage, today’s buildings and occupants can interact in many ways. This transparency builds feelings of connection and trust. “In the next six months, metrics on real-time occupant density and surface cleaning [is going to be the most important metric for healthy buildings],” explained Dermody. However, it’s safe to say we aren’t going back to the way work used to be and as buildings evolve, so too will these metrics. He continued, “We cannot sustain a hyper sanitized, hyper cleaning regime with current methods, so demand-based and AI-driven servicing will be likely.”

How yesterday’s buildings were run may soon be unrecognizable but that could be a good thing. As Frank explained, it’s tragic that a pandemic brought us here but it did open the door to a time where data is used not only for operational efficiency but overall building health. Eventually, this data can be used to optimize the space and measure the happiness of occupants.

Without trust, you cannot reach happiness and elements creating that trust aren’t limited to the doorman. “Elements that build upon that trust will be the amenities of the future that tenants will pay for,” stated Tama Huang, Principal & Chief Innovation Officer at CohnReznick. “Starting with sanitation, distancing, and privacy, the gyms and coffee shops of the past will be replaced by these as amenities that drive value.”

Building up to happiness

With feelings of depression and loneliness on the rise, we need to flatten the curve with joy. A source of joy is the feeling of connection and working with people back in offices. We’re herd animals at heart and isolation breeds discontent, depression, poor sleep quality, and a weaker immune system. We need that sense of belonging, that change of scenery, that endorphin hit that comes with an invigorating face to face conversation. 

Is this a chance for office buildings to step up and lead the change we need? What people need out of their workplace has evolved and buildings that meet these requirements are doing more than attracting and retaining tenants. Buildings that promote health and the companies that thrive within them may be the results of hard lessons learned through a pandemic. If we do this right, our offices, companies, and we as individuals may be healthier than we were a year ago. Let’s not wait until the pandemic is over to end the toxic relationship between buildings and happiness, let’s start now.

Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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