A new report shows that high quality sustainable office design is not only good for the planet, it’s good for your staff’s wellbeing and productivity too

One thing we know for certain is that sustainability has become much more important in the boardroom in recent years. In 2013, a UN survey1 of global CEOs found that:

  • 93% regarded sustainability as key to the future success of their business
  • 63% expected sustainability to transform their industry within five years
  • 76% believed that embedding sustainability into core business would drive revenue growth and new opportunities.

According to Verdantix2, corporates may be prepared to increase their spend on sustainable products and services by 5% every year through to 2017, culminating in almost $50bn dollars annually by that time. This no doubt reflects the growing interest from consumers to purchase sustainable products, which justifies the additional investment corporations are prepared to make into the creation of sustainable brands.

But CEOs are also increasingly aware that their company’s brand can provide staff with a shared sense of purpose, while serving as a distinctive identity and source of inspiration. Yet in a 2013 poll of employees worldwide, Gallup found that only about 13% (one in eight) are actively engaged – that is sufficiently psychologically committed to make positive contributions to their organisations. Such low levels of employee engagement must surely hinder economic productivity and therefore impact somewhere on the balance sheet.

What may appear to be a modest improvement in employee health or productivity can have a significant financial implication for employers

So what can businesses do to boost brand loyalty among staff so as to increase engagement and productivity? One solution which would appear to be simple is to improve the design of the buildings in which their staff are located. JLL was a sponsor and active participant in a World Green Building Council study3 published this September which provides overwhelming evidence demonstrating that the design of an office impacts the health, wellbeing and productivity of its occupants.

Obvious visible factors such as interior layout, look and feel, access to views and biophilia can not only boost workers’ ability to concentrate, collaborate, and be creative. They can also significantly alter their perception of the workplace as a place that they want to be in because it improves their quality of life and overall sense of wellbeing. Less visible factors such as indoor air quality, thermal comfort, daylighting and noise are also proven to impact on employees’ health and overall productivity.

And many of these factors – although not all – also happen to be good for the planet. Daylighting and access to windows reduces the need for artificial lighting which in turn reduces the energy intensity of buildings. Plants and living walls naturally reduce the concentrations of carbon dioxide in buildings and thereby improve the air quality for occupants. Cycling facilities, green spaces, and active design encourage staff to exercise more and use more sustainable modes of transport both within and beyond the building while also improving health and wellbeing. Sustainably sourced finishes such as carpets, paints and furniture which have fewer chemicals and a lower environmental footprint can have substantially beneficial health impacts on occupants.

So it appears that high quality sustainable building design can offer a sweet spot to C-suite executives who are looking to increase employee engagement and improve sustainability performance simultaneously. The really attractive part of the proposition lies in the financial benefits that this may generate. Not only do high quality workplaces reduce the incidence of sickness, absenteeism and medical costs, but they are also shown to increase staff retention and boost revenue from improved productivity.

Employees represent the single greatest cost to any business given that staff costs, including salaries and benefits, typically account for about 90% of a business’ operating costs. So what may appear to be a modest improvement in employee health or productivity can have a significant financial implication for employers. On this basis, tweaking the office environment to ensure a more healthy, happy and productive workforce seems like a no-brainer.

The beauty of this new WGBC report is that it doesn’t just prove this for any sceptics out there who may not believe in such correlations, but it also provides a high level framework for employers to use to begin tracking the impact of their buildings on their employees. The framework recommends the measurement of three different performance factors:

1.     Financial or organisational outcomes (e.g. absence rates, staff turnover, medical costs, revenue)

2.     Physical office itself (temperature, light levels etc),

3.     The perception of office workers by way of qualitative feedback.

Tracking this data will enable further improvements to be made, and provide more meaningful information to the board when making decisions about sustainability, brand, productivity or HR.

So although sustainability has yielded significant benefits to date in terms of facilities management and operational efficiencies, it is clear that its true potential may yet lie untapped through its ability to underpin brand and employee loyalty.

And what better way of telling employees, consumers, regulators, watchdogs and suppliers of a company’s values and culture than to express it physically through the bricks and mortar where it is housed. We can expect businesses to become much more savvy about leveraging the brand benefits of buildings where they are located in view of the ever-growing war on talent and drive towards more sustainable enterprise.

Julie Hirigoyen is UK head of sustainability at JLL


1 The UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO Study on Sustainability 2013

2 Product Sustainability: The Dos, Don’ts And Business Benefits

3 Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices: The next chapter for green building