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A healthy office is a happy office

In his film Playtime, Jacques Tati explores the modern office and its absurdities.

The open-concept space was a field of workstations.

Amid a grid of blind corners and flapping cubicle doors, there was the constant risk of colliding with another worker or losing someone altogether, while primly stylish Parisian women strode by with precision.

This 1960s, ultramodern office was French filmmaker Jacques Tati’s parody of workplace efficiency in his masterpiece Playtime, the joke being that efficiency immediately fails when an individual, with all his idiosyncrasies, is plunked down in the middle of it. Like any great parody (as This is Spinal Tap did to heavy metal), Mr. Tati forever made high-concept office spaces impossible to view without a slight smile and a little skepticism.

Yet planners are now embracing a new concept to correct the stultifying environment of modernism and blandness. They are emphasizing human needs, and are even welcoming human collisions (surreptitious collisions, they’re now called, to foster closer communication between workers). But the planning is still high-concept.

Toronto-Dominion Bank retrofitted a floor in its headquarters to provide workplace wellness features, from mood-boosting art work to centralized filing cabinets that encourage employees to get up and move around. The floor is WELL certified. (Toronto-Dominion Bank)

The WELL designation for buildings, recently introduced in Canada and administered here by the Canada Green Building Council, which also oversees the environmental LEED (leadership in energy and environmental design) certification, is positioning itself as a new seal of approval for wellness improvements.

Some features under the program are mandated, such as higher standards for water quality, as well as advanced lighting design that alters with daily circadian rhythms. And there are many optional initiatives, from sound masking for better acoustics to supplying basic bike tools for commuting cyclists. A WELL building not only mimics a more natural daytime experience, it tries to promote healthier living all day long.

Toronto-Dominion Bank has been an early adopter. It was first in the world to receive a formal WELL certification this year for its renovated 25,000-square-foot space on the 23nd floor, seating 170 employees, of its Toronto headquarters. Just one of the 50 floors it renovated was refitted to WELL’s stipulations.

The TD kitchen not only gives natural light and lots of seating but restricts its food and drink offerings to healthy options. (Toronto-Dominion Bank)

“At TD, typically when we enter into a new initiative like this – and this one being so new to the industry – we like to pilot things and do a gap analysis against our existing standards and projects and spaces to identify where this program specifically enhances our standards,” said Martha MacInnis, design director at TD. She is the bank’s in-house interior designer.

“So, that’s why we tested it on this one floor, and now we’ve expanded that to other projects,” she said.

Next are a TD bank branch in Bethesda, Md., in an already health-conscious neighbourhood, and a bank branch in Toronto’s new condo and multiuse Canary District, in the corner of the east side of the downtown in which the 2015 Pan Am Games athletes were housed.

TD's tranquility lounge allows employees to take a break and rejuvenate the mind. (Toronto-Dominion Bank)

The wellness program has been a big hit so far with employees, surprisingly so, Ms. MacInnis indicated. “We were anticipating that there might be some hesitancy with some of the features, because they’re a little different. I’m speaking particularly about nutrition and what’s going to be in the vending machines, stuff that really affects people on a daily basis.”

One WELL prerequisite is that no beverage sold or distributed in the office can have more than 30 grams of sugar per container. (A 355-millilitre can of Coke, for example, has 39 grams.) There are a number of other rules about foods sold in the office needing proper labelling, with an emphasis on health.

TD workers have even been holding on-site health fairs and have had naturopathic specialists give health and wellness talks, Ms. MacInnes said. “People are really taking this from the workday into their personal life and building a culture in the office around health and wellness. That’s been exciting to watch.”

Real-estate service CBRE wanted its office near Pearson airport in Toronto to be a model for workplace wellness. (CBRE)

WELL stipulations go even further than improved ergonomics and adjustable-height desks. (Thirty per cent of all desks need to be adjustable from a sitting desk to a standing one.) WELL also goes into aesthetic prerequisites such as “beautiful and mindful design.”

And WELL buildings, according to its optional standards, should contain features “intended for all of the following: a) human delight, b) celebration of culture, c) celebration of spirit, d) celebration of place, e) meaningful integration of public art.”

The optional standards get particularly interesting when they start talking about organizational transparency as a wellness feature (to reduce stress and promote employee loyalty) and altruism (allowing paid time to volunteer with a registered charity).

The CBRE building has a mix of sit-down and stand-up desks. (CBRE)

Bean counters may scoff, but for companies spending most of their budget on employees, say, 60 to 70 per cent, it pays to keep workers happy and healthy.

So says the real-estate services company CBRE, which is registered for WELL certification for its Toronto West office near Pearson airport and its downtown Vancouver office. The aim was to demonstrate a better understanding of workplace wellness for its clients by adopting it themselves – as well as understanding the costs.

Wellness features were roughly 1 to 5 per cent of the cost of the new Vancouver office, which is in a building that was already a triple-A class and environmentally sound, LEED Gold office. Adding wellness features into the Toronto West office, in a lower end, class-B, suburban office block, cost more of the budget, about 10 to 15 per cent.

“We are not saying or promoting that this is what all companies should aim for, or that this is the new and only way to proceed,” said Ashley O’Neill, vice-president of corporate strategy at CBRE. Yet, this is a way for companies to show that they are part of the movement for office wellness and to communicate how much they value employees, she said.

Adding wellness features to CBRE's office cost about 10 to 15 per cent of the renovation budget. (CBRE)

“It’s a way to certify and really walk the talk in terms of their values,” said Lisa Fulford-Roy, CBRE’s managing director of workplace strategy. “Those that are early adopters are going to adopt for a variety of reasons. But right now, at the core of every conversation is, how do we engage employees? How do we increase productivity? And how is that going to contribute more effectively not only to the employee, but to the business over all?”

But will WELL certification, like the LEED standard, create a new class of trophy buildings? What happens when some workers enjoy a WELL office, while others still have to toil in wellness-lacking back offices?

“I think the secret really is to address portfolios,” said Simone Skopek, program manager at real-estate service firm Jones Lang LaSalle.

Companies will have some of their buildings LEED- and WELL-certified, but “you’re not going to be able to do that across your portfolio [of properties]. You’ll have some employees in a spectacularly green and well building, but others that aren’t,” she said. Her firm has a detailed sustainability survey which Ms. Skopek developed for helping companies understand and isolate ways in which they can improve all their buildings and possibly focus on improvements that are most needed.

“Before you’re going to spend tens of thousands of dollars to fix a problem, make sure there is a problem,” Ms. Skopek said. “The point is, let’s not fix a problem because of certification. You’re trying to improve the building, improve the occupants’ experience. Wellness is for occupants, really.”

Yet, look at LEED, which has been around longer. Certification has helped to make environmental features regular practice with architects, engineers and planners. The hope is that WELL certification will do the same and become simply de rigueur, regardless of whether office planners seek official certification or not.

“The thing to remember is that WELL and LEED and most other ratings systems are not like a building code,” said Mark Hutchinson, vice-president of green building programs at the Canada Green Building Council. The requirements aren’t merely a set of prerequisites to be met, leading to certification.

“There are different levels of certification. You can aim high, or you can aim low. And while there are some things that you have to do – things that are prerequisites to be certified – those are generally relatively few. And then the way you’re evaluated is based on all the things you may choose to do,” from all the optional measures, Mr. Hutchinson said.

And this may include such esoteric options as surface design, which primarily concentrates on how much light is reflected from surfaces. Mr. Tati would have had fun with that one.

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