Is All Well at Work? Revisiting Wellness in the New Normal

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Chair of the Month

Robin Weckesser
Robin Weckesser
Robin Weckesser is the President of a3 Workplace Strategies, a workplace solutions consulting group based in San Jose and serving companies throughout the United States and worldwide. The firm provides a full range of project management and facilities management services, including strategic planning; change management; site selection; design, construction, and relocation oversight; space programming; open office/collaborative environments; and wellness consultation. 

Robin Weckesser addresses new return-to-office health and safety guidelines while we revisit the tried-and-true wellness programs.

Gigamon, a global leader in network security and platform data optimization in Santa Clara, CA. Natural lighting is accented in a variety of work settings. Image by a3.

Well before the coronavirus, organizations started to appreciate the importance of a healthy work environment, and many offered wellness programs as part of employee benefit packages. Today, of course, new standards for office safety are in effect as workers across the country return to the worksite. Accordingly, health and safety is the key priority as employers strive to ensure the well-being of staff and visitors. In this new normal, wellness takes on even greater meaning.

At the same time, in an ongoing quest to achieve a competitive edge, companies are rethinking workplace design as they attempt to attract and retain top talent as well as promote their brand and culture. As part of this strategy, they are discovering that wellness programs can help in this effort as well.

But even as organizations respond to the pandemic, the strategic role of the workplace has actually not changed; rather, it is evolving. To optimize the function of the workplace, companies are working with architects and project managers to lead the design thinking and consider new workplace solutions.

New office design will need to take into account the continuation of remote work. Looking ahead, are the days of densification for increased interaction in the office gone, at least for the short term? To some extent, this is true now and possibly forever.  Still, we need to realize that virtual employees will need to return to the office at some point, and we will still need to promote collaboration that is enabled by a modified open office environment.

In any event, a welcoming workplace needs to be a healthy workplace.

Harmonic, the worldwide leader in virtualized cable access and video delivery solutions in Santa Clara, CA. Amenities include breakout and cafe spaces as well as inviting outside surroundings. Image by a3.

Latest Research on Benefits of Wellness Programs

Ever mindful of the bottom-line, some companies are still skeptical about the ROI of wellness programs. Certainly, before investing in any major initiative, it makes sense to look at the latest industry intelligence. A summary of hundreds of studies over many years reveals the following: workplace wellness programs work on many levels.

According to WellSteps, “Worksites are the nation’s chronic disease prevention centers.”

This study, which includes statistics from a recent Rand Report, offers mountains of evidence that drill down to seven major benefits of wellness programs:

  • They improve employee health behavior. Healthy behaviors—diet, exercise, reduced smoking and drinking—lead to less stress and chronic disease.
  • They reduce elevated risks. This includes control of blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose; harder to control is obesity.
  • They reduce healthcare costs. Research shows that for every dollar spent on wellness, companies save $3.27 in lower healthcare costs.
  • They improve productivity. Poor productivity at work, called presenteeism, is tied to poor health,
  • They decrease absenteeism. This also results in cost savings.
  • They improve recruitment and retention. Benefit programs that include free wellness, free gym memberships, and onsite health clinics are incentives for job seekers.
  • They increase employee morale. Healthy employees, as part of a healthy work culture, tend to be happier and more engaged.

From the lead author of the Rand Report, Soeren Mattke: “We find that workplace wellness programs can help contain the current epidemic of lifestyle-related diseases, the main driver of premature morbidity and mortality as well as healthcare cost in the United States.”

New Relic’s new headquarters in San Francisco. Highlights include the first of its kind gas fireplace in a Bay Area high-rise office building, a coffee bar/lounge with a full-time barista, and open space that utilizes natural light. Image by a3.

And Don’t Forget Mental Health

In the wake of the pandemic, stress and depression can be a trigger for many health issues—and this can affect performance and the bottom-line. According to a study by Oracle, 2020 was Corporate America’s most stressful year. And as more workers need help, they’re turning to their employers, with 76 percent of those polled saying they expect more corporate support in this area.

Today, in the new normal, mental health at the workplace is reaching a “tipping point” in which new responses are becoming more critical. Increasingly, mental health programs need to be a key component in employee benefit packages.

Taking a New LEED

For years, companies concerned about sustainability and green office initiatives have considered LEED certification programs. Today, how the workplace functions is being viewed through a different lens. A lens that brings into focus not only the building but, moreover, the well-being of those who occupy it.

Again, health and safety is the chief challenge facing corporate real estate teams across the country. Together, we must address the questions of when to return to work, how to ensure the workplace is safe, and what specific response plans we need to roll out.

At a tactical level, we know that new normal solutions include reconfigured workstation layouts, staggered workdays, touchless access points, hands-free restroom fixtures, temperature monitoring, tracking, tracing, workplace distancing, HVAC system reviews, filtering system upgrades, hand sanitization stations, and workplace circulation guidance.

The critical challenges are:

  • How do you communicate with the staff so they feel comfortable they are returning to a safe environment?
  • How do you engage staff so they feel they are part of the solution?
GREE offices. Key features: low partitions; an open, casual break area; and gaming room. Image by a3.

Physical and Fiscal Health

According to the World Green Building Council, staff costs account for up to 92 percent of business operating expenses. With an eye on the bottom-line, corporate real estate executives are becoming acutely aware of how wellness programs are essential to morale, health, safety, and productivity, all of which contribute to ROI.

At the heart of this challenge, it important to remember that “one size doesn’t fit all.” Since we’re all in this together, it makes sense for organizations to perform due diligence before starting new initiatives, and that includes discovering what others are doing and what best practices are being established.

Back to the fundamental, over-riding need for communication, organizations must decide what’s best for their culture—for example, live town halls, video presentations, Zoom team meetings, email notices, graphic guidelines, etc. The key is that the staff needs to know what’s been done, what the look-ahead plan is, and what their role is to help their organization not only survive but thrive. Management needs to “over-communicate” the plan and its benefits: Tell them, tell them again, and tell them what you told them. The message needs to come from all levels of the organization, and staff needs to buy into the new direction and be allies, not adversaries.

Uniphore, the global leader in Conversational Service Automation, in Palo Alto, CA. Key features include individual and group space, kitchen, breakout areas, workout room, and plentiful office plants. Image by a3.

How to Make It Work

Again, to stay competitive in today’s marketplace, the health and well-being of the staff is at the top of the list in workplace design. It all starts with a comprehensive re-entry plan that puts people at the center of the workplace and workplace design process.

For wellness to work, leaders must set the tone, HR professionals need to help implement the programs, and specialized consultants like project managers can provide vision and oversight.

Remember, you can’t over-invest in people. So let’s plan ahead and address new return-to-office health and safety guidelines while we revisit and enhance tried-and-true wellness programs. Let’s be safe, and let’s be well!

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