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Workplace Wellness by Design

Contributor: Ali Ahmed

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

Keith Perske is the Executive Managing Director of Workplace Innovation at Colliers International. Previously he was Senior Director of Global Workplace Innovation at Johnson & Johnson.  He spoke with Stew Friedman about Collier’s recent survey of wellness programs.

Keith Perske: Keith PerskeColliers is one of the largest global real estate services firms. We have about 16,000 people in 500 offices in 67 countries. And we help our clients with all of their real estate needs. My team and I help clients design work places, and programs to make people productive, and make their companies competitive.  We’re not a design firm, like an architecture or interior designer, rather, we help companies isolate their business objectives and their cultural goals and then, through good workplace design and programs to support those goals, clients can be more productive.

Stew Friedman: You don’t work with the people inside of Colliers so much as you do with your clients in the real estate world?

KP: That’s true. We’re doing work internally. Whenever we have an office remodeled, I am involved in that. We’re changing our offices as well, but most of my work is client-based.

SF: Got it. Tell us about this wellness study. First, why did you do it?

KP: I’ve been in the workplace conversation for a quite a while now, and the subjects kind of come and go. It used to be about mobility and then technology. And the topic that’s been coming up over the last five years has been wellness in the workplace. It’s about creating harmony, creating places where people can make choices about being healthy in the workplace. We wanted to know more about that. When we think about the workplace, we don’t think about it as panel heights and assignment of offices, we think about it as a more holistic system.

SF: Panel heights, you were referring to the panels that surround cubicles? Is that what you mean by that?

KP: Yes, a cubicle height and those kinds of things. It could be a big topic. We don’t talk too much about that. We think about the workplace as a place to craft experiences for employees that make them productive and engaged. So, by thinking of the employee at the center, then it makes us think about things like how do you connect them to the brand of the company? And how you enable the culture of the company through the workplace? And how do you make sure that wellness is part of this conversation?

SF: What motivated this now?  These things do go in phases? We were just talking to Professor Barry Schwartz about the history of how work is organized, and what’s needed now. What is it about the present moment that has given rise to this intense interest in wellness? Is it that people are so stressed out and overwhelmed by the 24/7 nature of work in the digital world? Or is it something else?

KP: I think there’s some of that and I think some of it is the millennial work force; they are approaching work a little bit differently. And I don’t want to lump them into a single category, but there are expectations that are different than, for instance, boomer’s expectations about work. There’s more of a sense of needing balance. There’s also this idea about being at work any time, not just between nine and five. By having different demands from this different work force, employers are having to pay attention to things like wellness, and things like balance.

SF: Tell us about the study. Clearly, there’s an interest in this topic. What was your motivation for the study itself and what hypotheses or hunches did you have going into it?

KP: We had been talking about wellness for a while. We went to 200 of our clients, a cross-section of large and small, and local and international firms.  We wanted to know what they were doing about wellness. We had this suspicion that it was part of the conversation. But what are people actually doing about this? We wanted to know about their motivation. What was causing this conversation to show up on peoples’ radars? And many said it was in the top three in their priority list of things they were really focusing on.

SF: Let me jump in here for a second, make sure we understand what we mean by wellness. Is wellness about physical wellbeing? Is it about having the capacity to be physically healthy, to be able to move around and eat healthy foods? Or is it also the psychological health of people, and their spiritual health too? What is wellness after all?

KP: We thought about it as the basics of disease assessment and management; heart disease and diabetes. We thought about it as lifestyle management; stress and substance abuse. And we thought about it as wellbeing; mental and emotional health. That’s how we defined wellness. It’s really not a normal topic in workplace circles. When you think about those things as programs that all together help an employee be healthier, it really is a workplace issue.

SF: Absolutely, work is where we spend much of our waking time.  It’s a societal issue as well because it affects the health of society and of course, that has all kinds of implications. How many people were in your study, companies, sectors? Give us a sense of the scope and then tell us what you found.

KP: It was 200 companies. We serve 200 companies around the world in all sectors: technology, pharma, finance.   We didn’t break it down by sector, we were looking at the holistic approach of how these companies were approaching this. Back to your previous question — what was really motivating companies to think about this? — the number one thing was employees were asking for it. Employees were asking for programs that help them live healthier work styles, help them stay healthy in an affordable way, and employers were responding to that because it’s really good part of their recruitment and retention. This is part of their choice matrix.

SF: You said it was top three among the issues that they worry about on the people side?

KP: They did and the reason they look for it is because employees were demanding it. The second reason they were looking at it was they were trying to keep up with their peers.

SF: Competition with the labor market?

KP: Yes, the competition with the labor market. Many people used this as part of their selection criteria when they are thinking about changing jobs.

SF: Right. So, what were the big findings? Give us the headlines.

KP: When we looked at the big findings, I kind of broke it down. The big one was we’ll give you a fitness center if we have a large facility. Smoking cessation and weight loss are the top three big ones, and that’s pretty normal. Stress management was right behind that and heart screening. The top five are some of the top five issues in our society. And the lesser ones would be chronic lung disorder, cancer, and depression was actually lower as well. We were surprised to find that so low.

SF: It could be under-reported because there might be stigma associated with that. People might be afraid of reporting it.

KP: That’s very possible.

SF: But please continue.

KP:   When employees have these kinds of choices for these kinds of solutions, they pick companies, all things being equal, who offer these kinds of options.

SF: Tell us more about what companies are doing. What are the cool things that are happening on the horizon that are starting to get traction across the different sectors of the economic landscape that our listeners should know about?

KP: I think the things for me that were exciting were things that people were doing with design in the workplace. Access to natural light and ergonomics and providing restorative spaces were big things.

SF: What’s a restorative space?

KP: Quiet spaces, spaces to retreat to. There was a client I was working with where we had a whole floor that was relatively open, but one side of the floor was quiet and the other side was open or more noisy. And they regulated themselves, but the idea was there were places you could go to during the day where it was very quiet and you could work and that was important for some people – I guess for all people, at some point. And by being mindful about how they laid out the space, having those restorative spaces, was really a good thing.

SF: And giving people choice about whether they can use them? Is that a part of the package? Because clearly some people like noise and others like quiet.

KP: And choice is actually a mental health issue as well.   Choice and control about how you plan your day and work your day. What happens if there’s a choice to go to a quiet place or a noisy place based on what was good for you? That was a really empowering thing and companies are starting to do that as well.

SF: You know, Dan, our engineer, used to work at Ikea. And he tells me they had a quiet room there where you could go and relax and take a nap if you needed to.

KP: That’s what we’re talking about. It’s a smart idea.

SF: What else did you see that was particularly exciting that you think our listeners would want to know about trends in workplace wellness?

KP: Another one was this idea about tall ceilings; studies have shown that people who work in places with higher ceilings feel more free and more creative and are better able to handle abstractions, which are all related to innovation. A lot of companies that we work with these days are looking for ways to create places for innovation and to motivate innovation. And there appear to be ways through natural lighting, different types of spaces, and tall ceilings that help promote innovation as well as wellness. That means higher ceilings make people feel freer and more open. One other things is access to greenery, to be able to look outside and see plants or see the ocean, to see natural colors.  That is shown to promote mental acuity and it has a calming effect.

SF: Let’s say you’re living in a city far away from the ocean and there’s nothing green around. Many of our listeners work in such companies. What do they do to try to affect some of these states of peacefulness that induce creativity?

KP: Plants on the interior are always a good thing. But colors are also helpful. Blues and greens and browns are attractive to our eyes. And at certain places being able to use that helps. Reds create angst and concern. Many companies’ colors are red, so there’s ways to make sure you don’t have some of that there because of the branding. Offsetting that with greens and blues and browns is a smart thing to do.

SF: What would you recommend that Target do, for example? Target, of course, has the red and white logo– very red and white.

KP: You have got to keep pictures of greenery, green accent walls, natural plants, natural light.

SF: How do people learn about how to manage workplace design in this way? Does your study inform people about the kinds of initiatives that seem to be most effective in today’s work environment?

KP: In a sense, the white paper goes over those things. It lists the key aspects to put into a workplace that help create wellness or senses of wellbeing.

SF: What else is in there that we haven’t heard about that you want to make sure our listeners can hear about now, and then go explore further at your website to read the white paper.

KP: Another one is this idea of a sit-stand desk. Desks that raise and lower by a crank or a motor because sitting as know has become – as a headline a few years ago said — “Sitting is the new smoking.” It was a great headline. The idea is that movement is very important, especially from sitting to standing positions.  Many companies these days are providing sit-stand work stations.

SF: So, movement, sit-stand desks, are all the rage.

KP: The other one is treadmill desk. If you remember that, it’s still around and people still use them, but not very much. And our surveys showed that was true.  When people deployed these treadmill desks that they just weren’t used very much. I was working with a client two years ago when we put one of those in the ground floor of a three-story building, and the VP on the third floor said, “Hey, we want one of those on our floor,” and I said, “we surveyed the units on the first floor and it’s not used very much. There’s capacity there.” And their answer was, “That’s just too far to walk!”

SF: Do people get too tired walking or is it something about the physiology of thinking and working that you can’t do it while you’re walking?

KP: I will say that people do use them – there is a treadmill that goes about 2 miles per hour and you can read email, you can work conference calls while you’re on it – people use them, it’s just not a big upgrade.

SF: Interesting. So, treadmills…not really happening? What is happening though?

KP: One of the things that was interesting was we asked if they were seeing reductions in healthcare costs. There’s a lot of ways to measure the effectiveness of these kinds of programs, like employee retention and satisfaction and reduced sick days. But the most capturable thing was what are your healthcare costs and are you seeing reduction? And about 60% of the firms we surveyed said they did see reductions in healthcare costs and they were attributing that to the wellness programs they were putting in place. But the curious thing there was that only 10% of them – only 10% of them – were reporting it and actually recording it.

SF: What does that mean? They were not reporting it internally or to externals?

KP: Or externally. They were capturing it. They were saying, “Look, we have captured the fact that we’re reducing our costs”, but they don’t broadcast it. They don’t talk about that. And the reason I think that’s important is these are enterprises. Anything that gets expanded, that gets really abstracted from the bottom line doesn’t have much of a chance of getting funded. Part of my job – and maybe yours too, I don’t know – is to try and draw cause and linkage between these programs and how they affect the bottom line. If you capture that, then you report it, then the next year when it’s time to get funding for you, you have a better chance of getting it.

SF: How do you help people do that? How do you help companies make that connection? I know there are critics of this field of inquiry who are asserting that indeed wellness programs might be costing more than they yield in terms of value. Are you familiar with those criticisms?

KP: I am, and I’m hearing some of that. I think you have to really be specific about where the criticism is. I do think that you can throw good money after bad at a program that’s not serving you. It’s important to figure out those that are working well. I think that blanket criticism of the entire idea of wellness in the workplace is false. But I would say that if you pick apart some of the pieces, there are places to get better. That’s for sure.

SF: I want to make sure that our listeners get some advice from you as to how they can proceed, whether they are a small company or an independent operator or part of a big organization, perhaps managing a part of a big organization. What is it you want to convey to people about what they can learn about how to make their workplaces more conducive to wellness?

KP: First, I would encourage folks to download the white paper. There’s a lot of information in that and it’s free, and you’re not obliged to anything.    There are a lot of studies that are going on these days. Harvard Business Review regularly releases studies about the positive financial impact of these kinds of programs. The American College of Occupational Environmental Medicine has a corporate health achievement award that shows that companies that have healthcare work forces are actually more profitable and make more money than the standard S&P 500. I’d say educate yourself, get the white paper, look at some of these studies that are available on the internet, and really think about the workplace as more than just panel heights and space layouts. It’s really a holistic system, and wellness is a part of it.

SF: And you really can have an impact on a person’s life in the way that you design your work setting can’t you?

KP: That’s what motivates me and my team. We help companies make money, and be profitable and maximize space. But we also help people.  That’s the important part of this. We spend so much time at work, and many work places are just dismal. If we can help pull those into a more modern type of work setting, it’s gratifying. You can really help people. And when you do, they thank you. They never go back. They love these new work places.

SF: If you are an employee looking to create a change in your work environment, what’s your quick important word of advice about how they ought to proceed?

KP: This usually relies on the HR area, the HR department. There might even be a wellness office in your company. Ask them. Start demanding these services. Bring information to them. But I think the more that employees speak up, the more employers are likely to hear them. So, make some noise.

SF: Make some noise, but keep it quiet for those people who want to have a quieter work environment, right?

About the Author

Ali Ahmed is an undergraduate senior majoring in Biological Basis of Behavior and minoring in Cinema Studies.

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