Workers expecting a secure work environment are demanding more of employers and landlords
  • Relatively new building standard could become even more popular at forward-looking companies because of the pandemic
  • Expenses connected with a WELL building are “cost neutral” compared to a standard building, experts say.
  • Healthier and happier employees in the office could be benefits of introducing building standards that promote wellness.

As companies try to entice their employees back into offices without a COVID-19 vaccine available, some are turning to WELL, a six-year-old standard in building design, to certify steps taken to promote the wellness of their building’s occupants.

“COVID-19 has made people evaluate their surroundings — home, work, neighborhood, travel infrastructure — in ways that they hadn’t previously,” Tanya Eagle, a sustainability specialist and senior associate at the architectural firm Perkins Eastman, told Karma. “Now, employees are evaluating their workspace on how easily they could get infected from a fellow coworker.”

The WELL certification goes a step further than the better-known LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a designation that focuses on green buildings and stresses energy efficiency and cost savings. The WELL building standard, which formalized under the International Well Building Institute (IWBI) in 2014, promotes 11 concepts in building design — for quality in air, temperature, water, light, nourishment, sound, movement, mind, materials, community and innovation.

As examples, nourishment can mean that employees have easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy drinks instead of highly processed snacks and sugary soft drinks. Movement would refer to whether buildings can keep employees physically active by offering gym access and exercise classes as a way to deter a strictly sedentary workday, which can lead to a number of diseases.

Nowadays, companies recognize that getting their workers willingly back in the office is a tall order. “Contacts cited challenges in bringing employees back to work, including workers’ health concerns, limited access to child care, and generous unemployment insurance benefits,” wrote authors of the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book issued in May. That report, published eight times a year, polls businesses in the 12 district bank regions about economic conditions in their respective economies. 

The Green Business Certification Incorporation (GBCI), which administers the LEED certification program and the LEED professional credentialing program, also certifies WELL.

Eagle said building an office that is WELL-compliant, or LEED-compliant, does not have to raise costs. “Like any design, it can come down to upfront decisions and goal-setting, and deciding which strategies will be followed to pursue certification,” she said. In the case of WELL, it includes the time it takes a person or a team to gather and submit backup documentation to GBCI, the actual certification costs paid for the GBCI review process, and then the cost of on-site performance testing as the final step in the certification process. WELL also requires recertification every three years to verify that the building is still performing and operating as intended. 

Even before COVID-19, companies and their workers were already focusing on how their workplaces affected their health. “Increased fitness amenities, conscious eating, awareness of chemicals that are ‘bad for you,’ data tracking through apps and the importance of community, are all trends that had already been increasing,” said Eagle, who also serves on the IWBI Task Force on COVID-19 and Other Respiratory Infections, which will inform new enhancements to the WELL building standard. “Clients want to know whether any design and operational strategies can help them avoid/mitigate potential crises, increase occupant confidence and help them bounce back faster if something does occur.”