We continue our reflection on the subject of Bates Wells’ recent Impact Counsels’ Forum, for general counsels working in impact-driven businesses.

In part one, we considered how the post-pandemic landscape has changed expectations of the workplace, indicating the need for organisations to develop their strategies for people and premises in tandem. In part two, we look at some drivers and potential blockers to greater sustainability and wellbeing, particularly developing social capital, within the physical workspace, and what some organisations are doing to sustain a workplace community whilst implementing hybrid working. 

Organisations can develop their joint strategy for ‘people and place’ by incorporating the key aspects of a sustainability policy, which should include, for example, incorporating the circular economy approach into projects, dealing with dilapidations and fit out of spaces, as well as a wellbeing policy. The pandemic has highlighted the intimate connection between shared physical workspace and workers’ health. However, there are opportunities in pursing wellbeing in a broader sense, particularly as organisations get to grips with hybrid working, by taking a purposeful approach that includes supporting the development of social capital.  

In the post-pandemic landscape, reconceptualising the office as a destination for collaborative working provides the opportunity for organisations to enhance social capital. The workplace is crucial to fostering the necessary personal and professional bonds, which form the networks that enable us to be productive and support wellbeing. Building this social capital should be a vital part of any strategy going forward, shaping the workplace to create space for community, collaboration and comradery.

Approaches to bringing people back together in the workplace

The forum discussion considered approaches to maintaining connections between those home-working and those in the workplace, and factors for successful hybrid initiatives. For us, this discussion highlighted a number of key considerations:

  • Ensuring full engagement of those who are home-working is necessary to avoid unintentionally creating ‘two-tiered’ events and meetings. Supportive hybrid technology is likely to be a sensible investment in the long-term. Replacing unstructured networking, such as ‘water-cooler conversations’ in the office, can be more challenging, but there may be internal communications approaches or tools that can help.

  • Managers should be aware of the challenges of ‘presenteeism’. It’s natural to think more readily of the person in the office with you, than colleagues at home. However, more emphasis on structured supervision and increasing transparency can help.

  • Organisations are trialling different patterns of office use, guided by the needs of the business’ services, but also considering factors such as supporting the training needs of junior staff members and the value of the social aspects of the workplace. Greater inclusivity may be found through normalising flexible working, for example, where this supports workers with disabilities.

  • Some organisations are experimenting with measures for better integration, to make the most of when people are in the physical workplace, such as rotating seating and offering a weekly breakfast to bring people together.

ESG strategy: A long-term agenda

Legislation around the edges of this agenda is light touch and there is unlikely to be a legislative driver anytime soon, to make buildings more sustainable and further promote staff wellbeing. There is increasing regulation around buildings’ environmental performance, such as the MEES Regulations, but generally real estate law is slow to change and not forward-looking. While it is largely down to the tenant and landlord to work together to make the desired changes, organisations need to think about how we experience our workspaces in this new landscape and draw on the guidance and initiatives already available, in order to maximise the benefits available from an impact-integrated strategy.

Bates Wells collaborated with Shirah Mansaray, researcher and PhD Candidate at University College London, to study what affects sustainability, wellbeing and social capital development in the workplace. Drawing on the research, based on interviews with landlords, consultants, architects, and commercial tenants, our recommendations include:

  • Organisations should use their legal strategies to support their impact goals. For example, through negotiating lease agreements to include sustainability and wellbeing considerations for both landlord and tenant, whilst ensuring that risk is properly managed between the parties.

  • When redesigning the work environment, organisations should recognise the potential impact of the physical office environment on wellbeing and go beyond health and safety compliance, by actively engaging staff in workplace design and integrating emerging best practice around wellbeing.

  • Tools such as workspace assessments should be tailored to support the business’ social and environmental impact goals.

  • Although cost is often assumed to prohibit changes to premises, especially if on a short lease, this is not always the case and short and longer term savings can often be identified.

Bates Wells takes a holistic view of the workplace and focuses on how commercial tenants can work with their landlords, to shift some of the blockers to creating greater sustainability and wellbeing through their premises. If you would like to know more about our work, or about our Impact Real Estate Forum on LinkedIn or the Impact Counsels’ Forum, please get in touch.

What is social capital?

Social capital is defined in the Capitals Coalition’s Social and Human Capital Protocol (2019) as “Networks together with shared norms, values and understanding that facilitate cooperation within and among groups”. (In this definition, the Protocol draws on the OECD’s 2001 publication, ‘The Wellbeing of Nations: The Role of Human and Social Capital’.) Social capital and ‘human capital’ are described by the Protocol as resources that “need to be maintained and enhanced to make society more cohesive and resilient and business more successful”. The Protocol is intended to help shift the consideration of social and human capital performance to the core of business decision-making. (For more, please see the Capitals Coalition website.)