We share our thoughts on the role of the physical workplace in ensuring the wellbeing of the workforce, inspired by some of the discussion and ideas at the recent Impact Counsel’s Forum

Bates Wells convenes a regular forum for general counsel working within B Corps, impact investors and purpose-driven businesses of different kinds in our network. Each meeting, this Impact Counsels’ Forum discusses the impact angles on legal and practical issues. Recently, the forum considered the role of the physical workplace in ensuring the wellbeing of the workforce, exploring the inherent, but often overlooked, link between the ‘E’ and ‘S’ in ESG, in the post-pandemic landscape. In this two-part blog, we share our thoughts on this topic, inspired by some of the discussion and ideas at the forum.

The key theme of the forum discussion was that organisations’ real estate and people strategies should be approached holistically, taking a long-term view that embeds both environmental and social impact goals. This idea may not be new. Global initiatives such as the World Green Building Council’s Better Places for People programme and its Health and Wellbeing Framework aim to catalyse social impact across the built environment value chain. However, the post-pandemic landscape provides particularly fertile ground for this impact-integrated approach to shape organisational strategy, and support the business in adapting to changes such as hybrid working.

Key points:

  • The pandemic has helped focus organisations’ views on choosing and occupying premises to enhance people’s wellbeing. For example, offices need to meet much higher standards and embody the philosophy of the company, with the digital support to facilitate working from home and hybrid working.

  • Organisations should rethink workplace design: people need to feel safe and see the workplace as an opportunity to support their work. The office is increasingly a place for bringing people together and collaboration, and promoting the organisation’s values.

  • There is much more competition around the wellbeing agenda, in order to retain and attract new talent.

  • Key physical aspects for improving wellbeing include reviewing ventilation, thermal comfort, lighting, and the acoustic environment.

A new landscape

Organisations have learned a great deal from working from home during the pandemic. While some feared that working from home would lead to a drop in productivity, data indicates that hourly input actually increased and sick days declined. Some employers have benefited from reduced overheads and increased business resilience, but there have also been difficulties, such as the need to duplicate equipment, confidentiality issues, and maintaining morale and learning and development.

Many workers have benefited from working from home due to increased flexibility, no commute, and more time with family. However, this has been accompanied by an increase in working hours, with previous commute time now taken up by work, and new technologies have reduced the distinction between work and home. Some may feel a loss of company culture, too, and there may be difficulties for junior workers in accessing development opportunities and for leaders in managing their teams. Also, some may have been more disadvantaged, such as those whose homes are not conducive to working or those with caring responsibilities.

Key points:

  • Many employees and employers want to retain some degree of flexible working as the pandemic eases. Employers now have the opportunity to refresh their approach to how we work, with a range of options to consider.

  • Key considerations for returning to the office include carrying out risk assessments, reviewing ventilation, and possibly requiring Covid testing, although this will require careful thought.

  • Organisations should speak to staff in order to understand their anxieties and provide reassurance on the steps being taken to protect them. When considering your future working arrangements, employee wellbeing should be an integral part of the organisation’s strategy. Initiatives designed to support and integrate wellbeing can develop a happier and more sustainable workforce for the long-term.

  • There are a number of initiatives, such as The Mindful Business Charter, that can help show commitment to reinstating work boundaries. And, if thinking broadly about social impact in premises, there are some interesting initiatives aimed at improving inclusivity; for example, the BSI recently ran a consultation on guidance that aims to bring consideration of neurodiversity into design for the built environment.

For purposeful businesses that want to pursue this integrated approach to strategy development, there are already options to be explored and tangible measures that can be implemented to improve impact and long-term sustainability for the business. Bates Wells will be delving further into this agenda in part two of this series, and through our new Impact Real Estate Forum on LinkedIn. If you would like more information about our Impact Counsels’ Forum, for senior counsel in purpose-driven businesses, please contact us.