18 May 2021

Henrietta Frater, Head of HSE and Wellbeing, on why we must prioritise wellbeing in the way our places are designed and managed

This article first appeared in Estates Gazette. 

The last year has been something of a rollercoaster ride, and I am sure that many have experienced a love-hate relationship with the forced ‘new normal’ of working from home. The absence of the daily commute and the freedoms of being able to combine home life and work life have been celebrated, whilst the simplicity of a face to face meeting, the comradery of colleagues and the ability to draw a line between home and work have been missed.

This year of change and doing things differently has made us more aware than ever of the impact that our physical environment can have on our health, wellbeing and productivity - for better or worse - and given us greater clarity about what we need to feel healthy and happy. Now, as lockdown restrictions begin to ease, we want to keep hold of the positive experiences we’ve had, and make our health and wellbeing a central factor in where and how, we live and work.

All of this means we can no longer rely on people coming into cities and workplaces because they’ve always done it, or because everyone else is. Instead, we have to deliver destinations that genuinely support people to live, work and feel better. Otherwise why would they return?

As goes without saying, this emphasis applies just as clearly to those who help design, build, manage and maintain our spaces, as it does for those occupying them.

Designing for wellbeing is nothing new. In 2018, our own offices at St James’s Market became the first workplace in Europe to achieve WELL Platinum Certification for considering mental and physical health in everything from air quality, to acoustic performance, working styles, and nutrition. And over the last year, we’ve achieved a similar honour at One Heddon Street, the world’s first fully fitted co-working space to meet this standard.

But the issue of designing for health and wellbeing has taken on a whole new resonance post-pandemic, and customers’ expectations have, rightly, grown. How we respond will be vital, not only to our individual wellbeing, but also to making the case for people to return.

For many of us, the mental and physical pressures of the past year, working from cluttered spaces and kitchen tables, juggling caring responsibilities with working life, or enduring forced isolation, mean many of us are longing for human connection, new environments, and fresh experiences – all of which are vital to our health and happiness and all of which can be met by an innovative and progressive real estate sector.

Done well, we can give people confidence to return by delivering to the highest standards of health and hygiene. We can entice them to return by providing space which fosters the human connections and collaboration that many of us have so sorely missed. And we can inspire them with the rich experiences and opportunities, which help us relax, re-energise and socialise.

Gone are the days of a one-size-fits-all workplace. The ideal for many of us, will be a combination of different environments, for different tasks, moods or days in the week. But I suspect that after the shake-up of the past year, many of us are far more attuned to what good (and bad) looks like, and where we work and feel at our best.

For the real estate sector this is a challenge and an opportunity, but putting the wellbeing of those using our spaces at the heart of how we design them is non-negotiable. If we don’t rise to the challenge, our customers and visitors will vote with their feet.

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