A Healthy Return: The Business Case for Wellbeing in the Workplace – Part 4

In the final installment of a four-part event series, Haworth hosts a Q&A with an expert panel on designing offices that support today’s workers.
ASID HQ, Washington, DC. All photos © ASID, except where noted.

On November 14th, 2017, Susan S. Szenasy, our director of design innovation, sat down with a panel of design experts at the Haworth showroom in Washington, DC, to learn more about the business case for wellbeing and how improving office design with a focus on workplace wellness can limit employee turnover and improve performance. The panel included Chris Calhoun, vice president of real estate and workplace services at T. Rowe Price, Randy Fiser, CEO of ASID, and Anjell Karibian, senior workplace design strategist at Haworth. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity by Bailey McCann.


Susan S. Szensasy (SSS): Our subject matter is really important, the business case for well-being in the workplace. Digital work, generational changes, cultural changes; we’re all confronted with these issues right now.  So let’s talk to Randy. You started out to create a really strong study of behaviors, of interactions, of how people work, and how people use the space, and how people interact with one another. Can you give us a kind of first peek into what your findings were?

Randy Fiser (RF): What we were hoping with the goals that we set, was for the ASID office to be a living laboratory to help support productivity, engagement, and retention through the lens of health and sustainability. What we wanted was to be able to study it and have the results show that this matters. That’s exactly what we’ve been able to demonstrate.

SSS: Could you give us the specifics of how this was studied?

RF: Sure. There are actually four or five basic studies that are going on within the office. In one that we did in partnership with Cornell University, we used socio-metric badges. Pre-occupancy, people wore the badges that had GPS, Bluetooth, infrared, and they also measured voice.

The next study was with Michigan State University, which was measuring innovation and innovation through space. We had a benchmark dataset that allowed us to collect data and then, through the lens of space, compare us to other organizations. That study came out to prove that there have been increased levels of innovation through the use of the designed space. We also did a wellness study, which looked at the health of the staff. This was done by the International WELL Building Institute and we used their research questions to have conversations with staff to see if they were actually seeing health and wellness improvements at work.

SSS: Anjell, you have been studying the corporate world. Randy is obviously trying to prove something about interior design and its usefulness. When it comes to more traditional corporations are they also looking at these shifts within the workplace toward well-being?

ASID, HQ. Washington, DC.

Anjell Karibian (AK): When we talk to our customers and our clients, paramount to their interest is the well-being of their employees. People are so valued today, more so than in the past. So anything that can support the way that people are most productive is not only an objective but a goal that they continuously strive for.

Going a bit deeper, there is also a question about how people are behaviorally performing in their spaces. Are people optimizing their talent in the way that they want to? Are they coming to work and relieving or adding to stress levels? We’re looking at so many variances of what makes the person holistically productive.

SSS: So Chris, let’s get specific here. T. Rowe Price is a 70-year-old investment firm, with an older membership of career people. What are you facing in terms of shifts inside of T. Rowe? What are you looking at now?

Chris Calhoun (CC): The biggest change and challenge for us is really in our technology world. We are an older company and predominantly Baltimore based, but that’s changing. We need to change the way our technology works to make it more responsive to new generations. So our Corporate Real Estate and Workplace Solutions Group, called CREWS, is working really hard to develop a partnership with IT to find solutions.

We’re also working on getting an emotional connection, especially with new hires. We’re recognizing that our head of marketing and brands is more secretive than the NSA. You walk by our buildings and you don’t see our name. You walk in, you don’t see us. So that’s what we’re trying to connect: external brand with internal brand, and corporate with social responsibility and engagement.

SSS: To go back briefly to the data collection issue, let’s talk about how the data is collected. Does everybody take part in it? Do they understand that they’re not being spied on? How do you communicate that? Randy, can you explain how it worked with your research?

RF: Part of it is building a culture of trust. We made a very, very overt statement at the beginning of the conversation about the data that is collected and how it is going to be used on an individual basis. The other important thing to point out is the evolution of culture in people. All of us know that when we allow notifications and/or GPS on our phone that we are being tracked, and that any time we post anything, we do anything related to our phones, there’s a tracking that’s taking place in some way, shape, or form. I think people are getting a little more comfortable with the fact that experiences in our life are being enhanced because people know a little more information about them.

SSS: Anjell, how do you see it as a strategist and researcher?

ASID, HQ. Washington, DC.

AK: To Randy’s point, if you have people endorse it, data collection works much smoother. So that’s key, you have to make sure there’s a buy-in.

SSS: Not long ago, designers were very proud to say they interview workers who they design for. We now know that’s a very faulty way of looking at things.  Anjell, can you talk about how to improve that?

AK: Yeah, I think there’s still validity to the interview. There’s just more information now, to help us make smarter design choices. In the interview, you’re going to pick up information that’s not on a sensor and that’s still important because it’s part of the richness of a culture. But in addition, with the sensor and analytics, to combine those two, now we’re at a point where spaces are far more intuitive.

SSS: Randy, can you talk about your first-hand experiences with what Anjell has alluded to?

RF: I absolutely agree with everything that Anjell has said. For us, there was a dialogue between what people said they wanted and what they needed to have a successful work environment.  The analytics showed us what they needed in an environment, so we could go to the staff and say ‘this is why we did it this way,’ even if they told us to do it another way. When you actually had proof of concept, people were much more apt to have people say, “Oh, now I see why you did this.” Early adoption took place much more easily.

SSS: So with all of these new insights, how do you define well-being in the corporate environment? Anjell, can you start? How does it translate into a business proposition?

AK: From the standpoint of well-being, there’s a lot of information about well-being in environments and how we best nurture the physical side of it. We’re really more interested in the behavioral side of it. We think that corporations have not yet paid enough attention to that. So while yes, space is important, we also have to look at how it supports people behaviorally and emotionally. We feel that if people are in it and they have a passion for what they’re doing, they’re going to stay, and that’s extremely important.

SSS: Randy, from the design side, how do you see this shift toward well-being?

RF: I believe there are certain parts of it that have been innate within the profession from the beginning. There has always been a connection between design, particularly in the interior environment, and people. What we’re seeing though is that there is more evidence and data that explains why decisions should be made a certain way.

Our goal is to collect all of the data we can. We’ve invested a million dollars over the course of the last six years in research and scholarship to try to gather more data beyond our own office, and translate that into ROI. We want the conversation to be about value per square foot, not cost per square foot. The idea is if I can get you a 6% productivity gain in your organization that’s a seismic bottom line result to the business and that’s a whole different conversation for the industry. We are getting very, very, close to having all of the data necessary to support that value proposition and that translates into very real dollars.

SSS: Chris, how does all of this begin to translate with what you guys are trying to do at T. Rowe to create your next generation workplace?

CC: I think one example, is an exterior project we just completed. On our own campus in the suburbs of Baltimore, we’re lucky enough to have a man-made stream. Over the years, it had just become overgrown and you couldn’t get down to it. But we could see value in creating a place to have exterior rooms where people could collaborate or sit and focus.

Getting finance to agree to spend the money to do something like that was really hard because they saw it as a cost. But eventually, we were able to successfully sell it to them by showing that it was a capital expense that created new value. Now that it’s done, the buzz it’s creating on campus is just phenomenal. So it ties all of those things together that it truly is a business case around working differently and working in a healthier way.

SSS: Well put. Thank you all. We really appreciate all the work you in promoting a more responsible, wellness-oriented design culture.

Panelists and attendees at the Haworth showroom, in Washington, DC. Photo © R. Scott Kelly Photography.


This Q&A is the fourth installment in our four part panel series “A Healthy Return: The Business Case for Wellbeing in the Workplace.”  To catch up on previous installments see parts 1, 2, and 3.

Categories: Workplace Architecture

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