It’s 2016, and the staff of an Australian building and engineering consultancy relocates to a new, net-zero carbon office. Not long after settling in, something profound happens: Nearly three quarters of employees reported they experienced better health after moving.
Meanwhile, across the world, an international paint company undertakes a green office refurbishment at its office in El Salvador. Afterward, the company sees a 44 percent reduction in absenteeism among workers.
Both instances—documented in a 2018 report by the World Green Building Council—belong to a growing body of research drawing a connection between the design, construction, and operation of workplaces and the happiness and wellbeing of workers. Research by Harvard University from 2018 has also indicated that green-certified buildings can reduce energy, health, and climate change costs while lowering the incidence of lost days of work for those who are employed within them.
Caring for employee wellbeing has never been more crucial. Brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the global public health crisis that has defined 2020 has also upended traditional modes of work for countless companies and their ranks. Office spaces throughout the world have gone quiet in favor of remote work. Despite the vacant cubicles, in this time many businesses have brought more attention than ever to the intersection between workspace conditions and worker wellbeing.
As businesses look to plan for an adjusted return to those spaces, the tenets of green building design and functionality are likely to play an important part in supporting the goals of promoting a safe and healthy work environment. Here’s a hypothetical of the potential confluence: adopting measures that improve indoor air quality, such as upgrading HVAC systems, can deliver hygienic benefits today, but they may well improve the day-to-day experience of a worker with asthma who’s going to be hired years from now.
With the future of work an open question, especially when it comes to employee wellbeing, the playbook on building green may well hold some of the answers we are looking for.
Green buildings are also better for people
For years, worker wellbeing was not treated as a core selling point of green building, according to Rachel Hodgdon, a green building expert. When the industry first took off, in the 1990s, its benefits to landlords, tenants, architects, and builders were often narrowly defined. Green building practices and interventions promised to reduce waste, increase energy efficiency, and deliver operating-cost savings over time.
Hodgdon, who began working at the U.S. Green Building Council in 2010, was among those pressing the functional and financial benefits of green building to corporations, institutions, and governments by promoting USGBC’s LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a standard and rating system that encourages the construction of eco-friendly buildings.
The prospect of cutting carbon and lowering electric bills resonated to an extent among some in the business sector. More recently, and informed by promising research, many green building advocates have been shifting their pitch—to one with broader appeal.
“[The green building industry] started out designing buildings that were better for the planet,” says Hodgdon, now president and CEO of the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI). “Then somewhere along the way, we started to understand that those buildings were also better for people.”
Much like the LEED certification, which set a standard for environmentally friendly building, the IWBI introduced and administers its WELL Building Standard, which rates and certifies eco-friendly buildings in ten areas that can affect the health and wellbeing of the people who live, work, and play inside of them.
Hodgdon says a focus on environmental soundness and health and wellbeing has been winning more converts to green building.
“The great thing is we can still get people to the same outcomes, just through a different call to action,” she says. “Much of the time what’s good for the planet and what’s good for people are the same.”
Business and thought leaders have indeed taken notice: According to a 2018 survey of global building councils and organizations, 77 percent of respondents ranked the benefits to occupant health as first among the social reasons for building green.
Some of that enthusiasm may be fueled by researchers quantifying the financial benefits that come from greener buildings and healthier workers: a study found that just by improving the air quality in their buildings, businesses could expect a $6,500 per person annual productivity return, while a 2018 study found that a window designed to optimize daylight exposure produced $2 million worth of increased productivity.
“When you just measure ROI for green buildings in terms of savings on your utility bill, you’re talking about pennies on the dollar,” Hodgdon says. “But when you overlay health metrics on top of that for the very same improvement, you can get 50 to 100 times the benefit.”
Greener Workplaces, More Productive Employees
Green and sustainable workplaces promise to improve our health, happiness, and productivity. But how well do they deliver?
Productivity and Happiness
A 2018 survey of office workers conducted by the U.S. Green Building Council found that people who work in certified green buildings are happier, healthier, and more productive than people who work in conventional buildings.
A 2015 survey of office workers in 16 countries found that people who work in spaces with natural features such as sunlight and indoor plants feel happier and move creative than people who do not.
Building a more sustainable future
At Citi, a decade-long push to create a leaner, greener physical footprint has, in more recent years, dovetailed with an effort to promote the wellbeing of its employees while they are on the job.
An important milestone came in 2018, when Citi Tower became the first WELL building in all of Hong Kong. Today, more than 33 percent of Citi’s buildings have achieved the LEED certification. By 2025, the company intends to have 40 percent of Citi floor area achieve LEED, WELL, or an equivalent certification to ensure operations at the highest level of sustainability.
These sustainable operations ambitions were codified in the firm’s 2025 Sustainable Progress Strategy, which includes a commitment to reducing the operational footprint of its facilities and integrating sustainable practices across the company. And those objectives come in the wake of a major effort to carve out a more space-conscious workplace: Since 2011—when Citi recognized that much of its 75 million square feet of global office space was underutilized due to business travel, vacations, sick days, and flexible work arrangements—the company has been able to reduce its global footprint to just 45 million square feet by optimizing the operations of its workplace and redesignating spaces for both socialization and privacy. That change has reduced energy usage and related carbon emissions; meanwhile, employees who were surveyed reported that they preferred their new work environments and felt more productive.
A similar scenario played out when Citi introduced its Drink-Up initiative. Starting in 2016, the company converted office water fountains into bottle-filling stations and stopped stocking break rooms with disposable plastic water bottles. Over the next three years, the company estimates, employees avoided the use of nearly 3.2 million plastic water bottles in the U.S. and close to 3.8 million bottles in Mexico—bottles that otherwise could have added to the planet’s plastic waste crisis.
“It translates into improved health and wellbeing for our employees by promoting healthy hydration,” says Grace Arnold, a vice president at Citi in charge of sustainable operations in North America, “with the added benefit of reducing the impact of single use plastic waste on our communities and the expense to haul it away.”
Programs to promote worker wellbeing haven’t just come from the top down, either—rank-and-file employees have been a key voice in and driver of conversations in recent years concerning workplace sustainability and health. “We’ve seen a lot of pull from them,” says Rajat Banerjee, the Global Head of Office Construction at Citi. “They’re conscious about the environment.”
“It’s not just good business sense—it’s the right thing to do by our colleagues,” says Sam Pilcher, Citi’s VP of Sustainability for EMEA and APAC. “We all want to attract the brightest and the best, and a good, positive place to work helps to do that.”
Greener buildings, healthier world
As part of the Paris Climate Agreement made five years ago, almost all of the world’s countries pledged to limit global warming in order to sustain ecosystems and prevent sea level rise. Since then, it has become increasingly clear that shifting to sustainable practices is crucial not just for the future of the planet, but also for ongoing economic prosperity and individual wellbeing.
Meanwhile, a team of public health experts writing in The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, recently warned that rising temperatures already are harming human health around the world—and that “accelerated efforts” are needed in the next five years to prevent exponential health impacts.
Those efforts will include changing our buildings, which between construction and operation currently generate nearly 40 percent of worldwide carbon emissions. In order to prevent average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—the upper limit of permissible warming in the Paris Agreement—buildings will need to cut eight percent of their combined emissions every year between now and 2030.
“In the past, sustainability was a nice-to-have,” says Leigh Stringer, a researcher for the architecture and engineering firm EYP, which specializes in sustainable design. “Now, it’s a moral imperative.”
The movement for more sustainable buildings has seen significant gains in the past decade. Since 2010, the use of renewables to power buildings has increased by more than 20 percent. The U.S. Green Building Council currently certifies nearly 3 million square feet of LEED building space per day, up from 1.7 million in 2014.
Hodgdon believes that more change is possible—and that growing awareness of the fundamental connections among the natural world, our built environments, and our own economic and physical vitality can help to create broader buy-in for sustainability in general.
“At the end of the day, that shift to healthy buildings is really, in some ways, a reframing of the value proposition for sustainability because we’re now calling upon those imperatives that we all share,” Hodgdon says. “We all want to be healthy. We want our families to be well. We want our businesses and our communities to thrive.”