Wellness in the workplace

Wellness in the Workplace: Fact or Fad?

For the past decade, the topic of wellness in the workplace has permeated boardrooms and newsrooms alike, becoming a point of particular interest. While there’s no denying that law firm executives recognize wellness and wellness design as a trending topic, they are still left with one nagging concern: is it a fad or will it have a positive impact on their bottom line? In other words, is it worth it?

It’s an understandable question and a particularly pertinent one for those in the legal profession where the business model centers on maximizing billable hours.

From a certain perspective, it can be difficult to see the ROI for wellness initiatives—hard-earned company capital is spent on creating tangible amenities for employees in the hopes of gaining often-intangible benefits: boosts in productivity, performance, engagement, job satisfaction, and retention. Essentially, companies and firms spend a significant amount of money so employees can spend less time at their desks. For organizations worried about their bottom-line and lawyers focused on billable hours, this can seem counterintuitive. But, it’s not, and here’s why.

The ROI for wellness

Wellness is more than a trend.

While evidence into the impact of built environments on occupants’ health and psychology has been around for a while, it is thanks to certifications such as the WELL standard that an actionable set of wellness design criteria and measurable impacts have come together to create a compelling business case for wellness in the workplace.

WELL has organized its standard around 10 principles: air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, community, and innovation. The premise is that we spend 90% of our lives indoors, and, for most of us, the majority of that time is at work. WELL’s goal is holistic and about supporting the physical and mental wellbeing of people. WELL says: “healthy spaces protect us from that which can make us sick, promote practices that can keep us well, and facilitate opportunities for us to connect with one another and live our lives to the fullest.”

Does a company owe “wellness” to its employees? While it may sound like a bit of a hallmark statement, doing good for your people will bring good things to your business.

An obvious benefit is cost avoidance related to absenteeism and presenteeism. According to a study conducted by Walter Stewart, MPH Director Center for Health Research & Rural Advocacy at Geisinger Health System, “presenteeism” (i.e. going to work while being sick or not fully engaged) was estimated to cost $150 billion per year across the United States—with other studies estimating the cost to be as high as $300 billion a year.

Beyond just keeping employees healthy and reducing costs related to sickness, wellness in the workplace can enable employers to enhance the performance of their employees, thus increasing their potential to earn and remain competitive on the market.

A case study conducted by the American Society of Interior Designers reported a nine percent increase in collaborative work and a 16% increase in productivity after they redesigned their office according to wellness principles, resulting in “an estimated increase of $694,000 financial impact to the Society’s bottom line during the first year of occupancy.”

Based on the mounting evidence that wellness in the workplace has a positive impact on performance, more traditional and older firms are pursuing WELL certification. One of M Moser Associates’ asset management clients is already pre-certified for WELL Gold Certification at a new office in the Hudson Yards development. For this firm, it was an easy cost-benefit analysis for their executive team to invest in WELL when considering the potential gains of having traders make better decisions faster.

Even something as fundamental as air quality can have a significant effect; according to a study conducted by the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) across a variety of industries, increases in indoor air quality have a 6-9% boost in office work performance.

With law firm rates across the U.S. reaching an average of $245 per hour in 2018, the cost of investing in wellness is dwarfed by the potential gains in performance of your most costly and valuable resource: your people.

On the flip side, there is also a “cost avoidance” benefit to consider, such as the fact that mental fatigue impacts decision making. In courtrooms, a recent study found that the likelihood of receiving a favorable ruling peaked at the beginning of the day, steadily declining over time from 65% to nearly zero. Then, the percentage spikes back up to about 65% after a break for a meal or snack. While the exact reason for the shift from parole approval to a “default” outcome of denial is not entirely clear, the study speculates that breaks may replenish mental resources by providing “rest, improving mood or by increasing glucose levels in the body.”

The ROI of wellness design is not limited to boosts in employee performance and productivity; it’s also about staying competitive in the marketplace.

More and more, workplace design and wellness are factors heavily considered by potential candidates. Young legal professionals have a plethora of options when it comes to the career path, and the wellness benefits offered by consulting firms, tech companies, and start-ups are drawing star candidates away from law firms. Wellness is no longer an accessory; it’s the standard. Michael Huaco, SVP Corporate RE at McKesson reports that investing in the WELL certification has helped his company attract top talent: “We compete like everyone else for employees from many other industries, and embracing wellness gives us a leg up and allows us to attract higher quality employees because we’re creating an attractive environment.”

The wellness design “virtuous circle.”

While not every law firm may want to invest in a WELL certification, adopting wellness design principles supports the shift we are seeing in the way lawyers and legal teams work. Wellness design is not only beneficial to the health of your people but supports the way you need to work to remain competitive in the changing legal industry landscape.

Alternative Legal Service Providers (ALSPs), alternative billing models, increased automation due to emerging technologies and the heightened competition for talent are driving executives to re-think the way they work and how their workplaces are designed. Many of these design shifts are aligned with wellness design principles.

In recent years, U.S. law firms have cut their real estate footprint by 22%. This has been partly achieved by moving away from the “space as status” mindset and accepting environments that are more open and transparent with less enclosed offices. While it may be a difficult shift for those who stand to lose their hard-earned individual offices, the benefits for the wellbeing of the wider population are considerable.

Successful workplace designs replace assigned offices with a variety of spaces for employees to collaborate and focus. These dedicated spaces help create workplaces where noise levels are aligned with wellness science around sound and wellbeing.

As law offices shift their footprint from “me spaces” to “we spaces,” places for collaboration and community become a central part of the office. While social connection supports wellbeing, it also enables increased collaboration between legal teams, knowledge sharing, and the ability to identify cross-selling opportunities.

Preparing for the future

And this is just the beginning; emerging technologies are only reinforcing the necessity of wellness design. Thanks to the ever-present and ever-evolving communication technologies, life and work are integrating. No longer is work limited to the physical office. Now, work gets done on the train, in the park, and at the dinner table. A judge’s decision could come in at any moment, and a client could request a last-minute filing; the legal world is fast-paced and immediate. When weekends and vacations are just extensions of the workweek, legal professionals need to bring wellness into the workplace.

Wellness is also expanding from cognitive renewal to cognitive enhancement. Intelligent building systems and sensors enable the collection of real-time data to analyze the impact of air quality or light on human health and refresh it as needed.

Wearable technologies are also a possible avenue for “bio-hacking” employee productivity and wellness. Soon, wearable tech will be able to connect and share information with the built environment. Features of the built environment will change and adapt based on biofeedback measures like blood pressure and heart rate. This way, different sections of the office will “tune” themselves to perfectly match each attorney and employees’ needs.

So, is wellness really worth it? You bet it is!

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