A healthier work culture is a more successful one.
Photograph by Eric Laignel
By Laura Lorenzetti
July 13, 2016

When McKesson decided to revamp its headquarters in Richmond, Va., it knew it was time for a radical change. The drug distribution giant also knew it needed a workplace that was not only inspiring but reflected its primary mission: making people healthier. That’s what led the company to one of the latest workplace trends: WELL Building Certification.

McKesson’s former 20-plus-year-old building was overcrowded, inflexible, technologically outdated, and lacked daylight. Addressing those issues was simply the first step. Executives wanted to create a space that benefited its workers.

“The former facility was at the end of its life….That gave us the springboard to really do something that was much more progressive and with an eye toward wellness,” says Michael Huaco, senior vice president of Global Corporate Real Estate at McKesson. “Thinking about things like sustainability and health and our mission to improve the world, this is just one of those things that helps us get there.”

As more Fortune 500 firms fight to attract and retain talented workers, work environment has become a key selling point. Millennials now account for the majority of the American workforce, and they are increasingly looking for workplaces that reflect their values. While companies responded to the move for planet-friendly offices by promoting LEED-certified buildings over the past decade, their focus has turned to how their offices can promote wellness for their employees.

Beyond attracting talented workers, studies have shown that healthy workers perform better and are more productive. And as health care costs continue to rise, companies are facing higher insurance costs and individuals are facing higher deductibles and co-payments. That’s led companies to invest in ways to keep their employees from getting sick in the first place, using incentives and small changes to help increase everyday wellness.

“We’re looking to attract and retain a different kind of global workforce, a very diverse workforce,” says Huaco. “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 environment that’s attractive.”

Companies like Symantec (SYMC), TD Bank (TD), Wells Fargo (WFC), and CBRE (CBG) have achieved or are in the process of applying for WELL status for their new buildings.

The WELL Building Standard is administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), a public benefit corporation that’s third-party certified by Green Business Certification, the same group that administers LEED certification. It was initially launched in 2013 by design agency Delos, whose founder launched IWBI as part of a commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative to improve the way people live by developing spaces that enhance workers health and quality of life. The standard was developed over seven years, combining a three-phase peer review process across scientific, practitioner, and medical experts.

McKesson's new office, designed by IA Interior Architects, features different types of work areas to encourage employees to move around and increase productivity.
Photograph by Eric Laignel.

The standard takes into account seven factors—air, water, nutrition, light, fitness, comfort, and mind—all of which are based on medical research concerning how environments affect human health. This includes things like providing more water bottle filling stations, locating printers to a central area so employees are encouraged to move more, and installing air purification systems. All seven factors are optimized based on over 100 WELL requirements, which are designed to improve the overall health, mood, sleep, and performance of a building’s occupants.

“WELL Building Certification picks up where LEED drops off,” says Diane Rogers, an associate at IA Interior Architects and a WELL accredited profession. “LEED is primarily concerned with responsibly sourcing materials and promoting sustainable building practices. WELL is really about the effect of the environment on the individual, both physiologically and psychologically. I think of it as human sustainability.”

IA Interior Architects worked hand-in-hand with McKesson to meet its goals for both employee wellness and environmental sustainability at the new headquarters. This included meeting the standards for LEED certification while also building out the additional requirements for WELL certification. A prime focus, according to IA Interior Architect project leads Melanie Schmidt and Jake Boomhouwer, was on lighting. The new building optimizes employees’ access to natural light and uses LED fixtures that adjust throughout the day to adapt to humans’ natural circadian rhythm, a qualification for WELL Building Certification. Office lighting is programmed to get brighter throughout the day before dimming, matching what’s happening outdoors.

LED lighting brightens and dims automatically throughout the day to stay in sync with human's natural circadian rhythms. Photograph by Eric Laignel.

“Where we were able to capitalize on that is by pushing the open offices out to the exterior of the building and incorporating that natural light more broadly compared to the older offices,” says Schmidt, a project manager at IA Interior Architects who worked on the McKesson headquarters. “It allows the artificial lighting to pair more naturally with that circadian rhythm emphasis.”

McKesson made use of other key WELL standards, like giving employees more opportunities for fitness, adding multiple well-placed staircases to encourage people to walk rather than take the elevator, and by introducing enhanced filtration of both external and recirculated air. Natural elements like reclaimed wood walls and environment-inspired patters like hexagon carpet tiles were also incorporated by IA Interior Architects throughout the design.

The reaction so far has been overwhelmingly positive, says Huaco. McKesson has already seen more people choosing to come into the office rather than work from home. Employees have also commented on how much more often they run into peers around the office compared their experience in the older space. That feeds into another core element of WELL: extending wellness beyond physical health to emotional and social support.

McKesson is now bringing WELL standards to its other new offices in Dallas and Scottsdale, Ariz., and Huaco is developing office space guidelines using the new Richmond headquarters as its gold standard.

“We’re making an investment in our workforce. It isn’t cheap, but we think that it pays dividends over time,” says Huaco. “We want our employees to stay with us for a long time, and we want a broad and diverse workforce to reflect what’s going on in the global economy.”

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