Chris Reay, Spinningfields estate director for Allied London, outlined the developer's strategy

Wellbeing At Work | Summary, slides + images

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With staff sick days estimated to cost the economy £14bn each year, a key topic at Place North West’s Wellbeing at Work event was how employers could use office design and incentives to boost productivity and health in the workplace.

Chill FactoreThe event, held in Trafford’s Chill Factore, explored interior design trends, the office refurbishment and fit-out market, employee engagement and work technology.

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Tom Helliwell, project director at TP Bennett, said that figures such as the £14bn estimate from the Confederation of British Industry were causing a culture shift, as businesses start to realise that staff satisfaction makes a difference to the bottom line.

“Until recently, the client focus was on driving down costs when it came to building design, and now they are looking at productivity and how the environment ties into the wider business,” Helliwell said. “Simply, the ethos is that ‘happy chickens lay more eggs’.”

Staff health was moving to the forefront of the workplace agenda, he said.

“There’s a health time bomb facing the country, with issues around obesity and lack of movement,” said Helliwell. “People are realising that you can use office design not only to combat this but to encourage idea generation, as staff move around more, talk and collaborate.

“We’re designing ways to keep people moving, but are not gimmicks. Things as simple as putting in different facilities, meeting places, and create destinations for people to move to, and connecting spaces which weren’t connected before.”

From an architect’s perspective, these design changes not only promote health but create a better building.

“A more dynamic workplace, is much more interesting than a sea of desks,” he said. “But good design needs to go hand in hand with the office culture, it needs to be ok to move away from your desk.”

Rise of the refurb

Also speaking at the event was Oliver Thomas, from the building consultancy team at OBI Property, who looked at how high-standard office refurbishments could be used to plug the gap in available prime office space.

Thomas highlighted the much-publicised shortfall of offices facing the Manchester city centre market, and outlined how the deficit was an opportunity for refurbishments to flood in and “fill the void”, as a faster and cheaper option than a complete redevelopment.

OBI has worked on several large city centre projects, including 40,000 sq ft in Tower 12 for Allied London in Spinningfields, and the 120,000 sq ft Sevendale House for Philip J Davies holdings in the Northern Quarter. The goal, Thomas said, was to refurbish the building to such a high-spec as to challenge the traditional Grade A market.

“There has been a 60% decline in grade A space since 2013, with large pre-lets coming through and squeezing the remaining stock,” said Thomas. “With that backdrop, refurbishments are the perfect way for landlords to attract quality occupiers, who are also drawn by attractive rent levels.”

Thomas emphasised the end-user experience and a strategic look at how an office functions to ensure that any refurbishment was fulfilling its purpose.

“All too often money is just spent on tarting up the shared space, such as receptions,” he said. “But you need to look at how the whole building is used. Modern offices are more than just a desk and a chair.”

“As office demand grows, the refurbishment market will thrive,” he assured. “But we need to continue to look at new ways to position buildings and respond to what occupiers want from the space.”

Culture shift

Representing Allied London, one of the region’s most prolific and high-profile developers was Chris Reay, estate director responsible for the 4.5m sq ft Spinningfields estate in Manchester, which houses 17,000 workers across 170 companies.

Reay said that the developer’s strategy had always been to learn and adapt to changes in the workplace, consistently delivering buildings that proved popular with occupiers.

Integrating office space, leisure, and a tightly-controlled public realm was all part of Allied London’s success story, said Reay.

“Spinningfields remains one of the largest single-owned pieces of public realm,” he said. “Allied London has sold off buildings, but keeps control of the ground floor levels, because it knows that it’s the activation of the space that enriches the user experience, and keeps occupiers happy.”

The most recent example of this is the development of No.1 Spinningfields, the “jewel in the crown” and the final building to come forward in the Manchester business district. The 340,000 sq ft scheme is due to complete in 2018, and has already secured PwC and Squires Patton Boggs as pre-let tenants.

Reay said that No.1 will include a rooftop restaurant, coffee shop, business lounge, and “experiential shopping”.

On the other side of Spinningfields, Allied London is on site with the fully pre-let 160,000 sq ft XYZ building, which offers occupiers a basic office shell which they can fit-out to their own specifications.

“We didn’t want XYZ to dictate what an organisation’s office would look like,” said Reay. “Occupiers are better informed than ever before, know more about workplace culture, and what they want to create, so you need to allow them to do that.

“XYZ is a very simple building design, but we hope that in the end it will be full of events and collaboration. There’s a coffee shop and co-working space, and a gym and restaurant on the ground floor.”

Occupiers signed up to the building include Global Radio, using the space for 75% offices and 25% booth space, law firm Shoosmiths, and tech firm NCC Group.

Communication is key

Joining Helliwell, Thomas and Reay on a panel discussion was Michelle Gray, employment law partner at Berg, and Charlotte Rooke, managing director of personal insurer Reward Health at Work.

According to Gray, the Health & Safety Executive had become more concerned than ever about wellbeing in the workplace, and so had employers.

“There’s a shift towards the psycho-social side of employment,” said Gray. “Companies are looking at how they can attract the younger workforce, part of generation Z, who are more clued up and are looking at businesses who provide the right amenities.

“Workplace culture is shifting, it’s not a one size fits all approach anymore.”

Gray also pointed out an interesting phenomenon faced by employers which had emerged post-recession, an issue of ‘survivor’s syndrome’ among staff.

“After the redundancies and restructuring of the last few years, not much attention was paid to those staff who were left behind. Now these employees who have been loyal in the hard times need to be rewarded, and need to understand the way the business is going. Communication and flexibility will be the key words for the next few years.”

At Reward Health, Rooke looks at integrating technology into the daily lives of workers, and getting employers on board to reward staff for their good health.

“Health in the workplace doesn’t have to be stressful, it could be a simple as tracking steps and encouraging more moving around. The average cost of employee absence is £500 per person each year, but there’s also a trend towards ‘presenteeism’, where staff come in unwell, distract people, share their bugs. It’s beneficial to everyone in the office that staff are encouraged to take their health seriously, and if you shave 2% to 3% off those numbers, it’s a direct impact to the bottom line.”

Questions from attendees included how to prioritise mechanical and electrical systems in offices, as an invisible but important part of a building’s function.

“Companies can’t afford not to make wellbeing a priority,” answered Helliwell. “A good M&E system adds value, and is also energy efficient, so makes an impact over time.”

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