Alejandro Aravena

On why we need a WELL rating tool in our workplace

When the incredibly laid back-looking and Alejandro Aravena of Chile was awarded the architecture’s prestigious Pritzker Prize a few weeks ago, the most striking item in a Vanity Fair profile on the man was that he practised a balanced lifestyle.

“I never work on weekends and never after 7pm,” he said.

“I have lunch at home every day. What we do as architects – what we give form to – it has to be a balanced life. You need to have a life yourself, because in the end, that is what you are modelling.”

This little morsel of excitement was nestled right at the end of the story. Because after all, what has balance got to do with producing outstanding and award-worth architecture?

Surely the creative outperformance that wins accolades in our world is all about hard if not extreme work and sacrifice.

But no, Aravena, who is 48, and therefore in the prime of his working life with the potential to put in the longest hours, has radically said he can be a winner and have a life.

This would be shocking news for the man (a banker or top lawyer?) who a few years ago was outed as expecting his staff to be still on deck at midnight.

It’s shocking news for architects in general who are notorious for working far harder and far longer than both bankers and lawyers.

But these professions are not alone.

The advent of technology has made almost everyone work “harder, faster, longer”. We now know we were robbed when they promised machines would make our lives easier and give us so much leisure we would struggle to use it. Instead when faxes came along, work that might have taken a week was expected to be delivered the same day. When email came along it had to be sometimes the same hour.

And let’s face it, when mobile phones with internet and email attached arrived many of us were robbed of quiet daydream time in cafes or the train and expected to do something useful. Or at least check our Twitter, Facebook, messages, news, latest videos…

We were sold a a flexible working life on the same basis, but the only thing flexible about modern work practices is the location and the extra hours that get flexible in only one direction: more. Bosses don’t have to ask: any intelligent ambitious staffer knows what the boss wants – they know what’s expected.

But according to the statistics this is all making us sick. Not physically, but mentally. And our bosses are winning a pyrrhic victory. They’re losing double the productive working time from mental health than from physical illness.

Yet a PricewaterhouseCoopers report in 2014 for BeyondBlue found that for every dollar spent on better work practices there was a positive return on investment (ROI) of 2.3.

“That is, for every dollar spent on successfully implementing an appropriate action, there is on average $2.30 in benefits to be gained by the organisation,” the report says.

We’re also starting to understand that a work-life balance isn’t an optional extra, something nice if you can get it, but something fundamental to our health, as powerful an indicator of wellbeing as smoking or no exercise. See this research from Brigham Young University in Utah and the University of North Carolina for details of what you probably know instinctively the minute you stop and think.

That’s half the problem right? So little time to stop and think.

And we shouldn’t be fooled by the funster “start up” style fitouts that we’ve picked up from the very industry that gave us this faster lifestyle – tech-start-up-land and Silicon Valley. Don’t think the zen dens, bouncy balls, quiet zones and bountiful cafes are actually meant to be used for their original purpose. And if you do use them you are meant to be having a creative innovative moment, or a bit of collaborative think-tanking or “bumping” that will be productive for the business. These things that are personal inclinations and that we normally associate with our off-time, our leisure, have been co-opted by the workplace designers to remind us that everything has to be productive.

No wonder there is now an emerging backlash with the new WELL Building Standard that is taking over the property industry and looking like it’s as disruptive as Green Star was when it hit the market.

All this supposed flexibility and work anywhere, anytime, anyplace has actually created massive frustration, anxiety and illness of so many people. And like any over-reach it’s created a big potential reaction.

We see it in the rocketing health and wellness industry, in the booming share prices of Blackmores and Bellamy’s, which are focused on health and healthy food.

The money people get it. They always get it.

And that’s what’s so fascinating about the WELL building movement – it’s come out of the capital markets; Wall Street itself. It’s founder Paul Scalia spent 20 years on Wall Street and 10 years as a partner with Morgan Stanley.

What he’s done with WELL, he says, is a bit of joined up thinking between the world’s biggest asset, real estate, with the world’s biggest trend, wellness.

What this new standard sets out to do is no less than put the finger on tenants, the entities who employ us, be it bankers and lawyers but certainly not confined to these – to remember our humanity. It’s forcing some policy and transparency on actual practices and it will be asking the employees for what they think and how they rate their bosses to make sure these companies are not taking a free ride on the back of corporate spin, but doing the right thing.

WELL? We think it’s a winner. See our special report for the details.