Survey says: Employees are happier, healthier and more productive in LEED buildings

Survey says: Employees are happier, healthier and more productive in LEED buildings

Fall 2018 | Written by Catherine Shannon

Here’s a hypothetical scenario: Let’s say you’ve been offered two potential jobs. Both pay exactly the same and carry all the same benefits. Even the commute is the same distance. The only difference is that “job offer A” is set in a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified building, while “job offer B” is not. Which are you more likely to choose?

This particular hypothetical was put to the test in July when the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) commissioned Porter Novelli to conduct an online survey. While questions tackled topics like job satisfaction, employees’ opinion of their physical workspace and building conditions, and satisfaction with various work-related aspects, one of a handful of key takeaways was this: Three in four workers (79 percent) say, other things being equal between the two different job offers, they would take a job in a LEED-certified building over one in a non-LEED-certified building.

So why does this matter now? Because we are in the midst of an extremely competitive job market. Just as this survey was being conducted in July, the government reported that the number of American workers who voluntarily quit their jobs during the month of May reached 2.4 percent—essentially 3.3 million people. That’s the highest level seen in 17 years. USGBC’s study also showed that of all those workers polled, 86 percent say that they are confident that they could enter the job market tomorrow and find a new job in their field within six months. That means LEED is no longer serving as just a standard in sustainability, but now more than ever, it’s serving as a core tool to attract and retain top employee talent.

Above: CertainTeed’s hexagon ceiling panels help provide acoustical comfort in open, collaborative spaces.

Saint-Gobain’s headquarters in Malvern, Pennsylvania, is double LEED Platinum and features open-concept office space as well as 116 collaborative spaces throughout the building.

The Impact of LEED on Employee Health & Happiness

It’s no secret that buildings have a unique ability to positively or negatively influence our well-being—and since we spend about 90 percent of our time indoors, people naturally want to feel confident interior spaces are good for them. A 2016 study done by Cleveland State University and Central Michigan University surveyed some 3,000 tenants across 329 U.S. office buildings managed by CBRE—a global developer and real estate agency that has lead more than 1,000 LEED certifications and more than 900 existing building certifications, as well as been a proponent of sustainable building since the early 2000s—about what aspects they value most in a green building. Of those surveyed, their top two features were indoor air quality and access to natural light.

“These two things far outranked items like bike racks or electric car charging stations,” says David Pogue, senior vice president at CBRE. “It’s clear that the building matters immensely to its occupants because more and more people are aware of the impact the building has on their health and wellness.”

But while occupants are aware of the benefits, it can be hard to measure just how much of an impact it has. After all, can you say you’re 23.7 percent happier when sitting in a building with access to loads of natural light?

In the last few years, Saint-Gobain—one of the world’s largest building materials companies in the business of manufacturing innovative solutions to create optimal comfortable and sustainable living space—has managed to quantify the impact. After years of the company’s North American headquarters residing in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, they premiered their new next-generation office building in nearby Malvern in October of 2015: a 277,000-square-foot double LEED Platinum building encased in 17,000 square feet of their electrochromic glass (one of the largest installations to date). Other sustainable features include light-reflective acoustical ceiling systems and interior glass partitions to improve visual comfort; low-emitting sustainable building materials and systems to foster air quality; sound-absorbing surfaces to promote acoustical comfort; and more. However, in addition to giving their occupants the healthiest office environment possible (which features more than 60 sustainable building materials and systems from the Saint-Gobain family of brands), they also wanted to use the building as a living laboratory where they could test and measure the impact of their products on the occupants.

Above: David Pogue is senior vice president at CBRE.

Above: Lucas Hamilton is the manager of building science applications at Saint-Gobain and its subsidiary, CertainTeed.

The result was a three-year longitudinal study that analyzed the occupants’ indoor air quality, thermal, visual (lighting), acoustical, and spatial comfort and compared that to their previous Valley Forge location. Released in June 2018, the key findings were that more than half (53.7 percent) of the employees reported an improvement in perceptions of health and well-being since moving to the new location. To look specifically at the two LEED Indoor Environmental Quality credits adddressing indoor air quality and natural light, nearly all employees (91.6 percent) reported an improvement in how healthy and comfortable they felt due to changes in indoor air quality and reported a 56.4 percent overall improvement in visual comfort related to overall lighting.

“This is a huge leap in the perception of their job spaces,” says Lucas Hamilton, manager of building science applications at Saint-Gobain and its subsidiary, CertainTeed. And he’s seen the proof, observing it over the last few years while working at the Malvern building himself. “I had a fellow employee in the building tell me that in our old headquarters at Valley Forge he was reaching for his inhaler four to five times a day. But during the course of being in our Malvern location, he hadn’t touched it once. That’s just giving people proper clean air,” says Hamilton, referring to the building’s low-emitting sustainable building materials, as well as building systems to provide better ventilated, cleaner air.

LEED as a Recruiter

With such a competitive job market, it’s important for companies to offer something more to potential employees. Office space with natural light, good indoor air quality, and visual and acoustical comfort are just a few attributes that can be of interest to candidates. But as shown in USGBC’s new survey, it’s the employees themselves who are proactively seeking to work in the healthier environments that these buildings provide.

Take, again, the example of Saint-Gobain. “Since we moved our company to the Malvern location,” says Hamilton, “our average numbers of applicants have doubled. They’re not just looking at the health care benefits or company culture anymore, they’re looking at the spaces they are to occupy. That isn’t just a building that is green. That’s a building that is a recruiter.”
Mahesh Ramanujam, president and CEO at USGBC, agrees, pointing back to the USGBC survey results. “I think it’s an indication that today’s employees aren’t just focused on traditional benefits like salary and healthcare, but on the elements in the office setting [such as access to natural sunlight and indoor air quality] that contribute to their overall health and happiness.” Hamilton also reports that in the two-and-a-half years since they moved, the average age of the company has dropped by four years.

Sure, that’s not much, but what it signifies is the presence of the younger generation seeking out job positions at a company that promotes sustainability. So if companies don’t display such standards, they’re missing out on the opportunity to attract top talent from the largest generation currently in our U.S. labor force.

Above: An employee survey conducted in July 2018 by Porter Novelli on behalf of USGBC included 1,001 self-employed office workers in the United States who are employed full-time, part-time, or who are self-employed but work in an office building setting.

LEED as a Retention Tool

Another noteworthy finding from the USGBC survey was that 93 percent of employees who work in LEED-certified buildings said they were satisfied in their job, with more than 50 percent indicating that they are “extremely” satisfied.

That’s not just because they’re happier and healthier; the presence of LEED also indicates that a company is value oriented, taking stances on important issues, such as sustainability, and doing their part to make a positive difference in the world.

This is not just attractive to potential employees, but it’s also a big part of what keeps them at a particular job. In fact, according to the USGBC survey, 84 percent of respondents prefer to work for a company that has a strong, concrete mission and positive values, while only 16 percent say a company’s mission and values would have zero impact on their decision to work for one employer versus another.

“That’s an overwhelming majority of workers who are prioritizing value-oriented companies,” says Ramanujam.

“We expected the survey to indicate this because we know that the majority of LEED users and USGBC’s 12,000 member companies have clear corporate social responsibility and sustainability goals, but we were surprised by just how much. It demonstrates that when companies show that they stand for something—like sustainability—it is extremely attractive to employees. Companies need to differentiate themselves, and LEED is helping them do that.”

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