A New Era for WELL

The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) was ready to roll out WELL v2. Then the pandemic hit. IWBI President Rachel Gutter talks what’s next for the health and wellness certification program.

The WELL Building Standard was already going through an extensive review and reworking, bringing more focus to the elements of healthy environments, when COVID-19 put everything on hold. In an interview with Catalyst, IWBI president Rachel Gutter discusses the next steps for WELL v2, the future of the healthy workplace and plans to roll out a new restaurant-style health-safety rating for buildings.

How has COVID-19 affected WELL?

It’s dramatically impacted our approach and I think, even more importantly perhaps, it’s dramatically shifted the value proposition in the minds of many of our customers and community.

I think that we’re only just beginning to realize how profound the impact of COVID-19 is on the way in which we perceive our workplaces and really all of the places where we spend our lives. As a response to that, we made the choice to postpone the vote on WELL v2. We thought there are other opportunities for us to enhance the rating system and to really embolden WELL buildings as a first line of defense in the fight against COVID-19 or other similar respiratory illnesses. (Note: v2 officially graduated out of the pilot stage on July 9.)

Are there elements of v2 that address the current situation?

We had a lot of provisions for enhanced air quality within the standard, as you would imagine. And not just enhanced air quality but also, for instance, bathrooms that are separately ventilated. These strategies, of course, weren’t designed for COVID-19, but they are the very same strategies that are being recommended today. However, we also added, for instance, some new provisions in this latest scrub that incentivized projects that either use 100 percent fresh air or have enhanced treatment for cleaning recirculated air.

I think when we get out of some of the urgency, we need to think about the longer-term response, ranging from supporting a whole range of PTSD and mental health trauma, to building immunity through increased physical activity and improved nourishment.

How do you think this revision will affect WELL in the long term?

One interesting outcome is we have heard an overwhelming desire for IWBI to offer some type of targeted mark or certification or seal that would be emblematic of an organization’s commitment to those operational and management best practices.

How are you bringing that to the client? Is it an A-B-C in the window of a restaurant?

Yes, very similar. The WELL Health Safety Rating will come in the form of a seal, prominently displayed at a building entrance, as opposed to a plaque. It will be smaller in size and it will be timestamped very visibly because WELL Health Safety is annually renewed. We believe that it will include a host of measures that are important for addressing COVID-19, but also a wider range of solutions and interventions for health and safety at large. A lot of what organizations will focus on right now to earn the WELL Health Safety rating is going to be driven by COVID-19, but these all represent what we would call evergreen strategies. We did not want to create a feature for physical distancing or a feature for PPE, since these interventions are necessary only temporarily; instead, we covered these topics in features that address emergency preparedness and resilience more broadly. We feel very strongly that none of us should be advocating for the death of the open office, or the end of handshakes and hugs, or the extinction of the commercial office.

There are opportunities for us to enhance the rating system and to really embolden WELL buildings as a first line of defense in the fight against COVID-19 or other similar respiratory illnesses.

Is there one element of health and wellness that companies are not addressing enough?

I feel very strongly that the number one thing that employers can do right now has nothing to do with the building design. It has everything to do with policy and culture. And that is that they need to support and encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick.

That is the number one most important thing. We know that you cannot design your way out of COVID-19. You can put every provision imaginable within the space. But the moment that somebody walks in and sneezes out into the open, everyone who’s within range is at risk. And so, a lot of the work that we need to do is around establishing a culture of health within our own respective organizations.

Has COVID-19 changed the way you frame the ROI for certification?

If you had asked me about ROI pre-COVID-19, I would have said the number one driver for WELL certification, at least in commercial office space, was recruitment and retention, whether it’s talent or tenants.

COVID-19 has changed everything. Now our customers ask: how can you help people within my building feel safe? Can you help me assure them that I’m taking all the necessary precautions? That’s a massive shift.

It’s accelerated this movement. We’re no longer having a conversation about whether minding the health and well-being of your employees has implications for your business’s bottom line. Today we’re talking about keeping people alive and well and safe.