A Healthy Return: The Business Case for Well-Being in the Workplace

Haworth’s Los Angeles office hosts an expert panel on designing offices that support today’s workers.

On July 12, 2018, Susan S. Szenasy, our director of design innovation, sat down with a panel of design experts at the Haworth showroom in Los Angeles, to learn more about how workplace design can attract and retain the best candidates and ultimately result in positive outcomes for businesses.

The panel included Toni Espera, vice president of people operations at Verifi, Inc., David A. Josker, managing director of the Los Angeles North Region for CBRE, Nadine Quirmbach, associate vice president of the Yazdani Studio of CannonDesign, and Jeff Reuschel, global director of design and innovation at Haworth. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity by Mia Nacamulli.

Susan S. Szenasy (SSS): We are making the business case for wellbeing in the workplace. For years, designers have been claiming that their work creates the bottom line; if we feel good in our space, we tend to concentrate better. Toni, you are an advocate for employee wellbeing. Can you discuss what human resources means today?

Toni Espera (TE): HR has grown as business has evolved. We work to balance the employer’s bottom line and optimum employee productivity.

SSS: How does wellness come into the conversation?

TE: To get the best productivity from an employee, you need a happy employee. Employee wellbeing benefits the employer in multifold ways, like higher-energy individuals and increased productivity. It starts on day one. In fact, when we are recruiting, we give prospective employees a tour of our space so that they can see how we provide for their whole being, not just their mind.

SSS: Jeff, with the Haworth project, what is your stance on wellness and how do you collaborate with designers and clients to meet demands?

Jeff Reuschel (JR): Businesses are interested in return on assets employed (ROAE). The last 20 years were focused on reducing the denominator of that formula: total assets, and facilities are a part of that. Now, it is time to work on increasing the numerator: net income, and that is where the productivity and effectiveness of the occupants reside.

SSS: How far along are businesses in this discourse?

JR: Businesses are ultimately after their employees’ best work. Because they want cognitive performance – decision-making, strategizing, planning – they care about employee health and emotional happiness to achieve better results.

SSS: Nadine, your firm has formed a design group that represents an important shift in how design architecture firms work.

Nadine Quirmbach (NQ): Our part of Cannon design is a sort of homegrown studio called the Yazdani studio that can tap into a group of experts and specialists to quickly solve problems. With that platform, we can stay on top of what the industry wants.

Because we are living in a time of globalization and ever-expanding technology, our clients are desperately trying to catch up and use our expertise to solve their unique problems. We build processes around their specific needs, from the human resources aspect to how they run their businesses.


Features like this conference table which converts into a ping-pong table help employees bond and unwind. Photo by Maurice Naragon.


SSS: Is there a segment of the market you find more progressive in terms of designing for this idea of wellness?

NQ: People are thinking more innovatively in the medical fields because of the competition within healthcare. For example, the neurosurgeon Dr. Nick Hopkins approached us years ago and said, “I want to change the business of medicine.” Different surgeons may deal with the same part of the body, but don’t talk to each other. Placing them in the same building was a solution, but to take it further, we created a maker space inside for collaboration. We included the engineering firm Toshiba, who sent engineers and coders to work with the doctors in real time to create the newest devices being used in the medical field.

On another similar project, we created a hospital and looked at stress factors of doctors, patients and visitors. We focused on recovery instead of on treatment. With a device, patients could follow their treatments and change the shading, temperature, and lighting system in rooms. Our early findings show that patients felt recognized and important when they came to the space, and nurses’ strikes have gone down by two-thirds.

SSS: From the complete human being, let us shift to how the creatures of this earth are calibrated to the rotation of the earth and the sun. David, how do you talk about the benefits of concepts like circadian light to real estate clients who may just want the bottom line?


CBRE, Los Angeles. 5th Floor, view of the sit/stand workstations. Photo courtesy CBRE.


David A. Josker (DAJ): Every business is bottom line driven as well as in competition for recruiting and retaining talent.

When we advise prospective tenants, it helps to walk them through our space so they can envision a different way of working. Then, when we start the site selection process with them, they can choose a model that fits their business and their culture.

SSS: Nadine, how does research inform your work?

NQ: Working with specialists, we analyze a lot of big data. Circadian light, for example, increases productivity in the workplace by 35%, increases test results in schools by 35%, and has been shown to help people retain information.

I also use research to know where my materials are being made, who is working on them, and in what conditions. I look at what the product does, its lifetime, whether it can be composted or recycled, and even whether it can be attached mechanically rather than with resin glue.

To create a differentiator as a design firm, you have to do more than the standard. You have a unique chance to actually change the world as it currently is.

SSS: Jeff, when you consult with designers, is there an opportunity to discuss designer-manufacturer collaboration around human health issues?

JR: We’ve done zero waste to landfill and have our list of materials that we will not use. My worry is with the demand side: while we have offered sustainable, no-formaldehyde products, nobody bought them. Although I’d love to be able to solve this problem from the supply side, I think we have to work on both the supply side and the demand side.

SSS: Toni, what is your philosophy in HR?

TE: Our jobs as people operations individuals isn’t about protecting us from the employees, but rather about ensuring that we are protecting the employees. We find that we’ve gotten our best innovation and most creative ideas when employees have had a voice.

When designing our spaces, we go to the team leads and the employees to get feedback. The HR individual is the conduit between the employee and the CEO, showing how what is best for the employee equals the bottom line.

SSS: Trust is also an issue. How do you work the human relationship that your HR stands for across multiple generations?

TE: Through mentorship or the cross-collaborative teams, you naturally have multiple generations working together. We also create environments, such as going outside or doing charity events, to build camaraderie between generations.

SSS: What is the impact of caring for employees on the bottom line?

DAJ: The bottom line is really a factor of the productivity in the culture we create in the space. We are fortunate to have incredible leadership, which empowers employees in all sectors of our company. We can’t provide service to our clients without our employees, so our goal is to make sure that our employees feel like the most important people in the world every day. We accomplish that through the space and experience we create for our employees, and this approach has yielded incredible results.

CBRE, Los Angeles. 8th Floor, looking out from the Concierge desk to the floor below. Photo courtesy CBRE.


SSS: Your organization is a great marketing effort for your real estate business because you lead by example, demonstrating various possibilities for making a healthy workplace. How does a manufacturer begin to be part of this discourse?

JR: If I can get to the people in the bottom 10th percentile, the others will naturally come along. Physical, emotional and cognitive wellbeing matters, but we have to drive that back to the business’s bottom line.

TE: Education is also needed for more CEO’s to understand the impact on their bottom line.

SSS: These conversations are especially timely because there is a bottom line possibility through making healthier places for people across the industry.

Audience Member:
Is there an accessible depository for the data that you collect?

NQ: We work with anthropologists, ethnographers and psychiatrists and do a post-view on our projects. Widening the network allows for a comparison of data, as does collaborating with internal specialists and their networks.


Susan S. Szenasy moderated the panel. Photo by Roxanne Turpen Photography


DAJ: We do a utilization study prior to programming any new space, followed by six-month and one-year post-occupancy studies of various components of data, including employee satisfaction and revenue comparison. It has been so successful for us that every office we are opening is changing to that concept.

Audience Member: Many of the open spaces we’ve been designing are not always conducive to effective productivity, primarily because people have a tendency to think they are being watched. As a result, their work might not create the most innovative solutions. How might you address this issue?

NQ: We’ve done a study with a group of people put in both an enclosed office environment and an open work environment. We found that, although the first group felt focused and productive in offices, and the second group felt more distracted, the ideas created in the open environment were more significant than those created alone in offices.

Every client has different needs, and you need to observe your client to understand the culture of a space.

TE: Feedback is essential. According to our employee engagement surveys after our build-out, the engineering group works much better in an open environment, whereas customer service employees need separation of space.

SSS: We are beginning to understand that every place we design is about the uniqueness of the human beings in that space. The 19th to 20th century was about creating robots, and the 21st century is about creating for humans in a robotic world. We need to think much more creatively now than ever before. The human person is at stake.


Panelists and moderator (from left): Jeff Reuschel, Nadine Quirmbach, Toni Espera, Susan S. Szenasy, and David A. Josker. Photo by Roxanne Turpen Photography.


This Q&A is the second installment of our panel series “A Healthy Return: The Business Case for Wellbeing in the Workplace.” To catch up see Part 1.

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