Workplace Standards: Over-rated or Under-appreciated?

Why standards?

If we all lived in beautiful log cabins in the mountains, then we probably wouldn’t need regulations and standards. But if we are part of a community or society then we need standards to protect us from others and protect others from us. The focus of regulations is usually on health and safety but they may offer protection of a society’s future, for example consider planning regulations. Standards also apply to products and services such as improving their quality of products and consistency. Regulations and standards shows that a society has matured and is responsible. 

In the building design and construction industry there are lots of examples of what happens when regulations are not adhered too. We usually hear about them when ignoring the standards has resulted in deaths due to poor health and safety. We typically attribute this to the less developed countries, but that is not always the case. For example, over the last few years there has been a series of fires in Dubai’s skyscrapers. This is mainly due to the type of cladding that was used on the façade of these modern buildings – the cladding looks great but it isn’t fire retardant. Dubai has no outlawed the use of such materials on new buildings, but the cladding will not be replaced in existing buildings. Their solution to that is to provide fire-fighters with jetpacks. 

I was set the challenge of presenting on workplace standards at the recent SMAP Conference – my experience of them, their value, the need for them and how to encourage uptake. This blog represents a transcript of that presentation. The focus is on the definition and value of standards, but also how SMAP (the proposed new Norwegian certification that helps create Smart, Attractive, and Productive working environments) might become a standard.

Types of standard

So far I’ve intertwined the words regulation and standards, so I thought it useful to explain the difference. There is a bit of a hierarchy; it starts with the law – Acts of Parliament and legislation which are mandatory. As the Acts are written by lawyers in an antiquated language, they are interpreted through regulations. Regulations are also mandatory and are policed by regulatory bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive and Local Authorities. Then we have standards, applied at the national, regional and international level. Standards are developed by committees with a range of interested parties. Whilst standards are voluntary they are sometimes specified as a requirement as part of a regulation or are an approved alternative to a regulation. We then have voluntary certifications – they are usually sponsored by professional bodies but may also be commercial. Finally, there are best practice guides, usually developed by professional bodies e.g. the Chartered Institution of Building Service Engineers (CIBSE).

The Comité Européen de Normalisation (CEN) has issued more than 20,000 standards, which it categorises as four main types:

  1. Fundamental e.g. terminology & units
  2. Test methods e.g. measurement & analysis
  3. Specification e.g. criteria for product or service
  4. Organisation e.g. quality & management

Whilst SMAP involves measurement it is closest to a specification standard. These define characteristics of a product or a service and the performance criteria for fitness for use, interfaces, health and safety, and environmental protection etc.

Example standard – thermal comfort

My PhD was in thermal comfort, so to clarify the difference between regulations and standards I will use thermal comfort as an example. In the UK the Health & Safety at Work Act mandates a minimum temperature of 16°C in the workplace but does not stipulate a maximum temperature. International standard ISO 7730 provides a standard process for calculating the required temperatures in winter and summer. CIBSE Guide A, developed by and for engineers, expands upon the ISO process, offers a maximum temperature (28ºC for 1% of the year) and introduces the adaptive comfort method for determining temperatures in naturally ventilated buildings. The BCO Guide to Specificationoffers its own interpretation, aimed at developers, as does BREAM but both are derived from ISO 7730 and the CIBSE guide.

But all these standards are based on thermal models and predictions of what temperature will be considered comfortable. They never simply state “ensure xx% of the occupants are comfortable” as that is too difficult to achieve in practice. Sadly, temperature is still one of the key causes of environmental dissatisfaction in offices, despite all the standards. In the UK, the range of guidance on thermal comfort can be confusing and even contradictory.

ISO 7730 is actually a process, a detailed but complicated one, meaning that quite often the numbers in the appendix tables are referred to rather than applying the process. A simple number is easier to interpret and less prone to misreading, but that number is quite often not the required answer, it’s just an example. In the ISO 7730 process, the required (set-point) temperature is derived from six variables – four physical and two personal ones. The two most subjective variables, met and clo which are derived from tables rather than measurement, have the biggest impact on thermal requirements. Furthermore, ISO 7730 uses steady state physics and treats people as inanimate objects. In reality, we are adaptive creatures and given the choice we don’t just sit in uncomfortable conditions.

Even the basic units used in standards are not always obvious or understood. For example, ISO 7730 and the CIBSE Guide A both make their recommendations using operative temperature as the key metric. Operative temperature is the mean of air and radiant temperature and more related to how humans perceive temperature, even though we tend to measure just air temperature. Many years ago, I was asked to investigate the basement archives of a UK central Government department. The archivists were all sitting in hats and coats complaining of being too cold. The Facilities manager did not understand why, as his thermometer showed the temperature to be 22ºC. However, I found the mean radiant (wall) temperature to be just 12ºC, so the operative temperature was actually 16ºC which is too cold for sedentary activity.

Productivity and performance

But I digress. Most of us will recognise Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and a recent report by Knoll, What’s Good for People?, suggested that the lower order needs relate to health and wellness, whereas the higher order ones relate to wellbeing.

Their observation reminded me of standards too, perhaps regulations are minimum compliance, the lowest common denominator, but standards and guides offer better or innovative. In short, standards raise the bar.

At the Workplace Trends conference last week Sarah Welton, of the International WELL Building Institute, said buildings have always been designed to protect human health. I would argue that, whilst health is key factor, the main purpose of offices is to enhance the performance of the occupying organisation: “Offices have a simple purpose: to enhance the performance of the organisations using them” (Oseland & Bartlett, 1998). That is why I welcome SMAP, with its focus on productive working environments. 

Researchers have been discussing the link between workplace design and productivity since the mid-nineties but finally it is being taken seriously in the UK. See the Stoddart Review on The Workplace Advantage which “reveals that an effective workplace can improve business productivity by as much as 3.5%. Economist Duncan Weldon believes that could add up to £70 billion to the UK economy. But we may be missing a trick!”. 

There are many definitions of productivity but the simplest, and my preferred one, is that it is a ratio of output to input. Most industries focus on the output (a product or service) as a ratio of the time and effort to produce it. In the workplace design industry, we tend to think of the the space needed and its associated cost to improve the performance of the people and business. But it is often argued that we can’t measure productivity or if we can then it can’t be related back to the property and its design. As a consequence, the performance side of the equation is often ignored and the focus is on cost only. 

As organisations tend not to link performance to property we find that:

  1. some don’t invest in their property, potentially creating cheap ineffective working environments that degrade performance or, even worse,
  2. they invest heavily but perhaps in the wrong areas, thus creating costly over-priced low performing workspaces.

Either way it’s critical that we measure and understand how the workplace affects worker performance. 

The problem with exploring how workplace design affects performance is that there are many non-physical factors that also affect it. Business, organisational and personal factors affect performance as well as environmental conditions, psychophysical factors and office facilities. But that doesn’t mean that performance at work cannot be measured. Whilst there are many performance metrics they each have their pros and cons for use. Unfortunately, the more detailed and precise the measures of performance, like a psychologist’s performance tasks, the less relevant it is to business performance. Conversely, the in-house reported measures of business performance are affected by many factors other than the workplace design. However, team targets like sales and fees are good solid metrics when available. HR metrics like absenteeism and retention are also reliable metrics and ones related to health and wellbeing, so very topical and good ones for SMAP to replicate.

Wellbeing “Standards”

I’ve noticed an increasing number of wellbeing “standards”; the WELL Building Standard is the key one. Technically they are certification systems rather than actual standards, and they are commercial rather than sponsored by Government or a professional body. The WELL certification is based on extensive research which explores workplace design factors that affect the various body systems. The most important thing about WELL is that it is a performance standard, rather than one based on intention i.e. a specification. On-site measurements of air quality, temperature, water etc. are required determine whether they have adequately provided for wellbeing. Surprisingly, if I’ve understood correctly, seeking feedback from the occupants on their actual wellbeing is an option but not a requirement. Recertification is also required every few years to hold on to the WELL certificate. 

WELL is gaining popularity – there are 350 projects worldwide of which 58 are in Europe. It has certainly filled a gap in the market but on first appearance it seems quite expensive compared to other wellbeing certifications. One Carter Lane is the first accredited WELL building in Europe; it is 1,500 sqm with approximately 150 staff. The figures below show that the fee for WELL is not that expensive but the on-site measurement can quickly add up. On top, there is the up-lift in modifications required to meet the standard. I estimate that the £57K below represents an additional 4% of the normal fit-out cost (others estimate 2%). On the plus side, there are many benefits – just in absenteeism and staff attrition alone, this building retuned nearly four times the investment.

There are other wellbeing standards also on the market. For example, developed in the USA “Fitwel”, administered by The Center for Active Design, and “For Health”, developed by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Commercial wellbeing certifications include Aecom’s holistic approach in the UK and the D/Science “Interior Quality Index” (DIQI) in the Netherlands. But the focus of these certifications is on wellbeing and not smart, attractive or productive buildings, so there is a gap in the market for SMAP.

Verifying standards

Standards and certifications need to be more than a tick box activity, they also need to be straight forward but not so easy that they are not worthwhile or are meaningless. Standards need to show clear benefits to the occupants and the instigator. Like WELL they need to go beyond specification and predications to actual performance measurements (of the physical environment and off the occupants). So, a form of Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) is required.

According to the BCO Guide to Post Occupancy Evaluation(which I wrote), POE is “a systematic process for measuring the building’s performance which … is conducted once the building has been occupied for some time … provides feedback on how successful the workplace is in supporting the occupying organisation [and] addressing individual requirements”. By support I mean: safety, health, comfort, productivity and wellbeing.

This evaluation should happen during the development of the standard, before it is launched, and then become a required part of the process during its application. If this is not done, then the standard is not validated. It doesn’t seem to be a common requirement that standards are validated on real buildings! I am therefore pleased to see that occupant feedback and measurement is being considered as a key part of the SMAP certification.

Adoption of standards

I contemplated why various organisations (professional bodes, commercial) may develop and adopt standards. It seems that some organisations adopt standards for the common good whereas others may adopt standards to give them something others don’t have i.e. a privilege. Those developing standards may do it for altruistic reasons whereas others may have a vested interest and seek competitive advantage. A balance is required and perhaps a range of partners at the development stage.

The next challenge is to encourage organisations to take-up the standard. Robert Cialdini offered some advice on how to influence people using six principle in his book Influence: Science and Practice. The most relevant principles are: consistency, consensus and authority. If an organisation says it is interested in wellbeing and performance, then the desire to be consistent with their values may influence take-up. Take up is also more likely if peer or competitor organisations take-up the standard. Or an organisation is more likely to adopt a standard, if produced by an expert body. So SMAP should use peer pressure etc. to encourage adoption.

Another way of influencing adoption is to nudge people. Nudging is a principle proposed by economist and lawyer Thaler & Sunstein in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. In summary, people don’t like being told what to do or what not to do, but nerveless are fundamentally lazy and will take the easier option. So, make SMAP a “no brainer” for people to adopt. Show clear benefits (economic advantage), make it easy to do (not necessarily too easy so it as no value) and make it good value.

It’s not the best but nevertheless, my favourite example of nudging is the urinals at Schiphol Airport. Women who live with men will know that men don’t always have the best aim when it comes to using the toilet. It’s not a great problem at home but it is when you have thousands of visitors to your toilet. “Do not urinate on the floor” signs didn’t work, and didn’t look good, but putting a picture of a fly on it improves aim significantly and reduced spillage by 80%.

I asked some old BRE colleagues, accredited assessors, about how BREEAM became so successful. Their responses were:

“It was designed with developers as partners and involved an independent third party. The developers committed to using it. It was pretty simple to start with and it filled a gap, it was easy to specify in briefs so clients and developers adopted it. Then planners started including it in their policies and that pushed it up a gear” (Dave Cheshire)

“It started with a simple list of green measures but then got the creditability from BRE. There are three reasons for doing BREEAM: i) Government mandate, ii) Publicity – everyone loves an award and iii) It makes sense – it provides a nice structured process. Luck is an important part of it, being in the right place at the right time” (Matt Grace).

“BREEAM was a creature of its time. The Major government were antagonistic to regulation and wanted to lighten the burdens on industry plus stimulate private/public partnerships … Simplistically a high BREEAM score allowed a developer to sell at a higher price. Involving blue chip sponsors gave BREEAM credibility in the private sector and gave the sponsors a self-interest in making the scheme a success” (Paul Bartlett).

In summary, the success of BREEAM was attributed to:
  • Timing and a bit of luck
  • Government need and a desire for less regulation
  • Corporate sponsorship with advantage & self interest
  • Credible administrating body
  • Recognition and awards
  • Straightforward and structured
  • Right price point

Becoming an international standard
Once launched, the next immediate step for SMAP would be evolving from a certification into a national standard. The next question is could it become an international standard? My own experience of standards is that they are lengthy and complicated with lots of loops and interested parties with different agendas. I mentioned I helped demote CEN 1752 from a pre-normative standard to a technical report. 

The intention was to introduce the olf as a standard unit of air pollution – one olf is the odour produced by one (standard) person at 10 l/s. One consequence was that ventilation rates would need to be increased dramatically which would have an energy burden. This contradicted UK Government policy so a few of us published evidence on why we should not adopt the new standard. When it came to a vote at the CEN committee, we teamed up with France and Spain and our weighted votes were sufficient to block the new standard. Sadly, France and Spain wanted to block it, not because of our evidence but, because it would have prevented smoking in buildings – which happened anyhow under other regulations. 

The world of standards is complicated and confounded by economics and politics – electrical plugs and sockets are a good example of this. The power supply is standardised internationally under IEC 60038:1983 and set to 240 and 110 v for domestic use. However, the means of delivering the power is not standardised, which is strange when a standard would introduce consistency and make life easier for everyone (especially regular travellers). My naïve understanding is that the UK electrical industry wants to maintain an earth for safety but, basically, it also doesn’t want to go to the expense of retrofitting sockets and appliances or perhaps it even doesn’t want to adopt a standard product developed outside of the UK. 

Creating a standard for a Smart, Attractive and Productive (SMAP) workplace is a challenge. Attracting adoption in Norway and taking it beyond Norway is also a huge challenge. But it is a very worthwhile challenge – none of the current standards focus on productivity which is a significant gap that needs to be filled.

My experience

I started my working life as a Government researcher at the BRE. There my research influenced Building Regulations, in particular, Approved Documents E and F for noise and ventilation in homes. Later my research turned to offices and I sat on CEN standard committees representing the UK. I was one of the people responsible for demoting prEN 1752 on air quality from a pre-normative standard to a technical report. After moving into the corporate world, my involvement with “standards” has mostly been drafting best practice guidance on behalf of professional bodies such as BCO and CIBSE.


  Aecom (2016) See Further, Issue 1: Work Well. London: Aecom.
  BCO (2011) Guide to Fit Out. London: British Council for Offices.
  BCO (2014) Guide to Specification. London: British Council for Offices.
  CEN (1998) CR 1752 Ventilation for Buildings – Design Criteria for The Indoor Environment. Brussels: European Committee for Standardization.
  CEN (2007) EN 15251 Indoor Environmental Input Parameters for Design and Assessment of Energy Performance of Buildings Addressing Indoor Air Quality, Thermal Environment, Lighting and Acoustics. Brussels: European Committee for Standardization.
  CIBSE (1999) TM24 Environmental Factors Affecting Office Worker Performance: Review of Evidence. London: Chartered Institution of Building Service Engineers.
  CIBSE (2015) GVA/15 CIBSE Guide A: Environmental Design. London: Chartered Institution of Building Service Engineers.
  CfAD (2017) Fitwel. New York: Center for Active Design.
  Cialdini (2000) Influence: Science and Practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  Cundall (2016) The Well Building Standard. London: Cundall.
  DCLG (2003) Approved Document E – Resistance to the Passage of Sound. London: Crown.
  DCLG (2010) Approved Document F – Ventilation. London: Crown.
  D/Science (2016) Interior Quality Index (DIQI). Amsterdam: D/Science.
  For Health (2017) The 9 Foundations of A Healthy Building. Boston: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
  House of Commons (1974) Health & Safety at Work etc Act. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. 
  HSE (2013) Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992: Approved Code of Practice and Guidance. London: Health and Safety Executive.
  International Well Building Institute (2014) The WELL Building Standard v1.0. New York: Delos.
  ISO (2005) ISO 7730 Ergonomics of the Thermal Environment: Analytical Determination and  Interpretation of Thermal Comfort Using Calculation of the PMV And PPD Indices and Local Thermal Comfort Criteria. Geneva: International Organization for Standardization.
  Lister (2014) What’s Good for People? Moving from Wellness to Well-Being. East Greenville,  PA: Knoll Inc.
  Oseland (2007) Guide to Post-Occupancy Evaluation. London: British Council for Offices.
  Oseland and Bartlett (1999) Improving Office Productivity: A Guide for Business and Facilities Managers. Harlow: Pearson Education.
  Stoddart Review (2016) The Workplace Advantage. Bishops Stortford: British Institute of Facilities Managers (BIFM).
  Thaler and Sunstein (2009) Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. New York: Penguin Book Group.

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