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On the “Working Dead” and why the trickle down effect in offices is not working

Image: Kevin Fales
Image: Kevin Fales

NEWS FROM THE FRONT DESK ISSUE 383: We’re back in Melbourne this week. Mainly to moderate a session on workplace wellness at Total Facilities 2018, but also to meet Katherine Leong from NAB and learn a bit more about what she’s doing in social impact investing and Nightingale Housing.

There was also a catch up early in the week with Brookfield’s James Murray-Parkes for an interesting philosophical challenge about what is the true “induction point” for sustainability and the role of the capital markets in fuelling its development.

On Thursday arvo we were planning to experience, finally, a real live Nightingale and meet some of the people who have managed to generate a waiting list of 5200 potential buyers for this phenomenon. And back on the phone there was an interview with Ted Franks, partner and fund manager at London-based ethical investor WHEB Asset Management, who is visiting Oz this week to promote his company’s partnership with Pengana Capital Group and management of its Hunter Hall Global Deep Green Trust, renamed the Pengana WHEB Sustainable Impact Fund. 

More on Leong and Franks later. 

Total Facilities

On the Total Facilities panel discussion on Workplace Wellness – the relationship between human and building,we’re starting to feel quite at home.  

Just a few weeks ago in Brisbane we ran our own event with CitySmart on happy healthy offices (ebook out soon) and you’d think that with five or more hours of dense and riveting content we managed to gather we’d have heard it all by now. But no, our briefing with panellists Mark McKenna, group sustainability leader for Norman Disney & Young; Kate Harris, chief executive of Good Environmental Choice; Peter Black, national director workplace consulting for Colliers; and Nigel Hobbs, sales director for Welnis Labs revealed even more insights. 

Hobbs, for instance, has written an ebook with a title that’s both clever and unnerving, The Working Dead. 

His thesis is that we have never been more stressed, that this is the first generation that might not live as long as the previous. Technology follows us everywhere. There’s no off switch.

Provocative? Absolutely.

So was Harris on her view that everyone not only has a right to healthy products and interior environments but that this is a human rights and public health issue.

When you think about it, of course. Why should the place we spend most of our day at even remotely make us sick, such as from off-gassing with volatile organic compounds. Think about PVC flooring and how much time small children spend close the floor in schools, she says.  

Even more nefarious is the proposition based on a good dose of reality that we are offshoring our upstream/downstream manufacturing toxins and other dangerous practices.

Should better practices be mandated? 

There’s a nice grenade to throw into property’s thought leadership space. (We mandate seat belts, no problem with that, but the car industry screamed blue murder at the time saying the new legislation would drive it out of business. No pun intended.) 

Trickle-down effect absent

But consider this, Mark McKenna and Peter Black both noted that good processes and healthy and happy offices might be adopted by top tier wealthy corporates such as banks, but at the level below they’re sadly absent.

So, not so different as what’s happened with base buildings: excellence at the top, not much in the way of the trickle down effect in sight. According to Black, the majority of corporates, even household names (and he rattled off some big ones), are struggling with razor thin margins and don’t have the luxury of research departments or specialist human resources experts to advise on how to look after their staff.

There are critical observers wondering if at least some of these companies are driving their staff to extinction. If you think that’s too dramatic then consider that Japan has a national day of mourning for people who die on the job from overwork. And that we once scoffed at Japanese practices of staff renting sleeping bunks so they could put in more hours at work. Consider that we too now have sleeping pods built into workplaces, ostensibly for an afternoon nap to make us more productive but also because so many of us are sleep deprived, overworked, stressed, with devices constantly switched “on” to work. 

In a perhaps a nod to rehabilitation after its scandal with misreporting emissions from its cars, Volkswagen is working with an app that powers down work-connected devices of its staff as home time approaches. How civilised and stress reducing when you know this applies to all your colleagues as well.

On the positive side, we know that after a period of work following us home the reverse is starting to happen – work is looking more home like.

See Willow’s article on team-based homely designs that speak to our intrinsic nesting and social instincts.

Thank goodness for the young ones, who are more and more intolerant of old school archaic behaviour that cares more about process, top-down bureaucracy, and never mind that the planet might burn up – just worry about what the next reporting season says, every three months.

Capital markets

It’s interesting that if you get the formula right the capital markets are quite agnostic as to what they make money out of.

Which brings us Ted Franks and WHEB/Pengana. In a jammed in/jammed packed phone conversation while heading to some presentations Franks managed to excite and inspire.

For instance, in the UK, he said, there is a thing called a Petersborough Prison bond. So if you understand that recidivism is a huge cost, if you can reform criminals and other lawbreakers, mentor and reskill them so they are not tempted by the easy fix of drugs and crime, you can actually save the prison service a lot of money. And some of those savings go to the bond holders.  

Hence bond holders are paid for keeping people out of jail through a whole lot of programs that have good social benefits. Interesting to note this in the wake of significant evidence that say the vast majority of people in our prisons have mental health issues. 

See The Atlantic on this or American figures and a very disturbing article in The Monthly for Australian. Franks was clearly upbeat. But more on that soon.

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