To Build Back Better, Invest in People-First Places

Our industry is engaged in an important dialogue to improve sustainability through ESG transparency and industry collaboration. This article is a contribution to this larger conversation and does not necessarily reflect GRESB’s position. Please refer to official GRESB documents for assessment related guidance.

During Joe Biden’s campaign for president, he embodied the agenda for his administration in a simple rallying cry: Build Back Better. That was encouraging for us at the International WELL Building Institute – because at IWBI, building better is what we do. We are dedicated to creating environments that foster well-being and help people thrive.

Now, the 64-thousand-dollar question – or, rather, the 6-trillion-dollar question – is to what extent, and how, the president and our leaders in Congress will turn that essential goal into practice. And with the policy conversation focused on building back – whether it’s our offices, schools, housing or federal buildings – we should ensure that we’re adopting a people-first approach to enhance these spaces. Looking ahead, we see a big opportunity for policymakers to fulfill that promise across three important fronts.

Helping businesses reimagine healthier spaces and operations

When it comes to building back better, the first need is immediate: as businesses reopen their doors, we must ensure they can do so in ways that promote the health of their employees and customers. Fully 66% of employees say that they’re worried about the health implications of returning to the office. An even higher number of employees of color – 78% – say the same.

To address those concerns, businesses need to rethink many aspects of their spaces – from implementing distancing measures to ensuring adequate air flow. And while these changes involve investments in design and architecture, they’re also – fundamentally – investments in the people who fill these spaces. That’s why we’re excited to see lawmakers recognizing and incentivizing transformations that will help people across the country get back to work in ways that prioritize their well-being. 

Bipartisan legislation introduced by U.S. Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Rob Portman (R-OH), as well as a companion bill on the House side, would create a refundable tax credit for businesses investing in resources, technology, and redesign intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. From employee testing, personal protective equipment (PPE), improved indoor air quality and sanitization practices to structural design and reconfiguration measures, the Healthy Workplaces Tax Credit Act does exactly what its name suggests – credits employers that create environments where workers are empowered to be the healthiest versions of themselves. Legislation like this will not only help jumpstart the economy as it allows more businesses to implement health best practices and reopen faster and safer – it will set us on a new post-COVID path that leads to improved health outcomes for employees, customers and communities. 

Investing in people-first infrastructure  

But building back better doesn’t just mean creating a world where COVID-19 spreads less easily. It means shifting the paradigm to create environments designed to support all aspects of human well-being – what we call “people-first places.” And the American Rescue Plan Act and the American Jobs Plan can spur important progress on this front. While the American Rescue Plan Act allocated billions to the businesses and organizations hit hardest by the pandemic – among them public health infrastructure, transit systems, and small businesses – the Jobs Plan proposes to complement these investments by investing $100 billion in upgrading and building new public schools; $10 billion in creating healthier and more sustainable federal buildings for public employees and visitors; and a historic $213 billion to create high-quality affordable housing and community development. These investments will go a long way toward ensuring that the places where people live, work and learn actively promote well-being. 

But we should be clear-eyed about two serious challenges that could keep these plans from being effective and enduring enough to justify their price tags. The first is that the bulk of the benefits will go, as they so often do, to the communities that have the most influence, rather than the communities with the greatest need. The second is that in the years to come, the infrastructure we build now will be rendered inadequate or fail completely as climate change reshapes our environment. Policymakers can avoid these pitfalls by making sure these investments work harder and smarter for people by making health, equity and resilience central pillars in the way they craft and implement these laws. 

Making investing for health the norm

Finally, we must acknowledge that while government funding can help to kickstart the people-first places movement, it cannot propel the movement alone. Ultimately, the success of the movement will depend on companies and organizations across sectors deciding to prioritize health and well-being across their enterprises.

So how can we make that happen? The first step is moving toward greater transparency about how businesses report their progress on essential workplace metrics. That way, investors can make smarter choices leveraging better information.  Already, the GRESB Real Estate Assessment has moved from offering a voluntary Health and Well-being Module to fully incorporating health and well-being metrics into its core assessment. And in the Measuring Stakeholder Capitalism metrics it released last year, the World Economic Forum included health and well-being as a defining theme under its “People” pillar. 

But policymakers have a role to play in this effort, too. In February, Reps. Juan Vargas (D-CA-51) and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-IL-04) introduced the ESG Disclosure Simplification Act, requiring public companies to disclose certain ESG practices to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) alongside the company’s perspective on the relationship between ESG practices and long-term strategy. And they’re not alone. In fact, Rep. Cindy Axne (D-IA-03) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) recently reintroduced The Workforce Investment Disclosure Act, a bill that would compel publicly-traded companies to report on their workforce management policies as well as basic human capital metrics like professional development investments, retention and turnover rates, compensation statistics, and workforce health and safety. As IWBI’s President and CEO Rachel Hodgdon said, “This bill, which takes a significant step forward on driving transparency and incentivizing investment in the workforce, will help ensure businesses prioritize the overall welfare of their most valuable asset – their people.” 

If passed, The Workforce Investment Disclosure Act would be the first law of its kind to require corporations to transparently report on employee health and well-being policies – a monumental step towards ensuring that a healthier world for all becomes everyone’s priority. [To that end, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has issued a public comment period on where they should go as it relates to disclosure. While more climate focused, the public input request also includes larger questions like whether or not climate-related requirements should be one component of a broader ESG disclosure framework, and inclusive of other important factors like workforce and human capital metrics. You can learn more here.]

Throughout history, moments of crisis have provided great clarity. And the past year has demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that fostering health and well-being is not only a moral imperative, but an investment that always pays dividends. 

If we use that understanding now to drive investment in people-first places, we can create environments that contribute towards making the people inside them not only healthier, but more productive, more fulfilled and more resilient. That is what building back better looks like.  

This article was written by  Jason Hartke, Executive Vice President, External Affairs – International WELL Building Institute

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