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HR Magazine - October 2000: When Efficiency Trumps Effectiveness

By Robert J. Grossman  10/1/2000
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HR Magazine, October 2000

Vol. 45, No. 10

Architect William McDonough, principal at William McDonough & Partners in Charlottesville, Va., has no patience for foot draggers who argue for the status quo until scientific researchers discover the causes of sick building syndrome. When in doubt about whether something contributes to poor health or comfort, he advises, don’t introduce it into the workplace. "If we spend our lives arguing about what or where you got toxified, it diverts us from the real issue: Why should we be exposed to any of this stuff?"

McDonough blames hostile workplace environments on architects and designers who are fixated on efficiency. "Efficiency, per se, has no value," he says. "An efficient Nazi is worse than an inefficient Nazi. HR’s job is to be effective. That means doing the right thing to foster a healthful, attractive environment." He estimates we’re only at 10 percent of what we could do to make the workplace healthier and more attractive.

An example of an HR-friendly building is the one McDonough’s firm designed for GAP Inc. in San Bruno, Calif.

"We set out to design an effective building—one that would allow people to do magical things for the people they work with. We sought to give them superb food, fresh air and light." Design innovations enable the energy costs of the GAP building to compare favorably with energy-efficient buildings that have minimal daylight and fresh air.

What if you can’t build a new building with all the bells and whistles that McDonough proposes? "Raise the ceilings, think about using safe materials, make sure your lighting is fabulous, check your intake system, track back your fresh air, and, if you’re renting, make sure the landlord is actually delivering what he promises," he advises.

When new construction is planned, make sure there’s someone at the table with a health and safety focus. At Gannett, Celia Booth, the director of safety and loss prevention in Arlington, Va., is an active participant as the company plans its new headquarters in Virginia. "I have been very insistent that the furnishings have as little formaldehyde and volatile organic compound as possible," she says. "If they do, they will have to have been built long enough ago so the off-gassing has run its course."

Also, Booth is requiring manufacturers of office furnishings to provide an inventory of the chemicals and additives in their products. That way, if a worker reports a problem down the road, she will know where to look.

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