For Pelican State Credit Union, like many client-driven businesses, success follows a certain pattern: you put your customers first, treat your employees like family, build up your business, outgrow your office space, relocate and repeat. Pelican, now the largest publicly-chartered credit union in Louisiana, has followed this pattern five times over the past sixty years.
After Pelican outgrew its last headquarters, this 250-plus person credit union led by CEO, Jeff Conrad, decided to try something pretty radical in designing and building their new headquarters: in partnership with the architectural team at Labarre Associates they would put the occupants health & wellness at the center of the entire process.
Pelican & Labarre sought to not simply address the needs of the people who worked in and visited the building, but wanted to measurably improve their lives by enhancing the physical and emotional well-being of everyone who steps foot in the new O’Neal Lane campus.
Pelican is working with Labarre’s Rachel Brown on the first registered project in the state of Louisiana to pursue WELL Certification. The WELL Building Standard™ is a performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and well-being, through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind.
WELL is really a crash course in behavior change for those of us who are designing and building this building as well as for all the people who will work in it.
Using the Standard requires that everyone in the creation process rethink the process of designing and building office space; this includes the client, architects, funders, inspectors and regulatory agencies and builders. The WELL Building Standard enables Labarre and Pelican to engineer subtle (and not so subtle) opportunities for humans to do things that will make them feel better, healthier and even happier as they go about their daily routine.
We wanted to put the employee experience at the center of everything we did as we started thinking about our next move.
“This required a whole different mindset. And when Labarre introduced us to WELL, we realized that it provided a process and blueprint for this type of reinvention. It helped us start talking with our staff, the HR department and educating our Board and regulators and advocating for budgets that look different from what’s come before,” he added.
From Window Placement to Water Purification to Fresh Fruit - Pelican Went All in on Employee Wellness.
“Applying the WELL Building Standard changes everything – like the way we approached circulation and window placement in the new headquarters. Because we’re trying to create spaces where employees, visitors and everyone who comes in are more likely to walk or take the stairs vs. the elevator, we had to give more thought to make taking the stairs a better experience than taking the elevator,” Labarre’s Brown explained.
As part of the design process, Pelican and Labarre wrestled with the physical employee experience – from lighting design and high performance HVAC systems, air and water filtration standards – to the short term including types of snacks and food quality offered, structured and unstructured fitness opportunities and injury prevention attributes.
“We’re integrating this employee centered approach into everything we do around the credit union,” Conrad, adds. “If you come into any conference room, fresh, healthy snacks are more prominent than candy bars and high carb snacks.”
Indeed, changing personal patterns – like swapping doughnuts for apples, elevators for stairs – can be tough and often requires us to rethink comfortable daily routines and even question basic assumptions about who we are and how we live. Yet, with the WELL Building Standard, healthy behaviors are designed into the environment so that they become habitual.
At the current headquarters we were already on track for improving employee morale, a better culture, less absenteeism – and started to demonstrate the value of this approach.
As a credit union, Pelican’s capital expenditures are subject to state regulatory review and approval. “Louisiana banking regulators wanted to understand why a credit union of our size needed 10 acres and why we wanted so much green space and walking trails rather than simply building as every other credit union has done,” Conrad remembers. “I had to bring Jay [Labarre] down to meet with the regulators but eventually they got on board and we got our approvals. We’re integrating this employee centered approach into everything we do around the credit union.”
Employees start doing things because they’re more enticing than the traditional alternatives, without having to think too hard about it. You start doing it because it’s there, without even realizing it’s a change.
The Challenges of Being First
Building and designing a headquarters centered on the health and wellbeing of the employees who will work in it challenged certain industrial conventions for Pelican. The value of this strategy took some explaining. “At the current headquarters we were already on track for improving employee morale, a better culture, less absenteeism – and started to demonstrate the value of this approach,” Labarre shared.
As a credit union, Pelican’s capital expenditures are subject to state regulatory review and approval. “Louisiana banking regulators wanted to understand why a credit union of our size needed 10 acres and why we wanted so much green space and walking trails rather than simply building as every other credit union has done,” Conrad remembers. “I had to bring Jay [Labarre] down to meet with the regulators but eventually they got on board and we got our approvals.”
Throughout the design process, Labarre and Pelican found themselves educating vendors, contractors and code compliance officers. For example, Labarre had designed a retention pond, which is required under the building code, to curve in ways that would maximize its visual value. However, “when we did this the original civil engineer’s reaction was – ‘you can’t do that,’” Labarre said. “But upon further discussion, he came around – we took something that was simply required by code and transformed it into something that’s become an aesthetic masterpiece.”
"We've heard, 'you can't do that,' quite a bit."
“We’ve heard, ‘you can’t do that,’ quite a bit,” Conrad agrees. “But this is better for our employees, better for everybody that comes to our building and sets foot on our grounds. We’ve accomplished what’s required by code, and taken it a step further to design around the people. We’re meeting code but we’re doing it in a different manner,” he notes.
The Cost/Benefit to Building in Wellness and Human-Centered Design
For starters – Labarre and Pelican see WELL as an opportunity to attract the best talent. Pelican’s CEO notes, “We’re getting talented people to apply to Pelican today who have seen that we’re consistently ranked as one of the best places to work in the state and they’ve heard about what we’re doing here with our new building and they want to be a part of this, they want to fuel this. From an experience and education level, we’re getting an incredibly high caliber applicant today.” “
We work with a lot of credit union clients. If a candidate is comparing two opportunities with basically the same pay and same job responsibilities and one is housed in a traditional office building and the other in a space that’s beautiful, lightfilled and purpose-built, expressly designed to improve your mental, emotional and physical state, which job are you gonna choose?,” Labarre asks rhetorically.
And more generally, the employee/ employer dynamic is changing. “Here in the greater Capital Region for example there are so many more good options for talented young people. Businesses that can demonstratively show their investment in their people will have a lasting competitive advantage,” Labarre adds.
When you work for a company that you feel invests in you personally, then you desire to perform at a higher level and we’re seeing that every day at Pelican.
Beyond the recruitment and retention advantage, Pelican State Credit Union has begun monitoring hard business and performance metrics that are being positively affected by the WELL Building Standard type investments. “Our performance is up and we can see it in our numbers,” Conrad offers. “The engagement level of staff in general, the performance level, the profitability of the credit union, the rate of growth is all up. It’s amazing that when you empower people and they feel good they give the best they’ve got to give.”
In addition, the WELL Building Standard helps with resilience and redundancy. After living through hurricanes and floods, many of the attributes designed into WELL buildings – like showers and natural lighting - will help employees weather the next big storm.
A Trend and a Friend
“We’re already seeing evidence of strong collaboration. Our circle of influence as an employer has carried over to partners like Labarre Associates and beyond to other Credit Unions. I’m thrilled, I don’t see this as competitive or proprietary – everybody wins,” Conrad shares.
To this end, Rachel Brown at Labarre Associates has been quick to share what she’s learned as the first architect in Louisiana to design and register a WELL project. “I’ve been fielding calls from around the state and across the region from other architects looking to do similar WELL projects. “One of the largest architecture firms in New Orleans asked me to come in and talk to them, which I did, and they were asking me again, how it works, what it looks like because we’re actually doing this and there’s always a difference between theory and practice,” Brown adds.
Labarre Associates was a natural partner for Pelican as the WELL Building Standard demands an integrated project delivery approach. “The standard is easier to implement when you have the architect, contractor, facility manager as well as the client all working together and at Labarre we’ve got all the key components for our clients under our roof,” Brown added.
WELL truly is a team effort for everyone that comes to the table, from sub-contractors to vendors to design interns to the end user. Without their buy-in we could not do this.
In addition, the two company executives have a longstanding relationship built on trust and shared vision about how to treat people, manage employees and build a culture that lasts. “We meet up for breakfast twice a month and discuss different challenges and conversation can be wide ranging and always collaborative,” Pelican’s Conrad, shares.
Good communication is critical as the WELL Building Standard isn’t simply a check-list of categories to implement, it’s a process of translating your values and priorities into reality in ways that require trade-offs and hard decision-making. “The ability to share and trust is what we call the ‘special sauce’ here. People ask how we’ve been able to pull this off so fast and challenge so much conventional wisdom. We wouldn’t be able to pull off this without shared values, deep trust and open collaborative thinking between our teams,” Conrad adds.
With this Pelican State Credit Union project our team led by Rachel Brown has learned a lot and we share what we learned with every client we talk to. Pelican has made a conscious effort to include the lives of its employees in their new campus and they’re benefiting financially as a result of it.
Looking out into the future Pelican’s CEO sees tangible and intangible benefits from this first-of-its-kind effort. “I believe we’re seeing the start of a trend. We’ll make Baton Rouge a better place to live and work together,” Conrad says.