Location and facilities are playing an increasingly critical role in the competition for scientific talent.

How much will a high-quality workforce cost you? These days, the price is more than just compensation and benefits. If new talent recruitment and retention is your goal, you’ll also need to pay attention to laboratory location, design and amenities. Like other industries, the life sciences sector has begun to recognize the workplace’s influence on employee happiness and productivity, according to JLL’s 2017 Life Sciences Outlook Report. And, life sciences companies are rewriting the rules of the past.

Location and facilities are playing an increasingly critical role in the competition for scientific talent. Across industries, creating a workplace that employees find actually inspiring and engaging has become a competitive differentiator. In a recent JLL survey of more than 7,000 employees, 70 percent agree that happiness at work is the best ingredient for a unique work experience. While nice restaurants and onsite gyms are nice, smaller-scale elements also contribute to employee happiness.

In JLL’s research, 50 percent of employees say they simply want a place where they can recharge their energy. Setting aside a small space for mediation, or rooms that employees can book for intense periods of focus, can provide a much-needed boost to their productivity. At the same time, open floor plans that can spark collaboration have become more commonplace, as seen in some new laboratories that include small collaboration spaces near the research benches.

Employees that feel the design of the workplace caters to their needs are more likely to feel fulfilled and be productive, and those benefits multiply quickly. Gallup research shows that highly engaged business units experienced a 41 percent reduction in absenteeism, a 17 percent increase in productivity and ultimately achieve 21 percent greater profitability.

No wonder life sciences companies are seeking contemporary, amenities-rich facilities that will inspire new discoveries. As the importance of workplace appeal grows, three new rules are driving strategies for attracting talent and helping it thrive.  

Rule No. 1: Get creative to be near the action
Major life science clusters, like Boston and San Diego, offer an environment that is hard to mimic: access to a rich pool of research institutions, universities, hospitals and the scientists associated with them. Companies are willing to pay exceedingly high rents to be near hard-to-find talent that is the lifeblood of industry innovation.

Real estate developers are responding with new life sciences projects in urban areas—but also in the suburbs, attracting companies seeking to balance real estate costs and proximity to talent.  

In premium life sciences cities, laboratory space is scarce and rents continue to rise. In one laboratory hot spot, Seattle’s Lake Union neighborhood, asking rents climbed nearly 15 percent over the past year. Nearby Capitol Hill, home to renowned medical centers and Benaroya Research Institute, has zero vacancy. On the East Coast, Boston’s popular East Cambridge lab market comes with one of the country’s highest price tags, with rents averaging approximately $75 per square foot, and its rents have risen steadily over the last couple of years.

With vacancy rates under 10 percent in nearly all of the top 10 U.S. life science clusters and no signs of slowing demand, new urban lab developments are a growing trend. Two speculative lab developments are underway in Boston’s West Cambridge neighborhood to create another 260,500 square feet of space. Houston, which has a rising reputation in life sciences, is fundraising to build a $2 billion commercial campus on 30 acres in the heart of the city.

Suburban markets surrounding the major life science hubs are benefiting from the overflow, offering lower costs and, typically, more options for office and lab space. In the Mid-Peninsula suburbs of San Francisco, a new seven-building campus called The Cove, one of the largest construction projects in the world, is nearing full occupancy. Another 1.9 million square feet of speculative developments were initiated in the area in the first half of the year.

As New York City aggressively makes its play to be a global life sciences leader, micro-clusters are blooming in nearby New Jersey, Long Island and Westchester County. A 3-million-square-foot, mixed-use biotech center is being developed in Westchester County, near Westchester Medical Center and New York Medical College, which will add 2.25 million square feet of biotech and research space.

In Philadelphia, growing pharmaceutical organizations, including Trevana, are relocating to bigger locations in the suburbs. The Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center of Bucks County, also based in the suburbs, recently broke ground on a new 47,000-square-foot lab and incubator space expansion.

Rule No. 2: Focus on the employee experience
The appeal of these new life science parks includes the rich amenities they provide. For example, in a hot San Diego life science neighborhood, The Alexandria at Torrey Pines is attracting life science companies that are eager to give employees a unique environment. Tenants on the campus share large conference room spaces, a fitness center and a restaurant with an award-winning chef. Similarly, the sprawling The Cove development in San Francisco will offer fitness rooms, a bowling alley, bocce ball courts, an amphitheater and hotel space when fully complete.

All of these bells and whistles are simply part of a broader shift happening inside the workplace over the past several years as companies across industries hone in on the employee experience. Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report notes that “a productive, positive employee experience has emerged as the new contract between employer and employee,” which is particularly important in recruiting and retaining the younger, highly skilled employees the life sciences companies need as Baby Boomer scientists retire.

Rule No. 3: Prioritize employee well-being
When you’re in the business of curing disease and ailments, the well-being of your own workforce can’t be understated. Research now points to a very clear connection between the work environment and employee health.

Consider the impact of natural light and open views. A World Green Building Council (WGBC) report sponsored by JLL found that even modest improvements in scientists’ and office workers’ access to natural light can positively impact their productivity. Having expansive views (whether inside or outside the office) has an even bigger influence, providing visual cues that help open the mind to new possibilities.

Integrating more live plants inside the office to serve as natural air filters has proven benefits for lowering stress, improving cognitive functions and enhancing creativity. High levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) make employees tired and less able to think clearly. A 2011 lab test mimicking an office with high levels of VOCs found that increasing ventilation improved workplace performance by 8 percent.

Changes don’t have to be expansive. Employees can reap benefits from a few potted plants around the office. Paying attention to these small workplace design details reinforces the message that a company values its employees and feeds into the culture inside the office.

Investing to win
Revenue pressures may limit the funds companies have to invest in being in a prime location or offering top-notch amenities—but that doesn’t put you out of the game. It doesn’t have to cost millions of dollars to create the ideal workplace environment. A great workplace can happen anywhere with a little dose of innovation and a large dose of listening to what employees want.