Many companies agree that the world of work has undergone a seismic shift.  Technology, globalization and rapidly changing economic forces have mobilised us, connected us, and opened up completely new ways of doing business.  For the first time in history, the workplace is experiencing five generations at work, with the Millennials soon approaching the largest group; by 2025, three out of four workers will have come of age at the turn of the century.  These ‘digital natives’, as well as their younger counterparts, (Generation Z, born after 1985), have entered a world where ‘work’ is more a verb; a thing that you do, than is it a noun; a place where you go from 9-to-5.

A cursory glance at the impressive campuses of Silicon Valley, or the brightly-coloured attention-seeking office interiors that have made their way into popular media illustrates a new challenge: organisations are having to offer more than a salary and pension package to tempt today’s workforce to give them their precious time.  While savvy organisations understand the power of the workplace as a weapon in the ‘war on talent’, some fail to recognise that taking things at face value is just part of the equation.

Benefits of attractive environments

Beyond projecting an expression of an organisation’s brand, culture and values to the outside world, the psychological impact of attractive environments has been examined in the work of Dr Craig Knight, and his team at Exeter University.  Knight’s studies included a series of experiments designed to test measurable impact on business outcomes, with an emphasis on productivity. They were conducted in a variety of different settings, including lean (basic furniture and equipment only) and enriched (decorated by designer using a selection of plants and art) office spaces.  When comparing enriched with lean environments, findings suggested that people report a greater sense of psychological comfort when they feel they have control over their workspace, working in a pleasant environment. This, in turn, has been associated with greater identification with the organisation and enhanced job satisfaction.[1] It was found that by simply enriching a lean space with pictures and plants, both wellbeing and productivity rise by 17% – with no increase in errors.  Even more impressive was the resulting increase in productivity that accompanies ‘empowered’ spaces, where the occupant is engaged in the choice of furniture, decoration and plants. Allowing people to develop their own space saw wellbeing improve further and productivity increase by 32%, with errors actually falling.

1 C Knight and S A Haslam, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16 (2) (2010) 158.

Building engaging environments: Curation and Creation

Offering occupants a role in the creation and curation of their working environment creates a sense of belonging, deepens social ties and, through the experience itself, reinforces cultural values of the organisation. In addition, adopting this approach delivers better design; the users of the spaces themselves helping to define what it is they need to do their work effectively. There are many ways this can be done and, for the most effective results, the process must go beyond questionnaires and traditional consultative models.  Building an effective environment requires an holistic approach, taking a birdseye view to consider the objectives of any change to be made from the perspectives of the business, the people and culture as well as space so that decisions made are not myopic and to the detriment of performance or wellbeing. It is for this reason that a variety of different techniques should be included – both quantitative methods, such as space utilization and interaction data as well as qualitative methods, such as observational ethnography and co-defining and co-designing workshops. The manner in which environment changes are approached will depend on existing cultural norms, skill level and creative confidence; often with the invitation to participate being as powerful as the act of participating itself.

By way of example, when comparing two similar organisational groups (customer service agents) at two different companies – Airbnb and Zappos – with the invitation to participate embodying very different styles, consistent with the company values and approach to innovation, we see that the product is two very different working environments. Airbnb activates its invitation to participate whilst maintaining a strong curation of its design ethos. By guiding a small group of volunteers through the process of conceptualising, designing and building distinct spaces in its new working environment, those people with the motivation to participate are rewarded throughout the experience of creation. The rest of the organisation experiences autonomy on a daily basis through a choice of work settings. Zappos is at the opposite end of the design spectrum with a ‘no rules’, decorate-it-yourself approach. Teams are allocated space and allowed to configure their areas as they wish. Each person has their own (small) space they can control.

Invitation for Ongoing Engagement

As we see a shift towards more fluid, dynamic and experiential working environments, the role of the ‘host’ or ‘community manager’ is becoming ever-more critical to curate and manage the day-to-day experiences of people as they come and go in the workplace. Whilst not focused solely on either facilities or human resources, this new breed of environmental expert is a passionate connoisseur of experience, navigator of networks and facilitator of collisions.   However, too much attention can have an adverse effect if not carried out correctly; it’s important to strike the right balance between setting the stage for people and allowing them to make space themselves. Knight’s study found that disempowering workers – when the occupier is allowed to decorate their space, but then the design is rearranged by management – produces the effect of significantly compromising both well-being and productivity.

So whilst investing in attractive environments has been shown to increase a personal sense of well-being and happiness through elevated levels of psychological comfort, care should be taken not to ‘design out’ engagement and amplify a sense of entitlement.  Worse still, take control and choice away from people and expect to see engagement in their work and the organisation nosedive.