Employee Engagement by Design

 Employee Engagement by Design


By Dean Strombom

There are lots of things that keep the average CEO up at night: economic volatility, attracting and retaining talent, changing technology, global competition, geopolitics, etc. Workplace design is probably not in the top ten. But, it should be.

Benefits of a Branded Workplace

The success of any business correlates directly to the engagement of its employees. According to a recent Gallup poll, less than one-third of U.S. workers are engaged in their jobs. Gallup defines engaged employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace. Not only does the work environment greatly effect employee productivity, retention, and health; it also knits an organization’s culture together, drives innovation, reduces employee turnover, and builds growth and revenue.

A well-designed workplace can energize and inspire. It can be a physical manifestation of a company’s DNA or brand reflecting the organization’s culture and mission. A branded environment is more than just a space that features a company’s logo or mission statement on the wall – it’s a space that evokes emotion and connection. It allows the company to “talk the talk” and “walk the walk.” For example if the mantra of an organization is sustainability and environmental stewardship, the workplace can incorporate “green” elements and strategies that demonstrate that commitment.

 Recognizing the Need for Choice

Research shows that employee engagement increases exponentially when people feel they are valued, that their work has purpose, and that they are part of something bigger than themselves. By creating a workplace that is attractive, comfortable and that supports a variety of work modes — collaboration, socializing and learning – companies demonstrate respect and appreciation for their workers, with a return on their investment in terms of increased performance.

Designing workplaces that allow employees greater choice in determining how they work best requires rethinking workspaces to include a mix of individual focus and team collaboration spaces as well as formal and informal gathering spaces; offering technology tools that supports mobility within the workplace and beyond as needed; and providing areas of respite that allow workers to relax and recharge. Employers who offer choice to their employees have workers who are 12 percent more satisfied with their jobs and rate themselves higher-performing than those workers without a choice. Giving people more control in their work environment – even if it’s just the ability to rearrange their immediate setting – can positively impact their mood and, in turn, improve their performance.

Focus on Wellbeing

It’s also important to activate the workplace – get people up from their desks and walking around. It’s been said that sitting is the new smoking. According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, staying seated for more than one hour causes fat burning enzymes to decline by 90 percent. Long periods of sitting cultivate physical and mental lethargy. Untethering employees from their desks, adding ergonomic sit/stand desks or tall work tables within the workspace, locating common areas throughout that draw people away from their desks, linking floors with prominent stairways, and encouraging people to use lounges or outdoor spaces will get people moving. Well-designed circulation can also drive interaction between colleagues. Amenities and ‘collision spaces’ such as cafés, lounges, and wellness spaces, prompt collaboration and socialization.

Providing a link to the natural world also increases employee satisfaction, reduces stress and promotes health. Daylight, views of nature, fresh air, and color are all well-proven moderators of mood. Their positive effects have been extensively studied in the health care realm, but are increasingly being understood in the workplace environment for their effect on wellbeing. Reducing environmental stressors like noise, glare, and poor air quality can also reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and realize other benefits to productivity. New tools like the WELL Building Standard will further empower designers and employers to keep wellness issues top of mind.

There is lots of talk about amenities in the workplace right now. Some companies are building dining and fitness facilities that rival a five-star resort. But, adding amenities doesn’t have to be a big ticket item, it can be as simple as adding more, healthy onsite food options via vending machines, food trucks or cafes. Many companies have also added bike racks and shower/changing facilities to encourage people to bike, walk or jog. Other employee amenities being considered include hike/bike trails, sport fields, childcare, wellness centers, car service, a company store, salons, religious and meditation spaces, and even petcare.

In researching how design impacts employee wellbeing, 10 design factors: activity, ergonomics, air quality, lighting, user control, restorative environments, acoustics, nature, nutrition and motivators, were linked to 12 correlating factors of human emotional and physical health: productivity, focus, attention, memory, fatigue, stress, heart disease, BMI, cholesterol, diabetes, asthma and cancer.

This data can inform a more healthful and effective workplace design. For example, lighting of varying color, temperature and intensity can increase productivity, focus and decrease fatigue.

Many businesses don’t realize that air filled with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is one of the leading causes of recurring absenteeism. Filtering and circulating air more effectively and using materials with low VOC emission profiles can reduce absenteeism by 50 percent. High CO2 levels are another cause of worker fatigue. Introducing maximum amounts of fresh air and making sure all spaces are properly ventilated can reduce this problem dramatically. Spaces designed to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards address these issues.

Measuring Design Effectiveness

Up until now, most companies have focused on the cost per square foot of their space as a key metric. Few companies have measured whether the design of the space has increased or decreased performance. Technology now exists to measure how spaces really work—sociometric badges, sensors trackers, and smartphones can be deployed in the workplace to see if design assumptions are really correct and to adjust them accordingly. Space effectiveness can also be measured through the use of surveys, observations, and studies. By understanding how people interact with space, designers can develop plans that better support business and maximize real estate value.

A free iPad app that measures the value of human capital through productivity, turnover, effective hours and sick days, can be downloaded. Consider the fact that employees that are happy and engaged are absent 28 percent less. This translates into 12.3 days and $619/year per happy employee. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) estimates the cost of losing an employee at six to nine months’ salary on average. There is a shifting paradigm here. Instead of focusing on the cost of the space, companies should be focused on keeping their people healthy and engaged.

According to a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, companies that engage and empower their workforce are better positioned to anticipate and adapt to changing market conditions. In focusing on people, one cannot ignore place. Measuring the ROI of workplace investment is not an exact science, but the strategies outlined above and the addition of a qualified design strategist can help today’s CEOs quantify the importance of investing in their people as well as their processes.

Dean Strombom is a Practice Area Leader in Energy and Landlord Services in the Houston office of Gensler, where he leads the planning and design of corporate campuses, commercial office buildings, workplace interiors and mixed-use developments.



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