INTRODUCTION

Workplace design impacts directly your ability to attract the brightest people and retain your most valued team members. It is key to achieving a diverse and dynamic mix of talent within your organisation.

Time for a change?

With every passing generation, workplaces have been changed and adapted to reflect the needs and interests of employers.

From the production lines of the early factory system, which optimised for repetitive physical activity and the unvaried focus of its operators; to the open plan offices of the 1990s which prioritised an unremitting watchfulness and enforced accountability.

The latest design thinking understands the needs of the workers themselves should finally take precedence.

Attract, engage and retain through office design

By advocating eco-systems of interconnected spaces where people have choice and control over where and how they work, this new way of thinking prioritises worker’s well being and engagement to make businesses more creative and productive.

Workplace design can give you the competitive edge by optimising for agility, innovation and employee wellbeing - the key to an organisational culture that naturally attracts and retains the most talented people.

Attract and Recruit

In today’s job market the competition for talent has never been more fierce.

Global unemployment is at a record low rate. 70% of employers say they struggle to fill roles with the right people. The talent scarcity is particularly acute in STEM disciplines where skills shortages are reportedly costing businesses £1.5bn per year in temporary staffing, recruitment and training costs.

This is a candidate-driven job market. And job seekers wishlists are becoming more extensive and exacting as a result.

You are always on my mind

The modern workplace is a constant presence for us, both physical and mental.

That’s unsurprising - after all, we spend most of our waking lives either in an office or connected to one.  

But it’s not just our own workplaces that we’re seeing and connecting with on an almost daily basis. It’s everyone else’s, too.

From images of offices shared through social media, employer review sites, sales and marketing collateral, to the different types of work environments we see represented on TV and film. 

Real or unreal, we’re constantly exposed to - and fascinated by - visions of perfect and imperfect working environments. We use them to measure our own experiences of the workplace and set our expectations about what we want from future employers. 

We use them to research and visualise the kind of working lives that we could have if we just made the leap.

In California, holidaymakers can now even spend a day touring the Apple and Google headquarters for a taste of what life might be like working for a tech behemoth.

It’s not just our own workplaces that we’re seeing and connecting with on an almost daily basis. It’s everyone else’s, too.

We might fear being sucked into the soul-destroying ill-lit super-offices of popular imagination, or dream of life on the campus of a social media giant with its free gyms, sleeping pods and meditation rooms. We might even wonder if a virtual or holographic office could be the answer to our quest for a more satisfying work/life balance.

One thing is certain. There is now a sophisticated understanding among the wider population about the choices available to modern workers in terms of office environments and working culture.

And if they are aware of what their options are, they can definitely see how their existing workplaces are failing them.

53%

of workers feel they can't find the right kind of space they need to fulfil different tasks throughout their working days.

37%

of workers think more ergonomically designed office furniture will help them perform better.

More than money

This has shifted the objectives of job search away from remuneration and towards working practices, employee focus, organisational culture and, of course, working environment.  

People are more and more able to identify the kind of workplaces and cultures that could most successfully support their ambitions.

And the research backs this up. 

The 2017 Change Generation Report conducted by the Lovell Corporation concluded that pay was not even among the top three priorities for the millennial generation when it came to picking a new employer:

“For the first time, passion is ranked as one of the top three work values. Employers will be required to keep their spark alive in the workplace - ensuring work speaks to individual interests, provides growth and aligns with employee values”.

What you see is what you get

The choices you make about your work environments and the choices you offer to the people who work in them can be seen to reflect your whole organisation’s shared priorities and objectives in a highly visceral way.  

  • What impression do your working environments create for those looking from the outside in?
  • How are your workplaces being showcased and how are others sharing them online?  
  • How are the people who work with you talking about their own workplace experiences?
  • What experience of your culture and work environments do candidates have when they arrive at your offices for their first interview? 
  • Does it reflect what they want and need from a future employer?

ENGAGE AND RETAIN

If recruitment is proving a challenge in the current market, then so is retention.

Businesses lose their best people all the time.  According to Ceredian, more than a third of employees are currently actively or casually searching for a new job, while 66% of professional employees say they are not planning to stay at their current company in the long term. 

And nearly 40% of HR staff say they are experiencing difficulty retaining employees.  

This is not to mention the equivalent of whole teams that are lost to sickness and absenteeism every year.  According to one study by ABL staff sickness costs the UK economy £77.5 Billion a year.

But if absenteeism and high turnover is expensive, wasteful of talent and saps morale, what exactly is to blame?

It’s still not about the money. As in recruitment, studies have shown that employees’ decisions to stay or leave a business are largely not based around remuneration, but instead the level of engagement they feel with their job and the organisation they work for.

What is engagement in the workplace and why does it matter?

Engagement is the level of enthusiasm and dedication an employee feels toward his or her job; the passion and commitment they have for the role and the company they work for. It includes the extent to which they engage and identify with the company’s culture, mission and values, as well as their desire to contribute to its current and future direction, productivity and success.

Engagement is a powerful influence - it sustains a positive work culture, promoting a self-sustaining atmosphere of wellbeing, creativity, productivity and growth

Disengagement - is an equally powerful force, it sustains a negative work culture, kills creativity, destroys productivity, and tends to inertia

Engagement drives productivity

While disengagement inhibits productivity, innovation, creativity and happiness, engagement can actively support these powerful qualities.

Deloitte has found successful employee engagement links directly with a whole slew of benefits which encompass profitability, levels of customer service, as well as recruitment and retention. And that’s why it’s becoming an area of intense focus for businesses:

“Culture and engagement is no longer an arcane topic owned by HR. It is now an imperative for every leader and every executive in the organization. Many studies now show that highly engaged companies can hire more easily, deliver stronger customer service, have the lowest turnover rates, and be more profitable over the long run.” Deloitte

Why the answer lies in the workplace

The latest Steelcase research says employee engagement is directly correlated with workplace satisfaction.

The report concludes that of the 37% of the global workforce who are disengaged one of the main things they have in common is dissatisfaction with their working environment.

Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us.

Physical work settings can obviously have a material effect on our ability to carry out certain tasks, and they can have an equally profound effect on mood and morale.

The Steelcase research shows how every element of our work environment impacts the way we feel about the work we do, and the way we do that work.

In their study, nearly every measure of employee engagement can be correlated with a measure of satisfaction with their physical working environment.

Flexibility and control improve engagement

Attitudes towards labour are completely transformed when more choice and control over the working environment is handed to people.

These elements of choice and control include:

  • Individual freedom to select working locations within a building
  • Choice of working postures (enabled by sit/stand desks and other features)
  • Ability to choose the kind of office furniture that suits our ergonomic needs

The more employees feel a sense of independence in these areas, the more engaged and satisfied they feel, and the more they are able to fulfil certain tasks. 

  • 88% of highly engaged and satisfied employees report they can choose where they work in the office depending on the task at hand
  • 88% of highly engaged workers said they could concentrate more easily
  • 94% said they could work in teams without being disrupted

This, in turn, drives our optimism and enthusiasm about the organisations we work in.  And is key to our level of commitment and, crucially, our intent to remain:

  • 96% of highly engaged workers felt their job gave them a sense of personal achievement
  • 97% felt happy to go to work
  • 93% were optimistic about their future within the company

Attract and Retain Graphics5

Source: Steelcase Report, Engagement and the Global Workplace

Why your workplace really needs to change

Perfecting the right workplace design is more than window dressing, it enables the right conditions for innovation, creativity and wellbeing to flourish.

It enables a culture that attracts and retains talent. Employers who have created environments where engagement thrives have done so by simply recognising the needs of everyone who works within it.

But those needs have been driven by another fundamental revolution in the way we work.

It’s not just our own workplaces that we’re seeing and connecting with on an almost daily basis. It’s everyone else’s, too.

40%

of HR staff say that they are experiencing difficulty retaining employees.

A REVOLUTION IN THE WORKPLACE

In the industrial past, work was about perfecting repetitive tasks, making human beings the servants of machinery, honing precise actions and behaviours to achieve standardised outcomes.

But the experiences and outcomes we expect from a modern working environment are the exact opposite of those of the factory production line.

Our working lives now require multitasking, original thought, adaptive strategies and activity-based working to be successful.   

The modern office is not a production line

The modern office doesn’t need to support the execution of just one unvarying task at a single work-station. Instead, it must support an ever-changing array of cognitive, creative and collaborative tasks.

To achieve this, the research says, modern office design must prioritise physical, cognitive and emotional wellbeing.  Companies should provide an ecosystem of spaces within which employees can control:

  • Where and how they work
  • The physical arrangement of their working environment
  • Acoustics, posture and physical presence in the workspace
  • Transitions from individual to team working scenarios
  • Levels of connectedness with colleagues and technology

If we achieve all this it can help us all work collectively and independently, for longer and with better results.

And businesses can create a thriving culture which actively engages and retains the best talent.

ENGAGE AND RETAIN THROUGH GREATER WELLBEING

Life in the modern business world can require resilience to thrive.

The demands made on individuals can be great. Leaders need to be mindful of the support they give to their staff and the way their physical environment can impact on their levels of engagement and their overall health.

How the office made us sick

The open plan office revolution changed nothing. The same desks and chairs were transplanted from smaller offices into larger offices.

Our bodies and minds remained restricted and siloed, tied to work stations and, often, a single posture for hours on end.

Open plan made us less in control of heating, lighting and ambient noise, it took away our privacy and, often, made us feel terrible.

No wonder Danish scientists found that those working in open plan offices took 62% more sick days than those working in fully enclosed offices, while Swedish researchers found those moving to an open plan working environment thought ‘their health deteriorated’ as a result.

Wellbeing is a holistic challenge

But while poor quality working environments can contribute to physical sickness, wellbeing is a holistic challenge, too.

It entails supporting the cognitive and emotional needs of workers as a whole to get the best out of them as individuals and teams.

It should be of great concern to business leaders that nearly a quarter of the workers in the Steelcase engagement study said that did not feel happy going to work and the same number reported they felt no connection with their colleagues or any degree of motivation in their work life.

The Hierarchy of Office Needs

Businesses who are addressing issues of absenteeism and low engagement, need to look beyond the provision of basic necessities for wellbeing to ensure they are helping workers in every way with the demands of the high-pressure, modern work roles.

Employers need to find a workplace design that synthesises support for cultural and material wellbeing.

The Hierarchy of Office suggests the apex of success for a business is creating a healthy, sustaining and enriching work life while supporting the right work/life balance for their people.

“The most important thing executives can do is send a very clear message to their employees that they care about each person’s overall wellbeing and they want to be a part of helping it improve over time.” - Tom Rath

Attract and Retain Graphics6

Three ways the workplace can contribute to wellbeing

In an ecosystem of spaces, workers can be free to find the working environment that suits them best for each task they are required to perform.

Teams and individuals are encouraged to function in a way which they find most comfortable and rewarding.

1. Posture: better ergonomics

The workplace should encourage regular movement throughout the day and offer options for people to work in sitting, standing or lounging postures. 

Collaborative seating should support postures such as reclining and perching. People should have options – sometimes they will want to huddle around a table and other times sit in a more casual setting. 

In large meeting rooms, space should support both standing and sitting to encourage movement during lengthy discussions. 

Today’s workforce is diverse in age, gender, size and physical capabilities. Whether they are using a dedicated work-station or hot-desking, workers need the furniture and tools available to fit their requirements quickly and easily. 

People are more likely to be active, change posture and use different work locations when they know they can easily adapt the space to fit their needs.

No one has time to learn complicated chair adjustments, so their mechanisms should work simply and intuitively. Seating should fit the widest possible range of users and adjust to their needs easily. 

Adjustable height desks, moveable monitor arms, and easy access to power and work tools all help fit workspaces to users.

2. Presence: facilitating a culture of flexible working

Spaces should enable quality interactions with remote workers and teams that are distributed across continents and time zones.

Those without a physical presence in a workspace, should not feel alienated or at a disadvantage because of it. Conference call and video conferencing facilities should be set up to properly include those not physically present, all participants should be visible and audible at all times.

Technology needs to play a key part in flexible working - making remote working easier, easing anxiety about detachment from the wider team and supporting full engagement.

3. Privacy: focus and rejuvenation

The work environment should provide places that offer varying ways to achieve privacy.  In both open and enclosed spaces.  

Privacy is important to all workers and a vital component of both focus and rejuvenation which are essential to employee engagement.

These might include relaxation rooms with soft chairs, day beds and access to daylight or terraces.   

No-tech zones can also be areas where employees can escape from the relentless buzz of phones and laptops to regain their focus.

Improved employee wellbeing reduces sickness and absenteeism. It helps people feel more equipped to work, more productive, creative and innovative and less likely to burn out or depart for a competitor. 

FOUR WAYS TO ENGAGE AND RETAIN THROUGH WORKPLACE DESIGN

1. Design for more effective teamwork - hyper collaboration and agile working

In the past, teams typically worked in linear ways.  Projects were planned, teams met, tasks were allocated, completed, approved and handed off.  When problems arose they were reported and escalated for resolution.

But with the rise of ‘Agile’ in the workplace all this has changed.  

Led by the demands of a growth-driven global economy and a slew of disruptive technologies, companies are searching for a competitive edge through more iterative teamwork, innovation and greater customer focus.

This is an era of hyper-collaboration, where breakthroughs are made through cross-functional co-operation, intense collective thought and more interactive development processes.

What is Agile working?

Agile is a method of working pioneered in software development as a way of managing complex projects in a highly responsive way.  Agile is defined by the shape and rhythms of its various ‘rituals’ and working practices that foreground collaboration and accountability. Agile is intended to make teams more productive, innovative and customer-centric.

What is ‘Agile Inspired’ Working?

Thanks to its success in delivering greater innovation in software, ‘Agile inspired’ working has now been adopted by other business functions beyond development.  

And we see its influence operating in many different teams, companies and sectors - in the daily standups, group planning and cross-functional collaboration that happen every day in countless organisations around the world.

In fact, 80% of companies recently surveyed by the Harvard Business Review stated that they had adopted agile working practices in at least some parts of their organisation.

‘Agile inspired’ working presents unique opportunities for businesses.  It encourages teams to:

  • Work in an iterative fashion through interactive planning, daily stand up and constant review - making teams more creative, responsive and accountable.
  • Develop better solutions by closer and constant collaboration between individuals  and clients
  • Help teams spot problems and quickly change direction if customer or market needs change

But for workers to thoroughly engage with this kind of Agile thinking they need a radically different setting from the traditional ‘fixed’ office space.  

Adapting to the agile challenge

These kinds of working methods demand truly flexible workspaces if they are not to undermine their objectives of increasing efficiency and maintaining collaborative momentum.  Agile demands:

  • The right balance of spaces for team and individual work 
  • The opportunity to meet, collaborate, ‘break out’ and reform fluidly and easily 
  • Stand up locations need to be close enough to individual workstations, so that flow and concentration is not lost or broken
  • Workstations need to be capable of shutting out noise or distraction when required
  • Teams need quiet spaces where individuals can retreat for inspiration and deep thought
  • The team need spaces where groups can relax together

Building better and more engaged teams through user-centred office design

When Steelcase observed modern design teams at work they described ways of working that were highly ‘agile’.

They described a never-ending exchange of ideas and information, peer-to-peer learning and greater connection with customers.  

Teams were working in rapid cycles of iteration, tasks were interdependent and their projects fluid.

At times, there was clearly a great need for teams to work together on benches or desks, so they could build cohesion and work faster on particular parts of a project.  

But individuals also needed time to retreat from the group to absorb information and process their own ideas. 

At other times there was a need to create spaces where people could meet, ‘sit, stand, draw on boards, gesture, move materials and objects.’  

There are many flexible office  furniture solutions on the market that are directly addressing these kinds of agile requirements, and helping create seamless ebb and flow between individual work and teamwork:

Designing for agile teams

Teams can roll together standing height tables to create one large work surface for a design thinking workshop.  Screens can be used to hold images in place for consideration and discussion.

Freestanding screens can create separation from the team, allowing individuals to focus when they need to and attend to their personal needs.

2. Design for creativity

Creativity is a deeply valuable currency in the modern economy. It is the powerhouse for companies who need to differentiate themselves and their offerings in a crowded and hypercompetitive market place. 72% of people at work today believe their future success depends on their ability to be creative.

The lesson from Agile is that every idea can evolve and be improved on, iterated and expanded when the right team works together to develop it and bring it to fruition.  

In the modern workplace, creativity is productivity - it is a collective pursuit, but it is also strongly linked with a sense of personal and professional fulfilment.

So, how can you design your workspace to support creativity - and keep the people in your business engaged and contributing to its success and innovation in every way?

Three ways to design for creativity

1. Create environments that stimulate an emotional connection.

  • Use ambient and thoughtful design elements to inspire thinking and foster team culture.
  • Build a welcoming environment and personal connection to space with authentic design elements, artefacts and materiality. 
  • Design for physical and emotional wellbeing through posture options that allow for comfortable proximity to other people and content sources.  Keep sightlines to screens open and make eye to eye contact possible for colleagues. 

2. Nurture creative confidence

  • Provide co-creation tools, such as large-scale computing devices, that allow everyone to contribute to and interact with content.
  • Support the visibility and tangibility of ideas by using partitions and walls as postable, writing surfaces to guide the creative process.
  • Enable privacy and control over the environment to provide a “safe haven” where new ideas can incubate

3. Build a fluid creative ecosystem 

  • A variety of spaces should support individuals and teams as they cycle through the creative process, hosting moments of individual exploration, cognitive resting, social connection, co-creation and evaluation. 
  • Build an ecosystem with options so people can choose where and how to work. A range of spaces and devices is necessary to support the diverse stages of creative work. 
  • Scale the ecosystem with separate spaces or zones for specific individual, team and organizational needs.

3. Design for technology

Technology needs to facilitate, not interrupt or frustrate.  It needs to be built sensitively into our working environment in order to help us work more seamlessly together.  

Tech is a constant source of frustration and disengagement in the modern office.

According to Steelcase, team meetings frequently start with malfunctioning technology or some difficulty related to sound or sightlines for the people present. 

Remote teammates often struggle to fully participate because of poor office design - including acoustics or even the position or field of vision of the webcam.

In the crucial collaborative processes of design and development, the limitations of older, existing technology are also glaringly apparent. 

Workers huddling around desks with small screens cannot always stand back and review creative options on a screen, or easily ‘take over’ a device to make edits or add detail.

Rooms where technology is used also need considerable thought in their design and furnishing to support the best results for teams.  

Researchers found that particularly soft and low slung chairs discouraged team members from standing and interacting with digital whiteboards or screens. 

Badly designed or poorly placed desks could present physical barriers to interaction with shared technology.

Design for a better experience of technology

Provide seamless connectivity between spaces to support the flow of information and experience from tools-to-tool and space-to-space. 

This means using cloud-based platforms for individual and team tools - helping content move with people as they transition between zones.

Where mobile technology facilitates flexible working both inside and outside the workplace - employees find themselves able to concentrate and collaborate better and more seamlessly.  Individuals and teams thrive as they work together in a variety of settings, some contributing remotely from locations where they are less distracted or can find more inspiration.

It’s this sort of detail that has to be a priority for organisations who are concerned about their ability to recruit and retain the right talent.  

They need to meet employees expectations about the ease with which they can lever tech to help them work.

As Emer Timmons, recruitment specialist and CMO of Brightstar, puts it:

“This is one of those evolve-or-die moments for many businesses. The millennial generation now entering the workplace has demonstrated a willingness to vote with their feet when they encounter technology, working practices or both that don’t meet their expectations.”

80%

of companies recently surveyed by the Harvard Business Review stated that they had adopted agile working practices in at least some parts of their organisation.

4. Design to support a diversity of talent and experience

Different personality types and different generations work in different ways and they are all essential to the overall success of your business.  

Creating flexible working settings, where people with different character traits and personalities can find a way and a place to work that suits them - is a way of respecting their differences and contribution, as well as reducing the potential for conflict and stress.

Different generations also have different needs when it comes to the workplace. Gen Xers say they favour working on their own and independently, while millenials are more team-oriented and can multitask more effectively in busy environments than their older colleagues. 

For Gen Zers, the latest entrants into the workplace, their general engagement and understanding of previously specialist technical areas like coding, will likely require further integration of teams and physical forums for even deeper creative collaboration regardless of their job title.

Employers would also do well to consider how their sustainable credentials, their commitment to the circular economy and green office design will inform the decisions about where the next generation choose to work. 

Younger generations are showing greater holistic concerns around corporate social responsibility than the generations before them. 

72% of employees say they wouldn’t accept an employer that endangers the environment.

Changes that make a difference

The creative, team-based and cognitive tasks demanded by modern business require highly flexible working conditions. Without them, it makes it much harder for people to achieve their personal and professional goals.

Businesses who fail to address inadequacies in their work environment, risk the growth of frustration and disillusionment. 

They risk sapping the energy and ambition of their teams and could lose them altogether to competitors.

On the other hand, when you start removing mental and physical silos across the business, extraordinary things can start to happen.

CONCLUSION

Modern businesses need to create flexible working environments that engage and inspire existing and future employees.

Companies need to allow creativity and innovation to flourish while meeting expectations of flexible working and wellbeing.

A great physical workspace attracts the best by its promise of engagement through progressive ways of working, but it then delivers on those promises through thoughtful, ‘human-centred design’.

Paying attention to the quality of the corporate environment will help create a workforce more able to achieve their personal and professional goals and more loyal as a result.

At the same time, they will share their positive experiences of work because they are healthier and happier.  

They will stay longer and help your business prosper.  They will be your best recruiters, as your organisation shares its success and cultural values with the outside world and the next generation of workers.