Written By Michael J. Berens via Multibriefs
Companies worldwide are grappling with how to increase employee engagement. It is estimated that in the U.S. alone, employee disengagement costs the economy as much as $500 billion per year.
A 2013 Gallup study of the global workplace involving 25 million employees in 142 countries found only 13 percent of workers rated themselves as engaged, and thus likely to be making positive contributions to their organizations.
Just recently, Deloitte released the results of its 2015 Global Human Capital Trends survey of more than 3,300 organizations in 106 countries, in which 8 in 10 respondents cited organizational culture and engagement as the most critical issue in their organization.
Many factors contribute to employees’ sense of disengagement, including organizational culture (whether it’s empowering, open, collaborative), leadership (whether it’s communicative, responsive, inclusive, tolerant), opportunity for advancement, work/life balance and level and quality of performance feedback.
In addition, several recent studies demonstrate that the workplace environment can have a profound effect on engagement.
A study commissioned by office furniture manufacturer Steelcase of 10,500 workers in 14 countries discovered that “employees who are highly satisfied with the places they work are also the most highly engaged.” On the other hand, employees who said they felt disengaged felt their work environments were not supportive.
The vast majority of disengaged workers said their work environments do not allow them to concentrate easily (85 percent), feel relaxed or calm (84 percent), allow them to choose where to work to accomplish a particular task (86 percent) or accommodate mobile workers (79 percent). Two-thirds said it was important to have a place to socialize and have relaxed, social conversations with their co-workers.
Commercial supplier Herman Miller conducted research at 15 companies in the U.S., U.K., Australia and India on the role of the physical environment in workplace collaboration. They found that highly collaborative firms, especially those with higher ratios of collaborative spaces to individual workspaces, had high levels of worker engagement and innovation.
Similarly, a team of Boston researchers studying informal network structures in organizationsfound that workplace design affected employees’ levels of communication, interaction and information sharing.
Together, these studies reveal five key strategies to improve engagement through workplace design:
1. Position employees who need to share information in close proximity to one another.The Herman Miller researchers found that 70 percent of collaborations happen at the desk. The Boston team observed that “employees seated far away from each other were less likely to exchange email” or engage in face-to-face communications.
2. Allow flexible seating arrangements. The Boston team reported that “workers who were encouraged to utilize flexible seating arrangements in a remodeled space had a higher proportion of face-to-face interactions with colleagues outside of their team.” Herman Miller’s researchers discovered a trend toward more open and flexible office environments, including the use of unassigned workstations.
3. Provide a variety of collaborative spaces. Today’s work and work culture require many different ways of engaging and collaborating. Giving employees the right tool for the job — in this case, the right type of space to support collaboration — encourages interaction, innovation and productivity.
4. Offer spaces for casual conversations and socializing. Strengthening relationships is crucial for building trust, which in turn increases information sharing and collaboration, as well as a sense of belonging to the company — a key factor in fostering engagement.
5. Protect privacy. Being able to work without distractions and interruptions, whether alone or as part of a team, ranks high on employees’ descriptions of a supportive workplace. Give employees enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces where they can engage without creating or being subject to noise pollution.
Changing the physical environment has not only practical implications but also symbolic ones. As the Boston researchers point out, “informal tools, such as office layouts, group lunches and chats by the coffee machine, are the management tools of tomorrow as the informal relationship that they enable becomes more and more meaningful than hierarchical formal procedures.”
Companies want more engaged employees, but employees need to interact and bond with one another to feel more engaged in their companies. Redesigning the workplace to encourage those behaviors signals a culture change and will act as a catalyst to change the culture.
Michael J. Berens
Michael J. Berens is a freelance researcher and writer with more than 30 years of experience in association communication and management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.