We’ve known since the time of the Hawthorne Experiments in the 1920s that there is a link between employee engagement and productivity and the attention organisations pay to them and their working conditions. This is a universal and eternal need for people, and one not restricted to millennials, as it is often portrayed. We should all be aware of the complex mechanisms involved and know how they can play out in practice.

We’ve developed a more sophisticated understanding of the issues since the 1920s, of course, but paradoxically engaging people in what they do can be more of a challenge than at any time in history. A 2018 report from Gallup found that while only 13 percent of US employees were actively disengaged, just 34 percent could be described as engaged with their work.

In some ways, the Hawthorne experiments marked the end of the Taylorist theories about the organisation of work and their command and control structures of office design that were then commonplace. In other ways, we can see how we are left with the residues of this thinking.

One of the important lessons we can take from the Hawthorne Experiments is that it is not enough to provide people with a great working environment. They must also know that their employer is interested in their needs and views and is prepared to act on them to create a culture as well as an office that fosters engagement.

It’s a multifaceted challenge so here are seven ways office design and culture can help to foster both engagement and productivity:

Help people feel they belong

A sense of belonging is just as important for employee engagement and motivation as pay and benefits, according to a study conducted by Dr Ali Fenwick of Nyenrode Business Universiteit in Breukelen. The research suggests that core values, shared goals and meaningful work are important ways of engaging employees. Office design can be an important signifier of these values and the organisation’s culture, and so in turn the sense of belonging people have within an entity that shares their own ideas and values.

Give people choices

In his book Drive, the author Dan Pink identifies autonomy, mastery and purpose as the three cornerstones of motivation. In practical terms this means offering people the autonomy to choose how they work and with whom. In terms of office design this is likely to involve the creation of agile working environments, but it can be cultural too, for example by offering flexible working. 

Agile working environments typically include a choice of spaces for focussed work, collaboration and informal interactions. According to research from the University of California, we can be distracted every three minutes at work, so often it is the spaces for quiet and focussed work that can be most important in improving productivity and immersion in a job.

Make it easy to communicate

One of the most important functions of the modern office is to bring people together to communicate. By no coincidence this can be not just a practical consideration for the day to day completion of tasks, but also a source of better working relationships and engagement.

Interactions and collaboration can take a number of forms, which should be reflected in the design of the office. This should take account of the needs of a project team working together on a longer term basis, people meetings with clients and other stakeholders, training, executive meetings, conference calls and videoconferencing with remote colleagues as well as rapid brainstorming meetings and so on. Crucially, it should also include informal spaces for forging relationships and harnessing serendipity.

Express culture  

Full engagement is only possible in a working culture in which people feel they are free to work in the ways that suit them and their tasks and are free to express their ideas. Office design can be a key signifier of these demands but also embody corporate objectives and values. It can also foster trust by demonstrating the accessibility of the organisation’s leaders through the design of the spaces they occupy.   

Encourage movement

Wellbeing is closely linked to engagement, so an office design that encourages people to move around the workplace during the day is vital. As well as specifying modern chairs which often include intuitive mechanisms that respond to the different postures people adopt during the day, the latest generation of sit stand desks offer even more choice.

An agile working environment will also signify people that they are free to move around. Not only is this good for their personal health, it also fosters informal encounters which we know are often one of the most important ways knowledge can find its way from person to person. We also know that we are liable to have our best ideas when we are moving and our brains are slightly distracted rather than when sitting and focused on a problem.   

Welcome everybody

The benefits of an office design centred on productivity, motivation and engagement shouldn’t just be available for the people who work in it day to day, but also their colleagues from around the world, clients, guests, suppliers, freelancers and other stakeholders. An agile working environment offers the choice and flexibility needed by everybody. As we said at the top, the needs for engagement, motivation and productivity are both universal and eternal.

More about these themes can be found in the Raconteur report in partnership with Area.

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