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Kenneth Freeman

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The workspace is key to engagement


‘If you are not allowed to arrange your desk as you would like to (then) you’ll feel uncomfortable, like an outsider and not part of the team’ (respondent to a workplace survey conducted by psychologists at the University of Exeter).


During the recent election campaign, Nick Clegg suggested that cuts in the public sector were going to be more than just getting rid of the pot plants in the office. Well, recent research from the University of Exeter in conjunction with Ambius, the world’s largest workplace enrichment and interior landscaping company, shows that getting rid of the plants might actually cost an organisation money rather than save it. A psychologically impoverished workspace may well lead to a financially-impoverished workspace as engagement, organisational identification and productivity are put at risk by the adoption of space management techniques that remove personal control over space.

Zoo animals in bare enclosures exhibit signs of stress. Yet some employers expect office workers to spend upwards of eight hours a day in lean, aesthetically- and psychologically-impoverished conditions in the belief that this will create greater productivity.

At first glance, it makes sense. If you remove distractions such as photos and memorabilia (unless they are management-approved motivational posters), keep desks clean and uncluttered, make sure everything needed for the job in hand is exactly where it should be, work in large open-plan spaces where interaction and teamwork are easily facilitated, create flexible office space where no-one has specifically-allocated workspace – then surely everyone will get on with their work without any problems. The trouble is there is little evidence to suggest that this actually happens without intense supervision. In other words, organisations still need a bit of stick to keep the workers busy and productive.

So, is there another way? Baldry and Hallier in their recent paper ‘Welcome to the House of Fun: work space and social identity[1]’ talk about the phenomenon of officially-sanctioned fun in the workplace. They give many examples of workplaces designed as fun places to be – entertainment systems, games rooms, comfy sofas and even a ‘brainstorm room’. Top architects and interior designers do their utmost to enrich the working environment  in the strongly-held, and utterly reasonable, belief that if a workspace were more homely, more exciting, more unlike work, then office workers would respond with enthusiasm, enjoy their tasks more and convey their new-found love of work to their customers and colleagues. The concept of management-sanctioned fun has developed to the point that a new subset of workspace consultants has emerged – the ‘funsultant’. Delivering the message that managers must lighten up and make the workplace more stimulating, they commission artists and designers to add interest and colour to the office.

Does this work? In many cases, the answer is "yes… probably". However, as Baldry and Hallier explain, office workers are very capable of seeing through such initiatives, or at least suspecting a hidden agenda. Is the real reason for such a workplace to encourage longer working hours? Is it to disguise other issues in an organisation’s management?

Recent research by Dr Craig Knight and Prof. Alex Haslam[2] at the University of Exeter examined the opinions of over 1,600 office workers from a wide variety of organisations and countries. Their research led them to develop a model showing the relationships between a sense of wellbeing, physical comfort, psychological comfort, managerial control over the workspace (as well as workers’ autonomy over the workspace), organisational identity and job satisfaction. They showed very clearly that increased managerial control of office space was associated with reduced employee comfort. Also, increased managerial control of office space was found to be associated with reduced psychological comfort and also with reduced organisational identification, and this in turn was a predictor of the quality of employees’ work experiences. 

The evidence from the study suggests attention to design is not sufficient on its own to create a positive working environment. In fact, it would appear that comfort is as much the product of the relationship between management and workers within the workspace as it is a consequence of the physical combination of desks and interior design.

So, what are the practical implications of Knight and Haslam’s findings? Surprisingly, it appears that you can achieve significant improvements in engagement, productivity and organisational identification with very little effort.

Without changing space layouts, furniture stock, lighting or climate control, organisations can let office workers realise something of their own identity by having some say in the way that their workspace is organised, and this can pay huge dividends. 

Something as straightforward and ephemeral as choice in the type of plant employees have near their desk or the pictures on the wall can increase engagement, sense of wellbeing and productivity both significantly and measurably. It’s a compelling proposal for any business looking to enhance employee engagement in these straitened times.
[1]Welcome to the House of Fun: Work Space and Social Identity by Chris Baldry and Jerry Hallier in Economic and Industrial Democracy 2010; 31; 150
[2]Your Place or Mine? Organizational Identification and Comfort as Mediators of Relationships Between the Managerial Control of Workspace and Employees’ Satisfaction and Well-being by Craig Knight and S. Alexander Haslam School of Psychology, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4QG, UK in British Journal of Management, 2010; 21 (3): 717
[3]The Relative Merits of Lean, Enriched, and Empowered Offices: An Experimental Examination of the Impact of Workspace Management Strategies on Well-Being and Productivity
by Craig Knight and S. Alexander Haslam in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 2010, Vol. 16, No. 2, 158 –172

Kenneth Freeman is international technical director of Ambius and Head of Ambius University