Designing for well-being
As the second wave of pandemic sweeps the nation with imminent lockdowns, employers have put the hybrid work plans, where part of workers work from home and part from offices, in abeyance. Though various experts predicted the model to take root by mid-2021, it is likely to take more time.
More than two-third of employers want their employees to come to the office at least thrice a week, but more than half the employees prefer working remotely for now, as per another research. Clearly, whether hybrid or otherwise, companies ought to be thinking of designing workplaces that promote the well-being of employees.
There’s more: The instances where companies think they are saving money by cutting costs, but do so in ways that actually increase turnover and decrease engagement and productivity, thereby pursuing myths that backfire. The crisis of 2020 has seen many such instances of canceled commercial leases in the name of hybrid models. There are also pathways to improve human performance that receive too little attention from management in general and human resources professionals in particular. The workplace design – the physical space where people work – fits both criteria.
Today companies relentlessly try to lower their occupancy/real estate costs, which are often the second or third largest operating expense. Hitherto they did so mostly by using open office plans that decrease the amount of space allocated to each employee. With WFH, they moved to smaller offices or non-prime locations.
A workplace study found that during 2010-12, the average square feet per person dropped from 225 to 176, a decrease of more than 20 percent in two years. However, studies going back literally decades show that open office designs are negatively related to employees’ satisfaction with their physical environment and their perceived productivity. A recent Swedish study found that communication among employees was worse in open-plan arrangements. The Gensler survey reported that more than 50 percent of employees reported being disturbed by others while trying to focus, and more than 40 percent resorted to makeshift solutions to try and block out distractions. Substantial researches positively correlate noise, which is worse in open offices, to stress.
The biggest expense for most businesses is the salaries, which represent slightly less than half of operating expenses. So, instead of cramming people into the deadly “cube farms” that the comic strip Dilbert made famous, employers should relentlessly focus on optimizing spending on those things that affect employee well-being and productivity.
Not that employees demand too many things, just the basics: better air quality, access to natural light, the ability to personalize their workspace, etc. A survey found half of the employees complaining that poor air quality made them sleepier during the day, losing an hour of productivity as a result. That same study reported that people satisfied with their work environments were 16 percent more productive, and 30 percent more attracted to their company than competitors. Using natural light as much as possible, providing sufficient acoustical privacy so people can concentrate and have private conversations when necessary, providing a comfortable temperature, and letting people tailor their space to their own physiology would go a long way to improve well-being.
The writing is on the wall for HR: the physical design of workplaces profoundly influences outcomes that HR should be interested in – productivity, satisfaction, and the employer brand. Moreover, workplace design can influence mental health too. The effects are many: light affects the circadian rhythm and regulation; light and color affect mood; design affects social interactions; and of course, workplace design can impact privacy and the ability to control the stimuli to which people are exposed.
HR professionals, in general, care about physical and mental health. Workplace design affects both, and thus, should constitute a much bigger focus of attention. There are several things human resource professionals can, and should, do to provide workplaces that help, rather than hinder, their company’s strategic objectives. Even in the hybrid models that will soon become vogue.
First, educate the management team about the effects of workplace design on the important outcomes of physical and mental health, turnover, and job performance. Many senior managers, maybe even many HR professionals, remain too uninformed about the extensive research linking aspects of physical workplace design to numerous business and employee wellbeing outcomes.
Second, to the extent possible, provide employees with choice and flexibility about where to work and to have control over their own work environments. A 2019 International Workplace Group report found that flexible work was on the rise, with people desiring to be able to work where they want, which the pandemic had accelerated for most people. Interestingly, even before the pandemic, some countries had mandated flexibility. The Netherlands, for instance, had this: “Employees with at least one year of service with an employer with at least 10 employees are entitled to ask for…the ability to work from another location.” Also, it was found that employees, by a margin of 42 percent to 28 percent, would rather be able to personalize their work environment than opt for unlimited vacation. Most employees would love more control over the temperature in their workplace and one-third want to control the lighting and the sound levels.
Third, and most fundamentally, the human resources team should incorporate aspects of physical workplace design – just as they should include dimensions of job design – into their organizational effectiveness toolkits. That means: 1) doing evaluations of people’s reactions to physical space, including post-occupancy studies so companies can learn from their experience; 2) using architects and design firms that are aware of, and sensitive to, the aspects of physical design that affect employee outcomes; and 3) ensuring that companies do not sub-optimize in their decisions about workplaces – saving on real estate costs while harming employee engagement, satisfaction, and job performance.
Ironically, the original Hawthorne experiments of the 1930s began with a focus on how lighting affected productivity. Studies of the effects of the physical environment on behavior represent some of the earliest research in industrial and organizational psychology. What is old should be new again. Workplace wellbeing and individual performance depend importantly on the design of the spaces where work gets done. Employers must combine physical design discussions with decisions to ensure better results.