Whilst there are many factors that impact how an office may be furnished and laid out, there are some factors that can influence the factors connected to employee wellbeing. Whilst we have seen an evolution of office environments over the decades, from small offices to cubicles to open plan, the optimum solution is to provide a workspace that encourages flexibility in where and how people work. However, organizations have to balance the need for employee satisfaction and the business needs of the working environment.
Whilst considering the size, layout, fixtures and fittings of your workplace may sound like an expensive project, this tool will focus on some of the small steps that you can take to offer a positive and productive working environment for all employees.
A study by US firm Steelcase found that there is a strong connection between employees’ satisfaction with their workplace satisfaction and their levels of engagement. In particular they reported that employees who are able to choose where they actually work within the office environment are significantly more engaged that those who have no flexibility (Steelcase, 2017).
Changing or adapting the working environment to promote wellbeing factors and to become more ‘person-centric’ will no doubt positively impact some of the main employee health issues that are faced in the workplace – for example, lack of activity during the working day, stress, healthy eating, etc.
In addition, some of the changes that might be made can have a direct impact on health issues too by considering office furniture and how it might be able to accommodate conditions such as back pain, visual impairments, etc.
It is important for employers to recognize that different people work with different preferences, and it can be beneficial not only to the individual but also to their productivity and temperament at work to consider how you might accommodate those differences. Some people prefer to work alone to enable them to think and focus, whereas others prefer to be in open plan areas, able to interact with others and work with a buzz around them. However, most organizations operate on open plan office spaces, which means some preferences are ignored.
Here are some suggestions for accommodating people’s different preferences:
- Provide a few small areas where people can go and work in private or in quiet at times when they really need to focus. Whilst this shouldn’t become their permanent place of work, allowing people who prefer this environment to spend time alone during the working day is likely to increase their productivity and improve their overall temperament or stress levels.
- For some people, working at a desk space helps them to remain more productive, but for others it can feel restrictive and not creative or inspiring. Provide some comfortable or more relaxed spaces where people could wok more informally at points during the working day if they prefer. For example, a few sofas with a coffee table, or a bar area with bar stools, can make a difference to how people feel when they are working.
- The opportunity to collaborate informally can be important for the organization’s productivity, quality and innovation needs, and can also be an important social factor for employees at work. Whilst open plan offices go some way to enabling people to meet, interact and work together, there is more that can be done to actively encourage and enable it. The sofas and bar areas mentioned above can be useful spaces for this to happen, but providing the opportunity to use technology in that space (eg USB plugs, iPad docks and screens to connect to laptops or tablets) will enable sharing of information during discussions.
- Provide ‘stand-up’ collaboration areas – space in the office to stand around a board or chart and engage in discussion or brainstorming.
- Creative spaces can be important, too, particularly where that is required in the team or the role, and so the provision of an inspiring or creative space that is stimulating and interesting to be in can be valuable. Setting up a creative or idea hub in the office can be beneficial. This doesn’t have to be a huge space, but should be well equipped, with tools, toys and coloured pens and papers to enable creative working. Allocate a small space in the office for an ‘ideas hub’, and stock it with creative work materials (Post-Its, pens, cards, flipcharts, write-on walls, etc) and other stimulating things such as Plasticine, stickers, Lego, etc.
- In addition, the provision of whiteboards, flipcharts or write-on glass walls or splashbacks can enable brainstorming in collaboration spaces.
There are some simple initiatives you can consider that will help employees to reduce stress in the workplace, in addition to the other suggestions included within this tool:
- Encourage organized and decluttered office spaces: Provide ample storage space for employees to use, and for office stationery, equipment, filing and storage.
- Add plants and flowers to the work environment: They have a calming influence on employees and create positive emotions, as well as making the office look nice.
- Add ambient lighting as well as – or ideally instead of – fluorescent lighting: As well as adding atmosphere and looking more pleasant, it can create a more calming environment.
- Make light refreshments available (coffee, bottled drinks, fruit, biscuits, etc): This not only encourages people to take a break, but might also encourage some interaction and collaboration.
Addressing health issues
Availability of adaptable workplace furniture and equipment is important for those employees with health concerns. Adaptable chairs, height-adjustable desks, appropriate IT hardware or any equipment that is required to support a disability will ensure that employees are able to work at their best and minimize disruption or discomfort.
- If you have an occupational health advisor, or a health and safety advisor, involve them in the assessment of individuals’ workspace to ensure that they are comfortable and safe, and to make recommendations with or on behalf of the employee.
- Inform employees of the availability of adaptable furniture or equipment if required, and the process to use to request and/or justify any requests.
Employees like to have a feel-good factor when they arrive at work – after all, they spend most of their day there. This feel-good factor can translate into engagement, too, and engagement is not only beneficial to the organization’s bottom line, but is also a key factor in ensuring the employee’s wellbeing. Some of the workplace features mentioned above will have an impact on their engagement and wellbeing, but you could also consider the following:
- Put up posters and wall art that promotes your company vision, mission, goals, etc, and/or that focuses on your products (especially in use) or customers (using products or services).
- Provide real-time updates on screens of your business metrics, sales, calls, etc, so that employees can see how much is being achieved.
- Brand office spaces with logos and corporate colours, providing corporate items like mugs and pens, etc, to enable employees to connect to the brand.
- Use motivational artwork and word transfers on walls to inspire and motivate employees.
- Make the space attractive to employees through the use of colour, shapes, variety of furniture, etc.
- If you have space, and the right culture in your organization, providing leisure facilities like table tennis, football tables or game consoles can help employees to connect, de-stress and switch off from work for short periods of time.
- Consider the use of music in the workplace to stimulate engagement (see Tool 48, ‘Music at work’ (page 218), for more information).
By providing a variety of options for employees’ working spaces, and ensuring that they are light, fresh and inspiring, employees are more likely to enjoy their presence at work, and be inspired by their surroundings.
The benefits of a flexible approach to the working environment may be highly individualized but there are still some things managers can be done to evaluate how effective it is, and what impact it has. For example, you could consider:
- Room/facility utilization: Gather information about how often, and by whom, the specific spaces in your office environment are used. This will give an indication about whether the space is effective or not, and you can follow up by finding out what might be more useful.
- Meeting effectiveness: Ask for views about how effective meetings are in the spaces provided, and establish what could make them more effective – eg open or closed spaces, different or better equipment or stationery, etc.
- Employee feedback: Ask employees for feedback on the overall office environment, and for any suggestions they might have about what could make it better (perhaps within given constraints, such as budget, or without substantial redevelopment).
- Occupational health audit: If you have occupational health or health or safety teams on site, it can be extremely valuable to get their assessment of the workplace from a health, safety, environment and adaptability perspective, and particularly relating to overall stress reduction or the health matters of specific individuals if they are known. This audit will then indicate whether there are any further actions that should be taken to ensure the workplace is fit for purpose for those with specific needs, and what else could be done more generally to make it a healthy and inspiring workplace.