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“When people feel uncomfortable in their surroundings they are less engaged – not only with the space but also with what they do in it. If they can have some control, that all changes. People report being happier at work, identifying more with their employer, and are more efficient when doing their jobs.” University of Exeter (UK) School of Psychology, 2010

The Modern Office vs Employee Wellbeing

The average office worker spends around 5-6 hours sat at their desk every day of the working week. That’s a lot of time in one place…

Yet, we rarely feel any attachment to our workplace. For many of us, the office is just a necessity. The place we have to go to keep the wolves away from the door.

Which is understandable when you think how few offices are designed for the benefit of their workers. With an emphasis on efficiency, cost and output, modern offices have stripped away many comforts.

Although there are worthy exceptions, the typical office is open-plan and noisy. Impersonal and devoid of colour. Space is limited, personal touches eliminated. A place that encourages dreams…about being anywhere but there.

While much of this is driven by a singular focus on a business’s bottom line, some employers actively work to remove any character from the workplace. Very often, this is the result of muddled management theories on productivity and efficiency. But it can also be a result of more practical concerns, such as data protection requirements.

If that’s not enough to undermine your sense of self, common practices such as hot-desking and shared workspaces have all but eliminated the concept of space and privacy.

Wellbeing and the Workplace

Unsurprisingly, a lot of this is bad for your health and happiness. Increasing numbers of studies paint a dismal picture of the impact of modern offices on employee wellbeing.

Thankfully, as awareness grows about the importance of the workplace, a growing number of studies point to a better way of working. In particular, there is an emerging realisation that employees who are comfortable in their workplace are more productive and more creative. Plus, there is evidence that office workers who like their offices are more committed to their employers.

In this article, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at those studies and exploring the theory and insights slowly changing our view of the modern office. In particular, we’ll take a look at how a more personalized workspace can boost employee wellbeing.

Open-plan offices are at the heart of the problem…

Picture of workers in an open-plan office

One notable reason that workers are increasingly dissatisfied with office life is the ever-dwindling amount of personal space.

Maintaining an office is a significant business cost and reducing the amount of square footage can is tempting for many employers.

The most obvious consequence of this is the (now ubiquitous) open-plan office. Open-plan offices are relatively new for some. But they have actually been around since the 1950s. Today, they account for an estimated 70% of all office space.

As the cost of property spirals ever-upwards, businesses have found ever-more restrictive ways to reduce the cost of their facilities. This has led to cost-saving initiatives like hot-desking. Hot-desking alone is estimated to save businesses up to 30% of their property costs.

But the popularity of open-plan offices is not always about reducing costs. The original idea was that a shared workspace would foster greater collaboration and flexibility.

The vision: engaged employees bouncing ideas off each other, fuelling a cauldron of creativity and competitive employee productivity.

Today, many employers still believe this to be true.

The reality of open-plan workspaces

Yawning, tired worker stretching at their deskYou can see how this theory would be attractive to employers. Yet the reality has turned out rather different for many office workers. The lack of personal space and constant noisy distractions are making many employees less satisfied at work.

If that’s not frustrating enough, there appears to be little evidence it does foster greater engagement and collaboration.

One recent study showed that workers who moved from individual workspace into an open-plan space were more likely to communicate via emails and messaging. Which pretty much reflects my experience of working in open-plan offices for many years.

Happily, office workers are starting to make their voices heard. Even a shiny new office was not enough to persuade many Apple employees of the benefits of open-plan working. And there are a growing number of involved parties, such as architects and office furniture suppliers, challenging the wisdom of completely open-plan offices.

But if you work in an open-plan office, don’t get too excited. Research also indicates that open-plan offices are here to stay, for now at least.

Management theory hasn’t helped

basic business plan diagram

As a former battle-hardened corporate drone myself, I believe volumes could be written on the negative impact on employee wellbeing of many popular management theories.

But for better or for worse, they have helped shape the modern workplace.

At the heart of many management theories is a relentless drive towards newer, leaner, more efficient ways of working. Predictably, this goes hand in hand with the rise in uniform, austere workplaces.

Nothing encapsulates this more than the theory of ‘Lean‘ and it’s off-shoot, ‘Sigma 6‘. Theories once cleverly applied to manufacturing production lines have wormed their way into the modern office.

At its core, these 2 management theories have solid aims. Namely, to reduce the errors and waste in delivering the right outcomes for their customers; usually by reviewing, understanding and streamlining standard workplace practices.

However, when applied badly, they can have an unwelcome impact on workplace happiness. This is perhaps especially true of knowledge-based jobs, which don’t necessarily respond to well to standardized methods.

Over-zealous practitioners have been known to extend it to every aspect of the working environment. Personal effects are removed, classified as obstacles to a mechanized, error-free process. Art replaced by procedural posters. Individualism suppressed in the name of uniform efficiency.

Is a happy, comfortable workplace a thing of the past?

Despite (or perhaps because of) the prevalence of these workplace initiatives, the wisdom of open-plan, ‘lean’ offices is slowly losing credibility.

Surveys and studies have shown that open plan offices impair productivity and performance. Workers are distracted by the relentless noise and activity of their colleagues.

One telling study demonstrated that absences increase in accordance with the number of people working in a single space.

On top of this, workers feel more emotionally drained because it feels like their performance is being continually monitored by supervisors and other colleagues. Which, very often, is precisely what is happening.

A Brighter Future?

Google Zurich office pods
Google Zurich

But there is light on the horizon. Employers in competitive or creative industries are working harder to attract the right people. Increasingly, employers recognise the need to offer more than just a decent wage and a desk.

Work-life balance matters to modern workers. This is changing the way we work and encouraging employers to rethink the modern workplace.

This is most evident with the growth in ‘activity based’ workspaces. These spaces offer privacy pods, breakout rooms, small conference spaces etc. Choices to encourage staff engagement and creative thinking.

This points to a future that embraces the best of both worlds. Open-offices for employees to engage with each other. Private spaces for those who need to get away from the noise and re-focus.

It also seems likely that other emerging work trends will force employers to rethink existing workplaces.

One of the biggest changes is the rise in remote-working, which is seeing knowledge workers escape the office altogether. And looming over all this is the growth in job automation, which may yet herald some of the biggest changes to the way we work.

But while offices still remain a ‘thing’, it is encouraging that some of the biggest companies in the world are recognizing the importance of employee wellbeing and the role of the workplace itself.

Personalized workspaces and employee wellbeing

Seasonal office decorations

But while some employers are building a better workplace, there is an important factor that even the most progressive of companies can overlook. The views of the workers themselves. You know, the ones who spend vast amounts of their time in the office.

One critical lesson from some of the most recent research is that office workers feel most valued when they have some influence over their working environment.

While a well thought out workplace is a great start, getting staff involved in any changes has been found to be even more beneficial.

This could be as simple as helping to choose a few pictures for the walls, or seeking input on the layout of any break areas. One notable study demonstrated that engaging employees with any office redesign can boost productivity by up to 32%!!

Shortcuts to a better workplace

Radically changing existing workspaces may not appeal to many employers, regardless of the potential gains.

But there are simpler ways to breathe life into a stale work environment.

Plants, for example, can transform a grey, lifeless office. What’s more, they’re a win-win for employer and employee.

Our research suggests that investing in landscaping the office with plants will pay off through an increase in office workers’ quality of life and productivity. (Marlon Nieuwenhuis, Cardiff University’s School of Psychology)

Dr Craig Knight has led extensive research into the impact of personalized workplaces on employee wellbeing. In one study, he concluded that adding plants to a ‘lean’ workspace saw workplace productivity rise by 15%.

A later study demonstrated that plants can also increase wellbeing and creativity, in this case by an extraordinary 47% and 45% respectively.

Even if you find those figures optimistic, consider that plants may also clean the air and remove airborne toxins! [read more about the benefits of office plants here].

Go small, start with your desk

But perhaps you don’t need to look beyond your immediate workspace, your desk.

A 2013 study shows that personalizing your work area can boost employee wellbeing.

It measured an office worker’s level of emotional exhaustion depending on the degree of ownership they felt for their workspace. This was measured by the number of personal belongings on their desk, including photos, children’s drawings, mugs, knick-knacks etc.

What this study demonstrated was that those with the most personalized desks also reported the lowest levels of emotional exhaustion.

Although this was a limited study, researchers explained that:

“Individuals may consciously or subconsciously take comfort from the items with which they surround themselves at work… these items may help employees to maintain emotional energy in the face of the stresses that come from their work and the distractions and difficulties inherent in working in a low privacy environment…”

To back this up, a 2015 study underlines the importance we attach to personal effects. The study illustrated how the workers (in the UK) felt a greater sense of belonging to the company, simply because they could bring personal effects to work.

This should be a wake-up call for employers who are determined to remove any personality from the workplace. And a good starting point for bosses looking for a quick-fix to improve office morale.

Final thoughts…

Innovations in remote working, shared workspaces and workplace automation are already shaking things up in the modern office. But we are also starting to see a belated, but growing, disillusionment with open-plan offices.

That does not mean open plan offices are going away.

But your office doesn’t need to be a lean, uncomfortable space devoid of character.

Your employer would gain much by engaging you and your colleagues in shaping the look and feel of the place. It would not cost much, yet could go a long way to improving employee wellbeing. Failing that, employers should consider letting their staff personalize their workspaces as much as possible.

One day, even the most miserly boss might view the cost of adding a few decorative features or plants as a price worth paying. Plenty of evidence points to businesses getting a more loyal, productive and healthy workforce in return. Which is surely a good thing for employer and employee?

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