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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, the office is just a place where the bills are paid. Typically, they are open-plan and noisy. Impersonal and devoid of colour. A place that encourages dreams…about being anywhere but there.

What’s more, 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, like cost-savings and data protection.  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.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of this is not good for your health and happiness. Increasing numbers of studies paint a dismal picture of the impact of modern offices on employee wellbeing.

Alongside more and more reports of demoralized staff is a growing number of studies that show a better way of working. In particular, there is some belated acknowledgment that employees who are comfortable in their workplace are more productive and more creative. And we’re also seeing evidence that office workers who like their workspace, 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 more personalized workspaces can boost employee wellbeing.

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

Picture of workers in an open-plan office

One of the main reasons workers are increasingly dissatisfied with office life is the decline in personal space.

Maintaining an office is a significant business cost and reducing the amount of square footage is understandably attractive for bosses.

The most obvious consequence of this is the (now ubiquitous) open-plan office. Open-plan offices are relatively new for some. But they have been growing in use since they started life in 1950’s Germany. As such, they now account for an estimated 70% of all office space.

As the cost of property spirals ever-upwards, businesses have looked for even more ways to reduce the cost of their facilities. This has led to other cost-saving initiatives, such as hot-desking. Hot-desking alone is estimated to save businesses up to 30% of their property costs.

Aside from any cost savings, open-plan offices and hot-desking have been promoted as better for doing business in. It is widely believed that open working environments foster greater collaboration and flexibility.

The reality of open-plan workspaces

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

Yawning, tired worker stretching at their desk

You 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 study found staff still preferred using messaging services. This applied even when they were seated in the same area. A symptom of modern times.

Happily, office workers are starting to make their voices heard. Even a shiny new office was not enough to persuade some 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.

Yet, despite all this, there is a long way to go. Research indicates that open-plan offices are here to stay.

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 laser-focus on finding newer, leaner, more efficient ways of working. Predictably, this goes hand in hand with the rise in uniform, character-free offices.

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, quantifying and streamlining standard workplace practices.

However, when applied badly, they can have an unwelcome impact on workplace happiness.

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

There is hope though, as these surveys and studies are starting to make a mark.

More and more companies are embracing ‘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. Plus, private spaces for those who need to get away from the noise and re-focus.

It also seems likely that other future trends in the way we work will force employers to further rethink existing workplaces.

This includes employees increasingly escaping the office altogether, as remote working becomes a reality. 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

Even if you’re lucky enough to work for a forward-thinking employer who has worked to create a better workplace, it might not be enough.

That’s because your fellow 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. After all, these are the people who will spending a huge chunk of their lives in that space.

This could be as simple as helping getting help o choose a few pictures to hang on the walls, or seeking input on the layout of any break areas. One study demonstrated how changes like this could boost productivity by up to 32%!!

Shortcuts to a better workplace

You might be wondering how on earth you could convince your boss to pay for some much needed changes. But there are a couple of ways forward that might just meet thier approval.

For example, plants 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)

Air Cleaning Plants In A Meeting Room/office

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

Making changes to the office design and decoration, however subtle, is not an option for everybody. 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, is a 2015 study that 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 because of this simple concession.

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 belated but growing disillusionment with open-plan offices.

That does not mean open plan offices are going away. Not for now at least.

But your office doesn’t need to be a lean, uncomfortable space that you feel no attachment to.

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.

One day, even the most miserly boss might see 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.

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