We are always on the look out for research that can demonstrate the link between workplace design and business performance, so it was with huge excitement that we discovered Jacob Morgan’s “The Employee Experience Advantage”, with the slightly lengthy subtitle of “How to win the war for talent by giving employees the workspaces they want, the tools they need and a culture they can celebrate”. It seems to be one of the very few business books actually considering the design of the physical workspace of an organisation as an important factor. So I read my way through the almost 300 pages and wanted to share my insights from an architectural perspective.
|So let me summarise the main argument first.
Jacob Morgan suggests that the recent business focus on employee engagement has not exactly led anywhere. He maintains that relevant statistics, for example engagement as measured by the Gallup Institute is stalling. Instead he proposes that organisations focusing on employee experience rather than employee engagement have an actual competitive advantage. Experience, in his view, requires a more holistic, all encompassing view of work than ‘mere’ engagement.
Through extensive interviews with HR and business leaders, as well as a literature review, Jacob Morgan established a scorecard comprised of 17 separate items, grouped into three different domains of influence: the physical workspace (4 items), technology (3 items) and organisational culture (10 items). He then analysed over 250 global organisations and put them into a ranking, which is available as Employee Experience Index from his website. The overall ranking is led by Facebook as an overall number 1, followed by Google, Apple and LinkedIn. Those four (in a different order) are also the four highest scored organisations on their physical workspace.
The way organisational culture is assessed looks interesting (e.g. employees feel valued and as part of a team, employees are treated fairly, ability to learn new things, managers act as mentors, organisation believes in diversity and inclusion) and technology is equally measured by interesting criteria (latest consumer grade technology, available to everyone, balancing employee needs with business requirements). But let’s have a closer look at the criteria for physical workspaces. The four criteria together make up the abbreviation COOL: Chooses to bring in friends or visitors, Offers flexibility, Organisation’s values are reflected and Leverages multiple workspace options.
First of all, of course, it is great to see that the physical workspace indeed has become something to talk about in business books, and that workplace design is being considered as crucial contribution to an organisation’s performance.
What is striking here, however, is the fact how little those four factors actually talk about the physical design of the workplace. The only aspect that looks at spatial layout in slightly more detail is leveraging multiple workspace options. The idea that different tasks and activities require different spatial settings has been on the agenda of workplace professionals for decades now. Upon closer scrutiny, offering flexibility is not at all about the physical building, but rather whether employees are allowed not to come into the physical workspace, but work from elsewhere. The two other aspects are design related, but remain rather fuzzy. Great design (whatever that may be), makes employees proud, hence they like to bring in friends or visitors. However, it is unclear what this great design entails, or how it would be judged. Organisations that look like they live the values they propose is an important point. Morgan argues that “the physical space acts as a type of symbol for the organisation” (p. 69). It is easy to see how values such as ‘innovation’, ‘collaboration’ or ‘fun’ could be reflected in a physical design – just look at the workspaces of a lot of technology companies. But how would this work for more abstract values? Just to pick a random example: FedEx is a company not doing very well on the ‘COOL’ spaces as ranked by Morgan. Their values (according to their website) include people, integrity, service, innovation, responsibility and loyalty. What would that mean for a physical design? But maybe what is even more difficult here is the disconnect that can often be found between the espoused values and the actual culture of an organisation. In our view the physical space will always portray how things get done in a place and thus show the underlying culture. This may not be the same as the core values the senior management team aspire to. This shows how complex this issue is and how problematic it is to rate it on a linear scale.
Leaving culture to one side for now, there are many more things in a physical workspace that matter when it comes to how people can get their job done. This could include how much an office brings people together or keeps them apart – this would be relevant for all sorts of detailed questions: how easy it is to concentrate? How accessible are colleagues? Am I constantly visibly controlled and supervised by my line manager? Does the physical space reinforce organisational silos or does it help overcoming them? Can I have a conversation without being overheard? How close is good coffee and who do I meet there? Do I encounter people spontaneously? Can I find a meeting space easily when needed? Does the office allow me to have good conversations with the right people at the right time?
Jacob Morgan doesn’t cover those important questions in his assessment of the physical workspace of an organisation. Clearly, this book is a great starting point for a conversation about the role of physical workspace and business performance. But there is still much more to be explored in the relationship between people, workspace and organisations.
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