If You Want Employee Engagement Then Redesign Your Office

July 12, 2022
July 12, 2022 Jamie Notter

Everyone wants highly engaged employees, but few organizations have figured out how to achieve that goal—Gallup has been tracking engagement for several decades, and “highly engaged” employees never amount to any more than about one-third of the workforce.

In our 2019 book, The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement, we made the case that designing a culture that makes your organization and all the people in it deeply successful is the key to achieving breakthrough engagement. And in that book, we specifically suggested looking at the design of your office space as a potentially untapped source for improving success and engagement.

Then the pandemic hit, and the office space issue came even more into the forefront. With more people being more remote, we now have the opportunity to rethink how our offices are designed. Unfortunately, I think most organizations are wasting this opportunity, because they are failing to connect the dots between office space design, employee engagement, and organizational results. We remain in the old paradigm—how many cubes, offices, and conference rooms do we need?

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Smart organizations are asking different questions: what activities need to take place inside our offices, and how would we design different spaces to best support the work of the different activities? We call this Activity-Based Design, and instead of dividing the office into personally owned real-estate, some organizations are designing for different activities—there are some offices with doors for private conversations, there is “library” space dedicated to heads-down quiet work, and there are a variety of settings designed for collaborative conversations for groups small and large. One organization we know built out a room that was specifically designed to spur creativity, new thinking, and innovation (there was literally a tree-house in the office).

When your employees come to the office, they can choose the space that best fits the specific work they need to do. Instead of design based on status (high status people get the most comfortable spaces), it’s design based on employee needs. When those needs are met, they do better work and are more successful, and the organization can expand its impact. As a result of that multi-layered success, engagement will improve.

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So from a culture change perspective, it works like this:

  • Culture problem: employee experience and engagement is low; employees feel they are inhibited and restricted by systems that don’t support their work needs.
  • Relevant culture pattern: Shallow Solutions (our culture values solving surface level problems more than it values meeting deeper needs)
  • Culture solution: redesign the office using activity-based design
  • Results: improved effectiveness, better results, higher engagement.

Note: this post is part of a new series on “Culture Solutions,” where we identify specific culture change action items that real clients have used to solve real problems in their organization.

Jamie Notter

Jamie is an author and growth strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders integrate culture, strategy, and execution to achieve breakthrough performance and impact. He brings twenty-five years of experience to his work designing culture-driven businesses, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is also the co-author of three books—Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement—and holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.
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