Recent research shows 64 per cent of employees feel their work environments don’t empower them to perform at their best. To achieve optimal performance in a hybrid world, it’s crucial that workplace design evolves alongside our working habits.
While employees are increasingly willing to work from the office more often, a significant proportion feel their workplaces fall short in supporting collaboration and performance, a recent study has found.
The research, published by global technology company Cisco based on surveys of 7550 full-time employees and 1650 employers in the APAC region, found that 64 per cent of respondents believed their workspaces were not “fit for purpose” in enabling them to do their best work.
The top three areas employees felt were not optimal were: collaboration and meeting spaces, technology and infrastructure, and seating arrangements.
“The effect of our environment has been very much underappreciated in terms of the development of the office, and the effect it has is so significant,” says Libby Sander, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Bond University and a leading authority on the design of workplaces.
“What we need to be thinking about is: does this space support people to do their jobs?”
The impact of hybrid work on workplace design
According to the research, one of the main driving forces behind employees’ concerns about their working environments is, unsurprisingly, the rise of hybrid work.
While Cisco found that hybrid work has resulted in a 54 per cent increase in cost savings, a 59 per cent productivity spike and a 43 per cent boost to culture for Australian employers, it also introduced challenges regarding workplace design.
Now that many employees have the ability to do at least part of their jobs from their homes, their motives for in-office work tend to centre around collaboration and socialising. However, more than four in five employees (81 per cent) feel the layout and seating arrangements in their offices are not conducive to effective collaboration and brainstorming.
“The [working] environment is like a physical cognitive scaffold for your brain – it picks up cues about what to do in that type of space, and supports that. So, different tasks are actually going to require different spaces.” – Libby Sander, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Bond University
While many employers have been investing effort and resources into incentivising a return to office, some of these efforts are falling short of employees’ real needs, says Sander.
“I think the focus has been a lot more on those nice-to-have benefits rather than the spaces themselves.
“We’re seeing people saying that just having a gym at lunchtime or a fancy library sitting area is not enough to make [them] want to commute for two hours.”
Instead, she says, employers should focus on the fundamentals of their workplace design, such as acoustics, lighting, comfort and a variety of areas for different types of work.
“What my research has shown is that the [working] environment is like a physical cognitive scaffold for your brain – it picks up cues about what to do in that type of space, and supports that. So, different tasks are actually going to require different spaces.
“And my advice from the research is that we should be focusing on the psychological state that we need for each task, and then selecting a space to support that.”
For example, collaborative tasks are best-suited to take place in larger spaces with movable furniture, whiteboards and comfortable seating, while deep work will require workstations in a quiet environment with minimal visual distractions.
Meanwhile, an office breakout area should be both comfortable and visually appealing in order to help employees recharge their batteries.
“A workplace can’t just be a big floor plate with a bunch of desks and a few meeting rooms and a cafe,” says Sander. “We should be thinking about it more like a city where there are different zones that provide different types of [environments], but also the ability to use them in different ways.”
Evolving the workplace for the modern worker
Cisco found that eight out of ten employers have or are in the process of redesigning their office to better cater to the modern-day employee. If your organisation is considering this, here are some important points to keep in mind.
When considering aspects of workplace design that could be improved, employers should take into account the impact of working environments on mental health as well as productivity.
For instance, Sander’s research has found that natural materials, natural light and aesthetically appealing design all have a beneficial psychological impact. Acoustics are also particularly important, she says.
“People don’t get used to noise. And if they can’t focus and concentrate to do their job, they’re less likely to collaborate and more likely to get withdrawn or even hostile towards their colleagues.”
Employers can use methods such as soundproofing and office dividers to minimise distractions from noise, as well as providing designated quiet spaces and closed-off meeting areas so collaboration does not come at the expense of concentration.
It’s also important for staff to feel they have the space to move and think freely; employers can use an office space calculator to determine how much space they should be providing for zones such as meeting rooms, quiet spaces and common areas.
Particularly for workplaces with limited space, employers can also consider a space rationalisation strategy, which involves assessing the current use of space, identifying inefficiencies or areas for improvement and implementing redesigns or technology solutions to optimise the existing space.
The provision of flexible and hybrid working options can also be a valuable tool to optimise working environments, says Sander.
“Autonomy, as we know, is a huge driver of satisfaction and commitment to the organisation. So the more autonomy we’re able to give people in their jobs, the more they’re likely to be satisfied.
“Working from home gives people that autonomy, but it also gives them another very important aspect, which is the ability to adjust and personalise their space in a way that suits them.”
Need help evolving your organisation for a hybrid world? AHRI’s short course on managing a hybrid workforce is designed to equip you with the skills to create collaborative and future-ready teams.