The five-minute read on… engaging employees through workplace design

Guest Author
Published on 26th June 2018
5 min read

Kay Sargent, director of WorkPlace at HOK, explains how companies can design work environments to connect and engage their people.

For decades we’ve designed work spaces like people were potted plants, forcing them to sit in the same place every day and not move around.

What we’re now finding is that people are more empowered and engaged when they have options and choices about how they work, where they work, and who they interact with at work. That changes everything when it comes to workplace design.

When we talk about employee engagement in relation to design, it’s important to look at the factors that make people feel disengaged at work. Really, engagement is often less to do with the physical aesthetics of their environment and more about their experience.

  • Do they feel like they’re in an environment where they are supported?
  • Do they have a clear understanding of the company’s mission?
  • Do they feel like they’re empowered to make a difference?
  • Do they feel like they’re connected to their co-workers?

People who aren’t engaged will have very low ratings on these four questions, while those who are engaged will have more positive responses to those questions.

If these are some of the key factors that are going to determine if somebody is engaged or not, how do we design environments to address these issues?

We believe that we are no longer in the business of designing work spaces but creating holistic workplace experiences that have a tremendous impact on people’s wellbeing – not just their physical health, but social, emotional and financial wellbeing.

HR and People leaders have a fantastic opportunity to create great workforce environments for their people.

For me, there are five things that really matter.

1. Agile environments

Going back to my potted plant analogy, people want options and choices about where they can sit to do their work – in other words, they want a more agile environment.

By designing activity-based environments, we allow employees to choose the right setting for the task in hand. They can also find the right community of people to sit with, so they feel more supported and connected.

When people bond, they open-up and have more trust; and that’s when real innovation happens.

If your environment is too loud, you need other spaces that aren’t as noisy. All too often employees are stuck sitting next to somebody who’s annoying them, but there are no other options available. No one wants to be stuck sitting next to the office gossip every day!

After all, you are the sum composite of the five people with whom you spend the most time, so it’s best if you have a choice and can find the right community.

2. Co-working spaces

People don’t have to come to the office anymore. Technology has allowed us to become totally untethered. The only reason people come into the office is to be connected to other people and for the experience.

Co-working environments are exploding right now because, quite frankly, many corporate offices have lost their mojo. Companies just aren’t focused on creating a great experience or a community. It’s often just taken for granted that everyone must be there and that a sense of community exists.

In co-working environments, you have a community manager who focuses on curating the experience and making sure people are connected and supported, which makes people thrive.

If corporations can focus more on creating this sense of community and crafting the right user experience, they’re going to be far more successful in getting the office mojo back by creating energized environments that attract and retain employees.

3. Purpose and meaning

Today, more than ever, we have a generation who are not just working to feed their family, they’re working because they want to make a difference. They want their companies to have a clear mission, and they want to believe in that mission.

People want and need to feel connected to the purpose of the business, so we’re redesigning a lot of spaces to really connect people to the core of what the company does and why they do it.

A great example of this is at the Francis Crick Institute in London, a biomedical institute dedicated to discovering new ways to treat diseases.

The non-science staff were previously very disconnected from the ground-breaking research the scientists were doing so we created a new layout where the admin, research and lab areas are all interconnected. In the new space, wherever you are in the building, you can see into the science labs and instantly feel more connected to the scientific work the institute conducts.

It’s vital for employees to get excited and motivated about their company’s work. Designing spaces with transparency and openness helps employees tap into that sense of purpose and meaning, while fuelling their desire to perform.

4. High-touch and biophilia

We believe in a theory called ‘high-tech equals high-touch’. Simply put, most of us feel overwhelmed by technology today. Often technology is running us, versus us running it. As human beings we need balance – and we don’t have that right now – so we are seeing a major push towards ‘high-touch’ environments.

High-touch is about bringing organic natural elements to the interior environment and making things more transparent, genuine, and real.

Biophilia – which is our innate desire to connect with nature – forms part of high-touch environments and plays a huge role in helping us create a balance between our human-centric essence and the high-tech world we live in.

Biophilic design incorporates nature and plants, access to natural views, water elements, and the use of natural materials such as wood to reconnect us back to the natural world

When biophilic design is used in work environments, it has an overall soothing effect and helps people feel calmer, more refreshed, and more relaxed. It improves people’s wellbeing, stimulates their senses and rejuvenates them.

We believe this is a trend that will continue to grow as technology continues to advance at accelerating speeds.

5. Creating connected communities

Connecting people and creating a sense of community is key to innovation today. We’re finding that creating environments that are more like beehives are helping to boost workplace experiences, versus having people work in silos.

At the BBC in London we redesigned the space so that everybody in the organization felt more connected to the news and the purpose of what they’re doing – informing the world. We shifted the building core to open-up the space and really connect everybody, so they were no longer working in isolation.

Just like bees in a beehive, it then becomes all for one and one for all, moving together for a common purpose.

We need to move away from people working in isolation. When employees are interconnected and can see the work that everyone is doing, their role takes on more significance and purpose. They feel more excited and connected to the business.

Studies have shown that when people see each other, they are more likely to feel a connection and interact. This provides opportunities for discovery, collaboration and community.

Let’s shake things up

So many people are sleepwalking through their day at work because they just don’t feel empowered or engaged.

Many people who claim to be unhappy with their work environment, are likely just unhappy with who they’re forced to sit with and the lack of options they have about the way they work. People want choices.

Let’s create environments that get people excited about the purpose of the company and its mission. Work spaces should be physical representations of the company culture and help people feel proud about their work.

It’s all about choice, user experience, community, empowerment and wellbeing. These are the key factors in designing great workplace environments and will ultimately boost employee engagement.

What do your workers really want? Download Sage research from 3,500 employees on what really engages them at work. 


About Kay Sargent

Kay Sargent is a senior principal and director of HOK’s WorkPlace practice, based in Washington DC. She leads project teams that solve clients’ business and organizational challenges related to strategic planning, workplace strategy and change management.

With over 30 years of experience, Kay has become a recognized expert on workplace design and strategy issues, working with many Fortune 500 companies to create innovative work environments.

Connect with Kay on LinkedIn.

Images: Ari Burling, Eric Laignel and Paul Grundy


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