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Engaging employees, nurturing your workforce, and encouraging innovation through workplace strategy

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Now more than ever, companies are seeking strategies to keep current employees engaged and energized, recognizing the importance of investing in the design of their workplace to support their business goals and improve the employee experience. While the work environment is one tool for innovation, it is not the sole
driver; if organizations and their new methods are to flourish, they require a culture of trust and empowerment, encouraging people to share ideas so change can happen more freely. For design to be successful, the organization’s culture ideally reinforces the spirit of the design as well as its practical application. In turn, the design needs to complement culture.

This starts at the very beginning of a project cycle and is carried through to move-in day and beyond. It’s important for teams to communicate clearly and transparently to foster new-space adoption as well as to resolve and transform poor cultural behavior and norms of the past. Below are key design strategies and tools that facilitate employee engagement while nurturing and encouraging innovation within the workplace.

Importance of achieving alignment

The design of a workspace must support the organization’s business objectives and embrace the culture of that organization. It is important that the design strategy address new workflows and environments to support innovation into the future. Finding agreement on what design changes are to be made can be just as challenging as deciding how to make change a reality in any business. Therefore, ensuring alignment with planned modifications is the first step.

Align people, place, and technology. The metric for design is changing, moving away from a design strictly focused on a tangible formula of heads per square feet, to a more nuanced approach that prioritizes business objectives, culture, and talent engagement. Often, opportunities exist within the built environment that remove barriers to transitioning culture to one that better meets the needs of the organization. Take the use of glass as an example. In old office environments, heavy wooden doors with no sidelight created a literal barrier to entry. This was valued in hierarchical cultures, where it was important to communicate a leader’s “domain” and to control access to the boss. Today, leadership values greater transparency and access to their teams. Glass walls and doors communicate this value. Workplace strategy at the onset of a design project can help architects examine the layers of an organization and influence recommendations.

Discover drivers by engaging employees. Many companies isolate change management, when, in fact, integrating it into the design process is a more effective way to discover which key drivers should be focused on. Leaders and design teams can ask, “Why?” with a clear intention of putting people in the center of the equation. Personnel is one of an organization’s largest investments, so asking, “What will elevate your potential?” can inform the final design. Asking the right questions in the right way is key to setting expectations when discussing design decisions with stakeholders. I like to say this is asking questions without setting expectations for a specific change.

One way to do this is through an engaged workplace survey at the onset. The survey engages all employees without setting an expectation for change. It helps a company hone in on what employees are feeling and, from there, prioritize certain elements within the built environment that link to overall drivers like trust and empowerment. When these factors are aligned with business objectives, the employee engagement component starts to help funnel the focus on approaches that will ultimately be best for the organization.

Challenge convention. In one recent example, an organization developed its own question set for analysis, allowing employees to provide feedback on their preferences. On the question of an open floor plan versus individual offices, over 70 percent of respondents preferred private offices, even though the questionnaire did not specify the type of work in question – collaborative versus focused. Because of the lack of context, respondents weren’t challenged to consider a different way of working, and they answered the questions based on their current preferences and behaviors, rather than considering another way of working that would be more in line with the organization’s goals. When survey questions are developed, aligning those questions with the business objectives of the organization are key to challenging where we are today.

This change in approach and detail in survey development help employees make a connection to their organization’s future focus. Rather than make design solutions based on how people worked in the past, this future-focused approach positions an organization to thrive in an ever-changing environment. Employees’ current experience still serves as a benchmark for future success, helping to prevent the temptation to compare against other organizations. While other organizations can offer some good insight, key cultural differences mean what works for one company might not work for another.

Contextualize the questions. Contextualizing the “why" behind the questions being asked – linking them to business drivers – helps employees better relate to decisions regarding the built environment. The context also helps employees adjust their behaviors to promote success in the new environment. This approach creates connections among people (culture), space, and technology toward the greater mission of achieving organizational objectives. It integrates the change-management approach, placing it at the core of design programming and ensuring that leadership, management, and employees are in sync.

Communication strategies

Every project offers challenges unique to its business context as well as the process of its design. The success of any design project depends upon a set of crucial communication skills and techniques. Communication challenges can be resolved prior to the start of the project by taking into consideration a few key factors.

Communicate at all levels and stages. One of the greatest challenges in approaching a design change is effective communication. In addition to providing context and asking the right questions, early identification and involvement of stakeholders and decision makers is important. For example, sending out surveys to solicit feedback requires buy-in from human resources, so it is important to get the right people on board at the right time. Clear, consistent communication leads to greater awareness among stakeholders and decision makers, which leads to smooth implementation. The change-management deliverable also serves as a valuable check-in once the project is complete. What was delivered and is it working? In fact, a continuous change-management cycle measures what’s working and what needs to be adjusted on an ongoing basis.

Identify a project sponsor or client-relationship manager. One way to streamline communication is to designate a project sponsor who will work closely with the team to navigate project challenges. Having an employee in this role is critical because of the institutional knowledge and trust that exists internally. The project sponsor at a leadership level can also act as an internal cheerleader, driving change from within to promote organizational objectives. In addition to a project sponsor, a client-relationship manager is needed to pull everything, and everyone, together. This role brings all parties – HR, real estate, communications, IT, diversity and inclusion, department leadership, and other key stakeholders – to the table so everyone has an equal voice. The sponsor moves the project forward, but the client relationship manager is integral to getting it done.

Identify gaps. Sometimes, organizations need more help than anticipated in achieving their institutional objectives. Companies can be unaware of gaps between where they are currently and where they need to go. Gap analysis ideally aligns business objectives with people (culture), place, and technology. An organization can leverage the physical space and technology to support and drive solutions to achieve business objectives, but the culture side – the people – must be in sync. For example, an organization might have a culture and a design in place to support an open work environment, but the technology has not caught up to provide employees with the devices needed for mobile work. By requiring employees to remain strapped to their desks, in many cases as a productivity metric, the organization is misaligned to an existing or future space that promotes mobility. The cultural shift that aligns the variables must happen via policy or changes in leadership behavior, showing employees that it’s okay to be mobile. Ultimately, the organization and its leadership make a commitment to enact the policies that support mobility.

Foster connectivity. Connectivity within a large, global organization is another gap that presents a challenge to companies trying to remain competitive. Employees cannot innovate in a silo; organizations need to be able to build trust among employees. To solve this challenge, many are exploring plug-and-play environments that enable employees to connect quickly. These designs can have a variety of layouts, but the technology is always consistent, making it easy for employees, with the knowledge that technology is available in each room. This kind of design is driven by the mindset that technology is changing at too fast a pace to integrate it too firmly, and in a way that forces future extensive modifications or renovations. Instead, seamless integration of technology, where it can quickly and easily be changed out – for instance, iPads placed on the wall versus recessed within since sizes change every year – is designing with flexibility in mind. Each organization is different, so examining the unique culture and business objectives to find a solution is essential to creating connection. This exercise is important because place and technology can shape and enforce behavior, and behavior can shape corporate culture.

Strong leadership = project success

In almost every organization, leadership has a profound impact on both daily operations and strategies employed for achieving goals. While not the sole driver, shifts in leadership are relevant to new design innovations. Leaders of more hierarchical cultures may mandate certain changes while in less hierarchical cultures, leaders may involve many voices throughout the organization to evoke change. Either way, project teams are resources to help them see how to align wants with business needs and identify the best path forward for successful change.

Be the change you want. If leaders want change to take hold, they must model the transformation in the corporate culture, which often means, first, a shift in mindset followed by actions that promote the new philosophy. For instance, leaders might spend time working out in the fitness center or working in a mobile collaboration space rather than behind closed doors of offices and conference rooms. Another example might be an organization with a high population of remote workers may want an environment where those workers come to the office more often. This could be achieved through a destination space, such as a work café outfitted with a shuffleboard table and local coffees or an onsite food offering. Finding programmatic ways with behavioral incentives – such as quarterly shuffleboard tournaments in which everyone participates, and perks like free, high-end coffee for everyone to enjoy – further elevates the interest of those remote employees to come into the office and connect with onsite workers.

Identify the right metrics. One of the hardest steps in the process is accepting that no clear and easy metric exists; there is no silver bullet. Every organization and project is unique, introducing its own variables to the equation. Many leaders are tempted to look for a single and efficient solution based on what another company did, but cultural differences and business objectives are always variables in the overall equation, and a one-size-fits-all solution does not exist. Leaders are encouraged to look at specific metrics for objectives they want to improve upon based on how they measure today, what success looks like for them, and whether the cultural alignment exists or can be developed that supports these success metrics. Business goals and culture are key to determining the right space and technology needs for the organization, and it takes a certain degree of immersion to cultivate that awareness over time. Because of this, the analysis step of asking “Why?” is an invaluable way to truly understand the business objectives and culture, which requires project teams to be patient with the process. As culture shifts, new norms will evolve, and prevailing cultural characteristics will be championed by individuals throughout the organization as they become “mainstream.”

Have leadership drive alignment. In one example project, a Fortune 500 company’s chief human resources officer sponsored a strategy to move to a more transparent, open culture. She identified current and potential leadership within the company, those who could speak to the organization’s proposed future state. Their goals were to be more collaborative and to emphasize knowledge sharing. When the team began to analyze the current work environment, it quickly noticed a lack of supportive technology in conference rooms and many individuals working from desktop computers. As a result, most people were not using open spaces as designed. As the team examined the disconnect, it learned that managers expected employees to be at their desks throughout the day, so employees hesitated to use the collaborative spaces. In this case, both technology and culture created a gap that hindered the achievement of corporate objectives. The solution was to implement the use of technology that would support collaboration so employees could use the spaces more freely. Leadership supported the project and bought into the new approach by adopting and demonstrating it themselves; this empowered employees to leverage the spaces as a first step toward an evolution of corporate culture that more effectively served the organization’s goals.

Understanding the current state for a better future state

To accurately understand design from workers’ perspective, observation is key; directly observing what they do and how they perform in their workspace can provide insight into what changes should be made. Close observation of workers in the present helps outline the path to future innovations by finding barriers to overcome. In some cases, that can be as simple as changing where people sit. In one example project, the client wanted to innovate and speed-to-market was a presiding consideration; the team had to be astute and work quickly. The team observed the current state and discovered many barriers to communication, including strongly held departmental silos. To help reduce the effect of the silos, the team reorganized workstations based on a value stream rather than on department and found that communication became more focused and planted seeds of innovation. Pilot-testing remote address solutions might also support a more nimble work environment.

Shifting to friendly collaboration. The same concept applied for a sales company where employees were in private offices and high-walled partition workstations that prevented knowledge-sharing and, thus, slowed company growth. The environment lacked light, personality, and opportunities for employees to collaborate or even celebrate the wins of a sale. With future objectives in mind, employees relocated to an office where they could have an open floor plan, creating an environment that resembled a trading-room floor, with senior and junior staff collocated. This collocation quickly sped up knowledge-sharing and training processes among sales staff. The culture shifted from one of quiet competition to one of high energy and friendly competition working toward shared objectives. A gong was placed in the office and when large sales were made, the responsible employee rang the gong with a mallet. The company gained a reputation for first-in-class customer experience and has even touted over 40 office tours from in-industry sales organizations.

Connecting workers to their work. With the rise in mobile work, there are still opportunities for organizations to connect their employees to one another through programming, technology, or physical points of display. When relationships and trust are built among employees, innovation will flourish. A display space, for instance, adds to the sense of purpose and greater pride in the work by allowing teams to use screens or physical products to showcase individual team members and what employees are working on, either on their own or as part of their team. At one global manufacturer, a wall in the front lobby displays employees’ approved patents. Employees who create new patents get a block with their name and the patent number added to the patent wall. This is a great source of pride and further strengthens the camaraderie among those employees. It is also a fantastic way to celebrate an individual’s innovation and commitment to the company.

Another manufacturer displays the stories of soldiers in combat whose lives were saved by their products and solutions. Imagine you are the young engineer of a specific part on a product that saved a soldier’s life; your work takes on an entirely different meaning as it relates to the purpose of your job. Connecting employees to the greater purpose of work can have profound effects for employee motivation. Using storytelling to brand the work offers a way for the engineer in the back office to tie his or her work to its outcome. Emotionally compelling strategies like this will become more important as “Generation Z” enters the workforce, as a recent survey shows they value purpose over paycheck and want to know their jobs have greater impact beyond their workday lives.

Connecting workers to their community. A local insurance company wanted a greater brand presence in the community and looked to engage the community within its office. This necessitated a space conducive to gatherings, as the company’s old office was a stark, bullpen-like environment that lacked natural light.

Given a strategy to elevate connectedness among the company’s team and its community, changes were made. Among them: The new design is open, with universal workspaces. The few private offices, even those of executives, are also universal in size and feature glass fronts.

In addition, the entrance was transformed into a community event space designed to flex for multiple purposes and a range of event sizes. Positioned off the front entry, the space showcases the office environment, but in a way that allows employees access to a secure space and visitors access to the open event space. Transparent conference rooms with walls that open into the lobby bring light into the space, while a central floating reception desk and company branding add to the inviting effect. In its first year alone, more than 150 events were held in the space, differentiating the employer from others in the local area. Employees can bring friends and family to a social event and feel pride that this is where they work, underpinning the organization’s mission and vision.

Engaging employees, nurturing your workforce and encouraging innovation by utilizing different workplace strategies can significantly improve your bottom line. According to a 2018 Gallup Poll on employee engagement in the United States, organizations with higher employee engagement realize substantially higher productivity, better retention, fewer accidents, and 21 percent higher profitability. Today’s leading businesses understand how people work and collaborate, and they recognize the importance of providing a technology-rich work environment that meets their employees’ changing needs.

The project team at Eppstein Uhen Architects (EUA) made a shift to its workplace strategy following a design change to the headquarters office. Employees had found their ability to collaborate hampered by limited large-scale spaces, basement conference rooms that offered little natural light, and small kitchenettes that sat within the workstations on each floor and discouraged connectivity. With a vertically stacked building, the office also was maxed out on space.

Company leaders opted to invest in the upward expansion of a four-season work café with an outdoor terrace, complete with a shuffleboard table and casual seating area.

EUA had never had a space like this, though, and, in the beginning, the space wasn’t used by employees as often as was anticipated. After identifying the problem, leadership addressed it through a combination of programming, policy, and technology.

The firm implemented a terrace-checkout agreement, allowing any employee across the firm to reserve the terrace for before- or after-work events; it remained reserved for employee use during the day. An office-wide shuffleboard tournament, including a company-wide competition, was also implemented to increase use of the space. To solve the collaboration problem, the company provided six check-out laptops on the terrace for employees to use whenever they wanted to meet on the terrace. Leaders across the firm were also urged to use the terrace to show employees that it was okay to work away from their desks as well as take a break during the day. Now, finding the president or CEO taking a lunch or impromptu conversation in the space is a normal occurrence.

Thanks to leadership’s influence, the space is now frequently used. The terrace is a bustling place where people across the firm who would have rarely seen each other in the past are able to connect. Whether it’s for a small-group gathering for an afternoon coffee or hot chocolate, or for supporting national, company-wide, and technology-enabled meetings, the terrace has become a central gathering place and recruitment tool for the firm.

This article was originally published in CoreNet Leader August 2020.

Heather Turner Loth, MCR.w
Business Development Practice Leader : Principal

Heather Turner Loth is the Business Development Practice Leader and Associate with EUA working out of the Milwaukee office. Heather's passion for people allows her to excel at building relationships. Outside of work, she enjoys taking dance classes and traveling.

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