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January 5, 2021

The New Way to Improve Employee Engagement: Unifying Space & Culture

This blog features insights from Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics (GWA). GWA is a research and consulting firm that helps employers understand and prepare for the future of work. Her expertise is focused on trends in the workplace, workforce, technology and beyond that are changing the who, what, when, where, and how of work.

Corporate offices sit empty. Home offices are makeshift and remote set-ups complicate collaboration, teamwork and engagement. We are well outside the traditional work environment — and businesses are struggling to maintain employee engagement and prevent cultural decay. But were our physical workplaces the ideal environment for productivity to begin with?

According to many experts, the answer is no — even when we were in the office, employers struggled to boost engagement. It was commonly understood that thoughtfully designed office space and flexible working models were key to employee wellbeing and corporate culture, but few companies were willing to do a full overhaul. 

For better or worse, COVID-19 has led us to reexamine those ideas. As it turns out, properly designed physical space is still critical to the success of culture and employees — and we should treat this pause as our chance to get office space “right” for the first time.

We will look at the lessons learned from remote work, their implications for the future of the office and the power of better tools and better data. The bottom line? It’s time to seize the moment to truly revolutionize our spaces for the employees that need to thrive in them.

Lessons from lockdown

The pandemic gave us the unprecedented opportunity to rethink employee experience and what good design should look like on a massive scale. We’re considering questions like, “How can culture and engagement succeed digitally?” or “How does remote work impact business outcomes?”

Data from pre-pandemic adopters of the hybrid remote work model show a typical employer saves an average of $11k per year for each employee who works remotely two to three days a week. Those savings come from increased productivity and agility, plus reduced real estate, turnover, and absenteeism costs. Perhaps that’s why three-quarters of employees say that after the pandemic they want to continue working from home at least some of the time — ideally two or three days a week

This hybrid or blended approach to where people work will place a greater emphasis on workplace design. If employers want to have people in the office and boost engagement, they will need to provide places, spaces, and processes that support the kind of work that actually takes place there.

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Why the office still matters

In the hybrid approach, the office will still be where remote workers come to collaborate, exchange knowledge, socialize, learn, and reinforce their ties with others and the organization. These activities are key to employee engagement, commitment, performance, and innovation. But to design and build offices for just these activities would be a mistake.

The office will also need to accommodate employees who choose to not work remotely, and elements like client meetings and on-site contractors. Workplaces will need a full range of spaces to support the work they do. 

As we have learned in the past, one- size-fits-all actually fits none. Every organization will need to decide what works best for its culture, its work, and the people it employs with an emphasis on flexibility and agility.

Achieving a unified space

As we look forward to workplace reentry, employers should look to promote key characteristics in their space as it needs to be reimagined to support the people, culture and activities unique to their business.

1. Agile, adaptive space for all

Now is the time to rethink the “butts in seats” approach to the office, or the one-person-to-one- desk model. For example: would private spaces be better suited for group collaboration in your cultural environment? Flexible, resilient, comfortable space supports various work styles and activities. What that looks like should be informed by your unique culture.

2. Emphasis on connection, collaboration and culture

Many businesses are structuring future goals around collaboration after lessons learned in COVID-19. Questions like, “What are the small elements in a space that foster good collaboration?” are key, as is thinking about how small changes to space — like breaking up private offices or giant conference rooms — can help teams work better and redefine hierarchies.

3. Prioritization of employee health

It turns out people don’t need much in terms of basic amenities in the office. In 2019, workers' top priorities were simple: appropriate noise levels, comfortable temperatures, good lighting, good coffee and clean bathrooms were at the top of the list. In 2020, social distancing and temperature checks were key considerations in the middle of the pandemic—concerns that will be folded into future office planning.

Space also plays a huge role in supporting mental health. Things like plants, outdoor spaces, restoration rooms and quiet spaces have the power to reshape the workplace and employee productivity— this is true particularly if adoption is encouraged and modeled by a leadership team.

Planning for success with better tools

Addressing these priorities can be straightforward, but it’s important for businesses to measure how well they’re doing in these areas. When planning to reimagine space beyond the basics, how should employers understand their teams’ nuanced needs and opinions?

First, we can’t look at “engagement” in a vacuum. In reality, engagement — as well as productivity and happiness — are consequences of deeper realities. Second, any data must be acted upon to allow businesses to pivot and adapt as their employees’ needs continue to evolve.

Tools that work well for employers include:  


Sensors track things like air flow, office temperature, motion, energy usage and movement (aggregated anonymously). Tools like these give businesses insights into how occupants are engaging with their spaces and point to opportunities for improvement.

Employee surveys and interviews

Regular surveys enable employers to stay on top of who is working where, how and why. Well-designed surveys yield insights about how the space is performing relative to organizational goals. 

    • If greater collaboration is the goal, the survey might ask: “How many people did you talk to today (or this week)?”
    • If innovation is the goal, you might ask: “How many people do you work with who are not on your team?”
    • If you’re trying to understand productivity, you might ask: “how many times a day are you distracted by sights or sounds? Or: “How much time do you spend each day/week struggling with technology problems?”

Employers can build this dataset by asking additional questions about retention, or productivity (“How often did you get interrupted today?”). Ask people if they use big conference rooms, or ask how smaller shared rooms would feel. A rich data set lets you begin to imagine how space should flow to facilitate collaboration. 

Sentiment analysis 

Asking qualitative questions that seek to understand feelings is critical. Unpacking sentiment around hybrid work, culture and teamwork drives creative insights into how space and culture could function better in real-time.

Once you have the data you need, you can begin to experiment with space and structures that feel right. It’s critical to get both a qualitative and quantitative understanding of feelings and needs. 

A Data-Driven workplace software

Creating corporate space that reflects the unique cultural and work needs of your teams requires: 

    • Human interpretation
    • The right supporting team
    • A large data set that can adapt to sentiment changes
    • A platform that unifies data in one location to enable actionable insights

Ideally, you can meet all of these needs with one platform. Saltmine’s enterprise workplace software works with teams to keep data in one place and helps executives reach better workplace decisions around projects that ultimately further the company's business goals.

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Starting your workplace journey

The physical office has never been more critical for business. We know employees and organizations suffer without access to office space, which is the foundation for many positive aspects of work and culture. Space, culture and employee engagement are interconnected — we shouldn’t be focused on a narrow understanding of motivation or engagement. 

Everybody wants to get back to the watercooler. But who says the watercooler was the best way to collaborate to begin with? We should be using technology to redesign our workspaces to create an environment where modern needs and culture can thrive.

Curious to see how top businesses are using remote work data to rebuild the office to inspire hybrid employees? Check out this infographic informed by research from the Leesman Index, Harvard Business Review and more. 

Download Infographic

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