3 strategies to creating environments that promote workplace engagement

VOA's Pablo Quintana writes that the industry is looking for ways to increase engagement through a mix of spaces suited to employees' desire for both privacy and connection.

May 16, 2016 |
Stantec Blog

Images courtesy VOA

Engagement may be a relatively new term, but we have been designing for engagement for decades. In the ‘90s, I worked on a project with a U.S. multinational that was seeing its talent vanish before its eyes. They were fleeing a ‘50s workplace culture and rigidly controlled assigned space for the wild west of the dotcoms with their bold, inspiring spaces and laidback attitudes toward dress. It took a year to convince the boardroom that drastic change was needed to retain talent. The new office, which included both architectural and cultural changes was a tremendous success.

Today, the challenges are a bit different. We’re looking for ways to increase engagement through a mix of spaces suited to employee’s desire for both privacy and connection.

Recent research shows that only 1/3 of employees are actively engaged and 37% are actively disengaged and unhappy. [Gallup reports only 11% of workers are engaged around the world.] There are a host of reasons for this, but often, it’s because they are working in a traditional workplace (often defined as a hierarchical workplace). In those environments, most employees have very little choice or control over how work is done and this results in higher dissatisfaction.

The difference lies in giving as many people as much choice and control over how they want to work as possible. Given choice, you experience control. Give people choice or control over the physical environment they work in and you increase engagement. This means that they can work in the café or a lounge, they have plenty of options from solo to group. I can work at my work station, I can go to the café. If I need a meeting, I have options to choose from. It really boils down to choice.


Tech office


There are three strategies to creating environments that promote workplace engagement.

Get the basics right

If it’s not a pleasant workplace in general (with design that considers the right natural light, temperature control, noise level, adjustable furniture and flexibility), it’s not going to work.

Provide choice

Give people a menu of places where they can do what they need to do and they’ll feel empowered.

Everyone that goes to work does four things each day: Focused work, Learning, Collaboration and Socializing. You need spaces purposefully built for each. These spaces aren’t accidental, they’re designed to maximize these activities. In the past, socialization was considered unproductive. Today, we’re seeing a spike in interest in collaboration and socialization. So you must have spaces for people to socialize in. Tools must be at hand to turn that social encounter into a productive one.

Traditionally, you did everything in one space. Those spaces were slightly larger than what we have now, but you did everything there. There was nowhere else to do it. Today, however, we know that no single space can perform all those functions. Choice, variety and connection have become more important.

Foster employee well-being

Traditionally, you were seen as unproductive if you didn’t sit at your desk. That culture continues to change. Organizations are realizing that workplaces should be active spaces. Giving people the option to sit, stand, walk, run enhances their physical, cognitive, and emotional well-being. In the office, we should be able to do all of these things every day.

Skillful design of these spaces creates a workplace that will increase the level of engagement. It’s not just about style, or making a pretty space. The substantive part of the design is creating choice, control and promotion of well-being all rolled into the solution. We can’t forget that all these amenities and spaces must be paid for and pay for themselves.

It’s not rocket science. It’s a change in attitude. Workers in emerging economies have a higher level of workplace engagement. There may be socio-economic factors that account for this, but they also tend to work in dense, open and less hierarchical spaces.

Give workers things that they want, empower them, make them comfortable and they will feel good—be happy and work harder. They will feel good about going to work. Everything falls into line.

NOTE: This is part one in a three-part series on engagement in the workplace. Read part two here. For more on engagement, download the new VOA Design Quarterly.

About the Author: Pablo is an Associate Principal at VOA with more than twenty years of experience working with Fortune 1000 clients. Throughout his experience, Pablo has developed state-of-the-art, alternative workspaces for clients including Google, Volkswagen, Choice Hotels, IBM, Coca-Cola, E*Trade Bank, Discovery Communications, and Booz & Company, among others. His design approach focuses on solving client’s problems, whether it’s reducing real estate costs, improving flexibility, or creating efficiencies. His work has been featured in several publications including Contract Magazine and Interior Design. Pablo actively participates in the development of the area’s design community by participating as a juror, exhibitor and curator in several design exhibitions in the area.

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Published by global design firm Stantec, this eclectic blog features viewpoints, insights, and explanations from Stantec architects, engineers, and designers, on a range of issues impacting the fabric of our communities. Our contributors share their thoughts about design trends, emerging technologies, vexing challenges, and inspired solutions. For more blog posts, visit: www.stantec.com.

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