How does the workplace affect employee satisfaction and engagement?

In a dedicated interview, we asked Joanna Kotzian, co-founder of and Dorota Osiecka, director of Colliers Define, for answers.

Colliers: As the title of the report suggests, is it possible to feel better at work than at home?

Joanna Kotzian: Home is a place where we feel good and safe. Designers of modern offices try to evoke similar associations also in the office space. That is why, among other things, they introduce elements typical of home living rooms into the arrangement. Upholstered furniture with soft, rounded forms is used in offices more and more often. On the other hand, company budget allows for much more than private savings. Thanks to additional funds, an office can be equipped with high-class furniture, hire professional designers, invest in works of art. In Poland, home decorating is usually done by the owners themselves, partly by trial and error. On the other hand, companies conduct systematic research in order to optimally adjust the space to the users’ needs. Work takes up more and more of our time, so the conditions in which these hours pass are all the more important.

Are well-being practices an essential element of a modern organisation?

J.K.: The work environment should be ergonomically arranged and, as far as possible, it should fulfil additional conditions – it should be aesthetic and conducive to building relations. However, the idea of well-being reaches much further, encompassing the physical and mental sphere of an employee, his health and physical condition, development. It is one of the most important trends in management and at the same time a reaction to technological changes, automation and digitalization. In the center of attention of companies is a man and the features that give him an advantage over technology.

The office of the 21st century is supposed to be a comfortable place to work. How can you furnish a space that serves a multi-person team, users with diverse needs and expectations?

Dorota Osiecka: First of all, let’s not think in terms of office space, but in terms of the working environment. We go beyond the interior design and choice of furniture – the organisational culture and rules are equally important. Designer must know for whom he works, what kind of tasks are performed by different teams in the organization, what are the dominant styles of work. Each activity profile requires a slightly different spatial arrangement. The possibility of introducing changes is also very important. In today’s business world, change happens very quickly. Most industries face unpredictable cycles of ups and downs in employment, and more and more organizations are making structural changes. The traditional “silo” hierarchy is slowly becoming obsolete, and various types of matrix structures are becoming more and more popular. This, in turn, brings with it the need for organizational and spatial flexibility.  Ten to fifteen years ago, the most common functional arrangement was a corridor office or a homogenous open space filled with a sea of desks. Both these models are anachronistic today. The only answer to the current complexity of business processes is to design diverse, flexible offices, strictly tailored to the needs of a particular recipient. There are no solutions that work in every situation.

Modern offices are impressive, their arrangements are presented in architecture and interior design magazines. Does care about shaping the space also applies to other workplaces, for example production plants?

J.K.: Major changes are also taking place in the approach to the working environment in production plants or modern warehouse space. Of course, the number one topic is still work safety, but in recent years a lot has also been happening in social spaces. A canteen for employees is a must, regardless of the industry the company operates in. More and more importance is being attached to the arrangement of company canteens, but also to the quality of meals served, to whether they are healthy.  A good example is Volkswagen which held a competition for the design of a canteen in its Poznań factory. The final realization does not differ from the dining rooms that we know from modern office buildings.

A well designed office can influence work satisfaction. Does it also increase the efficiency of users?

D.O.: There are many reports whose authors show a relationship between a specific intervention in the office space and productivity growth. However, it is always worth looking at the methodology. In many cases, the basis for these statistics is a survey of users and asking if they feel more productive. The subjective perspective is worth capturing, but it is a misuse to call this actual evidence of productivity gains. Productivity has been the holy grail of the industry for years, but measuring it is very difficult, especially in the knowledge economy. For each sector, type of company, often even for each team, individual measures and criteria would have to be developed, because most of us do not participate every day in a linear process where productivity is easy to measure; for example, the number of units coming off the line. Therefore, instead of looking for more or less reliable indicators of productivity, it is sometimes more effective to focus on a few key aspects that ultimately determine the company’s financial performance. Apart from the product or service itself, today’s success is often determined by the company’s business culture. In the context of the work environment, for example, a management approach that provides people with freedom in how and where they perform their tasks helps build employee engagement. This, combined with a good strategy, is one of the foundations of business success. In contrast, attempts to demonstrate a close relationship between office space design and productivity prove to be a trap – it’s usually impossible to provide a complete and reliable answer.

Are so-called designer interiors as effective as they are impressive?

D.O.: Very often it turns out that a well-designed work environment does not look exciting at all. Good design is important, it has an impact on many levels. We cannot talk about a conflict of opposites – either an interior which looks great in photographs or functionality. Both these aspects can certainly be reconciled. However, one should avoid focusing on the ‘wow’ effect, if there is no reflection on the impact of the design on the user behind it. The space in which we function influences us and shapes our behaviour.  Often the design itself is a message about what can and cannot be done in a given place. In a subdued interior of a reading room we feel a compulsion to keep quiet, whereas an interior full of variety, colors, shapes and textures invites to loud conversations and interaction. By appropriately selecting means of expression, the designer can, to a large extent, shape the behaviour of the recipients. The basis, however, is a well-considered functional concept, rooted in a reliable diagnosis of the culture and needs of the organisation. It’s not worth reaching for flashy gadgets just because no one else has them. After all, an office space is a tool – just like a computer or a piece of paper.

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