It may be fashionable in some circles to equip your office with beanbags and pool tables, in the expectation that your employees will be happier and more engaged as a result. But these are gimmicks that have little real impact on employees’ engagement and productivity, according to Steelcase product marketing director Samantha Giam - and as the person in charge of product development for a company that has specialized in office furniture for over a century, she knows exactly what she is talking about.
People Matters caught up with Samantha at the launch of Steelcase’s latest office furniture series in November, where she shared her thoughts on employee engagement and how good workspace design can boost performance.
“Employee engagement is directly impacted by individual and team happiness,” she says. “Many problems with employee engagement arise from lack of team space, disruption of activities and concentration, and lack of access to the tools they need to do their job. If you look at the numbers, 86% of failed collaborations are due to space – space to move in, acoustics, personalization.”
Many companies are addressing these issues by making the office physically more work-friendly. This could include providing a choice of spaces for people to either work in quiet privacy or collaborate in teams; providing ergonomic and adjustable furniture that allows them to sit or stand comfortably for longer periods; or even just giving them greater control over the lighting and temperature in their working space.
How does one go about designing such a worker-friendly space? The first step is leadership, says Samantha. “Start with what's important to leadership. That drives culture, which drives choices about how space is used.”
“We as consultants cannot make decisions for the company. They decide what's the best way for people to work; they design the user experience,” she points out. “So you must guide them to answering organizational questions. They must invest in meeting organizational needs and be clear about what they want to achieve.”
The importance of leadership decisiveness and clarity in workspace design will go far beyond deciding on furniture and layouts in coming years.
“The physical development of products will have diminishing returns in the next 4-5 years,” says Samantha. “Instead, the next frontier will be the Internet of Things (IoT). We will see digital indicators for acoustics and privacy, lighting and temperature. These will not just let you monitor and adjust your own environment, they will keep you informed about your own behaviour and preferences. For example, if you are talking too loudly and disrupting someone nearby, an indicator might light up and nudge you to lower your volume.”
Other positive changes she foresees are a move towards induction charging, which will free people from being literally tied to any one workstation by their devices’ power cords, and an increasing focus on driving engagement through a bigger community and a sense of purpose.
This is not to say that the workplace of the future will be perfect. There will still be friction, she predicts, and it will come from seemingly petty issues such as where people put their personal belongings or who has access to what lockers.
And what about beanbags?
“Nobody uses beanbags!” she says, laughing.