Why flexible offices do not always increase employee performance

Workspaces that are designed to allow employees to find the right space for each specific task, do not always have the intended effects of increasing performance, work engagement and improving mental health. That is what PhD graduate Christina Wessels of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) discovered after performing a case study in an office that had undergone a redesign.

Activity-based workplaces are increasingly becoming one of the cornerstones of the New Ways of Working, says researcher Wessels. In this philosophy, companies redesign their offices to offer a wide range of spaces that fit the activity at hand: focused working in silent areas, and informal meetings in social spaces. This approach reduces the number of required desks, which can eventually reduce overhead costs for office space.

Well-being and performance

But the redesigns are not just meant for cost-cutting; they are often implemented to increase employee mental health, well-being and performance as well. Results of earlier studies into office redesign have been conflicting about if this is actually the case, says Wessels. Some found negative outcomes, others positive and some none. Open-floor plans, for example, can make it easier for co-workers to communicate and exchange ideas. On the other hand, the distractions in such a setup can also make it harder for people to concentrate. In that case, performance goes down and people experience more stress.

Underlying process

That is why in her study, Wessels studied not just the outcomes of the redesign in the building of a large government agency, she also looked at the underlying processes. Over the course of a year and a half, the researcher compared two groups of employees from the same organisation. One group of 112 employees had switched to the new activity-based workplace. It consisted of three zones, ranging from quiet to social, and various meeting rooms. The other group of 112 employees kept on working in their assigned workspaces and served as the control group.

Analyses of the surveys revealed that the redesign of the new workspace had not led to a change in work engagement, performance or mental health of employees. To find out why the redesign did not have the any effect, the researcher conducted a series of interviews and panel discussions. These made clear that many employees were not really using the activity-based zones as intended. Instead they often attempted to recreate the earlier situation of assigned and fixed workplaces.

Routines

The underlying reasons for this can be traced back to individual employee preferences and the way the redesign had been implemented. Some participants in the study reported simply not having sufficiently diverse tasks to warrant working in different workspaces. Others felt switching places was too time-consuming or were attached to their established routines, their own workplace, or wanted to remain close to specific colleagues.

Implementation

But the interviews also demonstrated that employees felt that their involvement was too minimal. Participants also indicated that middle managers did not sufficiently facilitate the change process, and they perceived a lack of opportunities to share their own contributions.

The results of this study show that the switching to new ways of working is not easy. Management should fully understand such a transformation is reshaping existing social processes, and would do well to familiarise themselves with the routines and preferences of their employees. This should be accompanied with a tailor-made implementation and communication strategy involving those who are impacted by the changes, Wessels concludes.

Check the video here.

Download Wessel’s thesis: ‘Flexible Working Practices: How Employees Can Reap the Benefits for Engagement and Performance’


Publication date: 26 July 2017


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