3 office design tips to increase engagement in the workplace

May 25, 2016 Pablo Quintana

Workplace design and workplace engagement go hand-in-hand, so consider these three tips when planning your next office. 


While a relatively new concept, engagement was researched at Boston University in the 1990s. And engagement surveys date back to the late 1800s when Fredrick Taylor, an industrial engineer, studied attitudes toward work and its impact on productivity in the steel industry. More recently, researchers from Deloitte, Sirota, and the Conference Board have approached the subject. Gallup, the polling firm, now provides daily stats on employee engagement. And in the design world, the likes of Knoll and Steelcase have done extensive research to show the relationship between design and an engaged workforce.

Employee engagement is on the mind of today’s organizations. What the data says: 

  • Deloitte Consulting’s 2014 research says 87% of organizations cite culture and engagement as one of their top challenges, and 50% call the problem “very important.” 66% are updating their retention strategies.

  • Employee engagement is crucial to success. Employees with the highest level of commitment perform 20% better and are 87% less likely to leave the organization.

  • Retention is a goal of increasing engagement. Millennials, the young adults ranging in age from 18 to 34 in 2016, are not wooed by salary alone. Driven by purpose, many move on if they don’t find their jobs engaging.

  • This isn’t just a millennial issue. According to Gallup, only 13% of the global workforce is “highly engaged.” Gallup estimates that disengagement costs the U.S. $450 – 550B every year.

Engagement is a complex issue in which culture, opportunity for meaningful work, advancement, mission, and leadership all play a role. But design, too, can influence engagement. Research by Knoll and environmental psychologists indicate that workplace quality and workplace design affect mood, which in turn influences engagement.

Data from global research firm IPSOS of 10,500 workers in 14 countries, commissioned by Steelcase, indicates that disengaged workers are dissatisfied with their work environments. Engagement research has shown that workplace design has a good return on investment when done properly. See more sources below.

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 employees’ 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 and 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.



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

1. 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.

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

Everyone who 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.

3. 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.



Knoll, Design Features and Effective Work
Deloitte Human Capital Trends 2014
Deloitte, Unlocking the Secrets of Employee Engagement
Gallup State of the American Workplace 2013
Gallup, Majority of U.S. Employees Not Engaged Despite Gains in 2014
Gallup, How to Tackle U.S. Employees’ Stagnating Engagement
Steelcase Global Report, 360 magazine, Engagement + the Global Workplace

About the Author

Pablo Quintana

Pablo Quintana is a third-generation architect in Stantec’s Washington, D.C., office with a portfolio of state-of-the-art, alternative workspaces for Fortune 1000 clients. He believes “meaningful storytelling and design can elevate the mundane into the sublime.”

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