Workplaces That Enhance Performance and the Human Experience


In an age in which ideas and knowledge drive the economy, people are the chief currency of every business. With up to 80% of a company's expenses coming from human resources, it is vital that the workforce be engaged and empowered to enable productivity. Yet according to the latest edition of Gallup's annual engagement survey,[1] only 32% of the U.S. workforce is engaged, with 50.8% not engaged and 17.2% actively disengaged.  

Though many factors contribute to these statistics, research by Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) and the Centre for Evidence Based Management (CEBMa) has identified six factors that have the most impact on knowledge worker productivity:[2]

  1. Social cohesion.
  2. Perceived supervisory support.
  3. Information sharing.
  4. Common vision, goals and purpose.
  5. External communication.
  6. Trust. 

In workplaces that lack these attributes, engagement and productivity often will suffer.

A well-designed workplace that reflects a company's organizational DNA can be a powerful tool for enabling social connections, sharing information, and building communication and trust. Giving people choices about their surroundings and work settings also helps elevate their satisfaction.

Entrepreneur Jim Rohn once said, "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with."[3] And National Geographic Fellow and New York Times bestselling author Dan Buettner has identified "Blue Zones" as the parts of the world where people live the longest. On his list of the nine specific characteristics of these places is choosing the right tribe, which means surrounding yourself with people who support positive, healthy behaviors.[4] The traditional practice of limiting people's ability to choose where they sit in a workplace, however, often has a negative impact on workers' satisfaction and capacity to focus on their work.

Individuals are more loyal to the people they work with than to the actual company. A recent Harvard Business Review study noted the significant role of friendships on our level of satisfaction and engagement at work. This study revealed that "camaraderie promotes a group loyalty that results in a shared commitment to and discipline toward the work. Camaraderie at work can create 'esprit de corps,' which includes mutual respect, sense of identity and admiration to push for hard work and outcomes."[5]

Just as a bad attitude is contagious, a good one can be infectious. A study by the Harvard Business School and Cornerstone OnDemand showed that in densified spaces populated with productive people, the efficiency and effectiveness of nearby workers increased.[6] But employees who sat near toxic workers experienced a "spillover effect." This sphere of influence diminishes outside a 25-foot radius. Given that the average per-person space allocation in the modern workplace is 150 square feet, one bad egg—or disengaged worker—can negatively influence up to 16 people without moving from his or her desk.

In Europe and Australia, where activity-based working (ABW) is common, work points in those environments are unassigned and employees are free to move to a variety of settings and select one that matches their work style for the task at hand. Because they are not assigned a permanent spot, these employees can self-select their neighbors. This organic selection process diminishes the ability for the negativity of toxic employees to rub off on others. 

A well-designed workplace that reflects a company's organizational DNA can be a powerful tool for enabling social connections, sharing information, and building communication and trust. 

As Millennials mature and move into their next life stages, their desires and needs are shifting. A recent Leesman survey showed fewer differences between Millennials and Baby Boomers than were previously believed to exist.[7] With the emergence of Generation Z (individuals born since 2000), we will soon have a new group of workers to consider. We need to prepare for the arrival of this always-on or "screenage" generation, the first true digital natives. We also must be aware that the pressure of being available 24 hours a day can create anxiety, emotional detachment and other health concerns. "Technostress," the feeling that we need to be connected 24/7, could become a health epidemic over the next decade. 

To help workers feel productive and focused, designers need to provide a variety of work zones tailored to different kinds of tasks and create team-based environments that support community and a sense of belonging. These spaces should minimize visual clutter, simplify navigation, intensify contrast and provide plenty of natural light. We also must recognize that fitness is not a destination, but a way of life. Designing space to encourage movement supports people in a world that continues to promote excessive ease. 

No workplace can single-handedly solve an HR issue or cure employees of a bad attitude. But we can offer people options, embed healthier alternatives and provide choices. We need to ensure that people—our most valuable asset and the true currency of business—are happy, healthy, engaged and empowered. By truly understanding a company and designing space that is tailored to match its organizational DNA, we can create workplaces and user experiences that help everyone succeed. 

[1] Adkins, A. (2016, January 13). Employee engagement in U.S. stagnant in 2015. Retrieved from 

[2] Advanced Workplaces. (2015). The 6 factors of knowledge worker productivity… that change everything. Retrieved from

[3] Sato, K. (2014, May 9). Why the five people around you are crucial to your success. Entrepreneur. Retrieved from

[4] Blue Zones. (2016, November). Blue Zones history. Retrieved from 

[5] Riordan, C. (2013, July 3). We all need friends at work. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from .

[6] Greenfield, R. (2016, August 1). The ideal office floor plan, according to science. Bloomberg. Retrieved from

[7] Leesman. (2016). 100,000+ A workplace effectiveness report. Retrieved from



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