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Six Ways To Make Your Workplace Environment Work For Your Employees

Six Ways To Make Your Workplace Environment Work For Your Employees
Image credit: Shutterstock

Human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem. The effect of the environment has changed how people behave from social epidemics in a society to personal lifestyle habits. Even corporations have taken advantage of the influence that the physical environment has for a successful change in the management process. There is an ample amount of research that demonstrates the remarkable effect that the environment and surrounding can have on employees' productivity, motivation and decisions. Here are six things you can do to your workplace environment that would either encourage positive behavior or discourage negative behavior in the workplace.

1. Job location

Job location could effect employee performance in two different ways: the physical location of the offices along with the surrounding environment, and the employees' commute. How the physical location of the workplace might effect employee engagement depends on culture, geography, country, city and neighborhood. Unfortunately, finding secondary studies on employee productivity versus work address in your local area can be difficult to find or non-existing. In addition, re-locating your business to the best places for your employees can be an expensive and cumbersome solution. Hence, it would be wiser to focus on the second factor, which is how far employees would take to get to work.

Commuting distances have an impact on both staff loyalty and productivity. A study underwent by Regus on staff engagement have found that two in five mostly satisfied employees who commuted for more than an hour considered leaving their job. Similar studies made by Xerox Services and the VU University in the Netherlands have also found that commute time is strongly associated with employee engagement and productivity. To avoid this problem altogether, some companies such as IBM give priority to candidates who live nearby during the hiring process. However, considering applicants’ address and distance to work as a hiring factor will severely limit your chances to find great talent and skills.

Yet, there are many other solutions that can work out best for both your business and employees. Below are five workarounds to circumvent the negative effects of commuting to work:

  • Allow flexible start and end times to avoid standard rush hours during the mornings and evenings.
  • Implement a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) strategy where employees don’t have schedules and they don’t have to be in office at a certain time. After experimenting with ROWE, Best Buy has reported a 35% increase in employee productivity.
  • Allow long-commuting employees to work from home, perhaps a day or two each week. This will lower employee stress levels and burnouts. British Telecom recorded a 20% increase in productivity after allowing the ability of over 70% of its employees to work from home.
  • Hire candidates who are willing to relocate. Facebook rewards employees with various bonuses for living within 1-8 km from work.
  • Provide transportation services for employees. A comfortable company bus with Wi-Fi would allow employees to complete work-related tasks during a long commute such as replying to emails, perform phone calls, or simply read a newspaper. If a company bus is not available, you can encourage carpooling among employees through subsidies or rewards.

2. Autonomy in workspace

When you walk into a modern day office environment, you will notice most businesses have an open floor plan workplace. In fact, 70% of all offices have an open floor plan. But is this workplace design the best option for your business? In 2011, Matthew Davis, a psychologist and business professor at the University of Leeds, reviewed more than a hundred studies on workplace environments. His findings conclude that the noise and interruptions by colleagues in open offices had a negative effect on employees’ productivity, creativity and satisfaction. (For more information on how open floor plans can be detrimental to your business, see Maria Konnikova’s write-up on The Open-Office Trap.)

On the other hand, determining the best office layout for your business can get very complicated. There could be many factors associated with this, such as team structure and cooperation, task-oriented, spatial and economical constrains, etc. Nonetheless, there is one solution that the majority of workplace studies have come to a consensus, and it is that providing autonomy for teams to control their workplace environment had the most positive impact on their productivity and satisfaction. Furthermore, in a study published in 2010 by Craig Knight and S. Haslam at the University of Exeter, found that employees who were given autonomy in their workplace design and decoration were 32% more productive than others who had no control over their office environment. They have also found that those teams had stronger team cohesion and commitment. In case you choose to hand over control to teams to decide on their own workplace environment, and they haven’t come to an overwhelming agreement how their desks/cubicles are arranged, you can then provide autonomy for each person’s workspace individually. 

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3. The atmosphere

The physical atmosphere at every work environment typically consists of walls, ceiling and lighting. According to research studies, wall color, ceiling height and light intensity have different effects on employees’ performance. The choice of wall color, ceiling height, and room brightness depends on the type of work your team is in engaged in. If your team is working on tasks that require an element of creativity or generating new ideas, it is best to accommodate them in a room with a high ceiling, walls colored in blue or green, and/or dim illumination. That is because researchers believe that these variations in the environment have a priming effect, encourages a feel of freedom and to think more conceptually.

On the other hand, if your team is working on tasks involving attention to detail, analytical thinking or working on a specific plan, then a room with a low ceiling, red-painted walls (or partially painted), and/or a brightly lit room. Such variations in the atmosphere of your workplace environment are perfect when workers are not required to look for new ideas. As a side note, if re-painting the rooms at your workplace to blue/green or red sounds unusual or costly, you can change other elements in the environment to match such colors such as decorations or even the backgrounds of computer desktop screens.

4. Natural elements

Multiple studies have shown that exposure to natural elements such as sunlight and greenery improves mental health and employee attitudes. One study shows that a window view to a natural landscape, trees or a park reduces stress levels and increases employees’ well being. Another study has found a positive correlation between direct sunlight and job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Yet, the effect of direct sunlight and a window view of nature do not only affect people at their workplace, but also patients who are recovering from surgery at a hospital. Researchers from Paoli Memorial Hospital and Montefiore University Hospital reported that patients who are exposed to direct sunlight or a window view of nature required 21% less pain medication and recovered two days faster than patients who had undergone the same treatments, but either had darker rooms or a window view to an urban landscape.

In any case, most businesses do not have such a luxury to provide offices with window views offering plentiful sunlight and natural sceneries. Is there another way to expose our employees to natural elements? Actually, yes! In 2010, five researchers from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences were studying the performance on two groups of people. One group was assigned to an office setting with four indoor plants, both flowering and foliage. The other group was assigned to an office with the same setting but without plants. The group who were in an office settings with plants not only performed better, but also had lower stress levels and were able to recover faster from demanding activities.

Related: Understanding Workplace Stress Is Key To Managing It Better

5. Situation-dependent changes

So far, we have talked about how subtle changes in the physical environment can change employee behavior and engagement. Though, more often than not, employee behavior is directly influenced by the situational they are in. Yet, we are more inclined to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are than the situational and environmental forces that shape their behavior. In psychology, this deep-rooted tendency is called the “Fundamental Attribution Error” –in layman terms- putting the blame first on people before assessing the situation.  Therefore, it is both easier and more efficient to change people's environment than their minds in achieving the desired behavior.

For example, traffic engineers who wanted people to drive responsibly added speed bumps and installed stoplights on the roads. Banks have programmed ATM machines to force people to remove their credit cards before receiving their cash in order to prevent people constantly forgetting their credit cards in the machine. There are many examples that exist in the workplace too. The following case study exemplifies how a simple tweak in the environment successfully changed the behavior after all measures have been taken- from the book Switch, by the Heath brothers:

A management-consulting company introduced an online time-sheet tool to replace time sheets that were submitted by paper. However half of the employees weren’t using it despite management having made it mandatory and setting educational classes on using the tool. It was only when they observed the employees while they filled out the online time sheet, they found out employees started grousing as soon as they encountered a "wizard". The wizard was a software assistant built into the online tool which was intended to help employees fill out the form. At that point, executives removed the wizard allowing people to go directly to the form itself. As a result, within a few weeks everyone was using the online time sheet tool. Because of this, executives have learned that the environment influenced their behavior, rather than jumping quickly into conclusions blaming the employees themselves for the lack of compliance.

6. The Broken Window theory

The Broken Window theory argues that a small sign of disorder could encourage more widespread negative behavior because of the social norms that it communicates. The theory originates from the field of criminology suggesting that if a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge, thus resulting in more windows to be broken. What’s even more alarming is that a violation of one social norm will not only lead to the violation of the same norm, but also lead to the violation of a different but related norm.

To put the theory to test, researchers placed a stamped and addressed envelope clearly containing some money halfway in a mailbox, so that it is visible and accessible to passersby. Then they observed the behavior of passersby under two different environmental setting. In the first setting, there was no garbage litter on sight. In the second setting, the environment was littered. At the end of the observation period, the researchers found that the theft rate of the envelope has almost doubled in the second setting just by the mere existence of litter on the floor.

This theory has many implications in the workplace environment and how it affects employee behavior. For example, employees in an office walking past by an untidy photocopier or paper shredded area will more likely to leave their dirty coffee cups on the counter or fail to wipe up spillage in the kitchen area. Furthermore, allowing minor aspects of the office to remain disorderly can consequently lead to other serious workplace misconduct.

Another environmental factor that would help persuade others to behave in more socially desirable ways is the usage of mirrors. According to the book, Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by R. Cialdini, S. Martin and N. Goldenstien, mirrors have done wonders in reducing employee theft in the workplace. The authors have also conducted further research and found that mirrors have reduced littering rates by almost half. That is because looking at ourselves in a mirror causes us to reflect on our behavior.

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