Early involvement of HR in workplace design boosts employee wellbeing

relaxed office with window

Workplace design is often left to health and safety departments or facilities managers. But evidence shows that HR should have a role to provide benefits for productivity, employee engagement and reduced sickness absence, says Adam Burtt-Jones.

Responsibility for employees’ health and wellbeing is often characterised by a “pass the buck” approach. It’s too easy to argue that health and safety departments or operational managers have a duty of care to comply with legislation. It is a deeper issue than that.

Perhaps it just gets put down to ergonomics, so facility managers are tasked with finding appropriate furniture and chairs. However, there is a growing body of documentation that links health and wellbeing to improved productivity, reduced absenteeism and better engagement at work.

Latest evidence shows workplace design improves wellbeing

The World Green Building Council has just released its latest report Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices: The Next Chapter for Green Building. The report states: “Staff costs, including salaries and benefits, typically account for about 90% of business operating costs. Therefore what may appear a modest improvement in employee health or productivity, can have a huge financial implication for employers – one that’s many times larger than any other financial savings associated with an efficiently designed and operated building.”

Surely then, this raises the discussion to the level of a company-wide strategy. And who should be responsible? Everyone, but especially HR.

That is because employee health and wellbeing rests on two axes. The first is the “people to people” axis. This is about relationships between individuals, managers, departments and teams, plus the connection between the employee and the organisational entity. We should not forget external stakeholders, suppliers and customers. There are plenty of terms that can be applied to this, from culture through to employee engagement, but central to these is the social and work-based relationship.

The second axis is “people to place”, which is the relationship of an individual with their environment and surroundings. This is not just about physical design of an office or health and safety requirements; it’s about understanding what people need to do the job they’re employed to do.

HR has a wealth of information about people’s competencies, personality profiles, engagement levels, performance and productivity, all of which are extremely valuable when looking at redesigning or relocating a workplace. What’s more, HR is perfectly placed to engage and communicate with employees about their workplace environment.

In our experience, HR is rarely consulted at the initial strategic stages when office redesign projects or relocations are first considered. It is often a senior leadership decision based on financial information, both for expansion and contraction, or logistical reasons, such as being closer to customers or the market. Regardless of whether these are proactive or reactive decisions, redesigning a workplace can be proven to have a positive impact on the bottom line.

The real role of HR should be in ensuring that the workplace redesign is fit for purpose and can contribute to improved health and wellbeing, and therefore productivity and engagement. This means engaging with people early in the process and understanding what they need from their workplace – bearing in mind both the social and the physical relationships.

This mitigates the risk that what looks great on paper might fail to work in practice. Take the issue of transparency, for example. Open-plan workplaces are extremely popular and are often said to improve information sharing, collaboration and relationships. While this might work for a proportion of individuals, and some organisations thrive on this transparency, other employees might find open-plan working extremely distracting, resulting in a drop in productivity and  morale, and potentially resulting in time off.

An article in the Harvard Business Review, The Transparency Trap by Ethan Bernstein, reports some disturbing findings, including: “For all that transparency does to drive out wasteful practices and promote collaboration and shared learning, too much of it can trigger distortions of fact and counterproductive inhibitions. Unrehearsed, experimental behaviors sometimes cease altogether.”

In Bernstein’s research, he found that in organisations that use open-plan working to monitor behaviour, innovation can cease altogether as employees “start going to great lengths to keep what they’re doing under wraps, even if they have nothing to hide. If executives pick up on signs of covert activity, they instinctively start to monitor employee behavior even more intensely. And that just aggravates the problem.”

Another physical factor that is easily overlooked is access to daylight. A stereotypical model of office design positions executives in the corner offices with the best views. In 2003, the Herchong Mahone Group conducted a study Windows and Offices. In one call centre, workers were found to process calls between 6% and 12% faster when they had the best possible view versus those with no view. Office workers’ reports of better health conditions were strongly associated with better views.

When Channel 4 redesigned its landmark HQ building in London, employees were asked what they needed from the new offices. One of the main negatives was the lack of natural light. When the building underwent a wholesale refurbishment, new windows were created, work stations and collaborative areas moved to the windows, and daylight was made available to anyone who needed it.

Why HR should be involved at the outset in workplace design

As soon as an organisation is considering redesigning or relocating its workplace, the first step should be to find out what people need. HR is perfectly placed to gather information ahead of the process starting. This includes understanding the profiles of individuals, teams and departments as well as specific mental and physical health requirements. It’s all about big data and if HR is not currently collating this information, they really should be doing so.

Working with a workplace design consultancy, HR should be able to measure and benchmark existing data, which is critical if the business wants to understand the return on investment and demonstrate an uplift in productivity. In-depth questions should also be asked about roles and responsibilities, and responses should be analysed to highlight the real stress points.

It’s strange that when it comes to workplace change there is little prototyping ahead of a full-scale move. It’s useful to prototype different workplace designs within the existing environment, so employees can experience and interact with the new environment and feedback their opinions.

Engagement at this early stage in the process is a great communications exercise. It provides an opportunity to explain the reasons why the redesign or relocation is happening, and also to demonstrate that the organisation is listening to employees’ views and opinions.

By feeding back to them and demonstrating that the design reflects their views, they will feel valued and more secure in the forthcoming changes. And one of the major disruptions to productivity is insecurity and fear of change. That’s why HR should be a key partner in workplace redesign, and the steward of employee’s health and wellbeing.

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