Creating emotional connections between employees and their workplace is the key to boosting productivity and engagement, say Jeff Flanagan, managing director – commercial, Interserve, and Andrew Mawson, founding director, Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA)
Attitudes to our workplaces are changing. Turn the clock back 10 years and working environments were seen as simply functional spaces. The key concerns for occupiers focused around operational issues of asset efficiency: Are the lifts in order? Is the heating running efficiently? These concerns still matter, of course, but businesses today are much better attuned to the role the workplace can play in supporting commercial success. In particular, they recognise that the workplace experience can be a powerful tool in the push to drive employee performance and engagement.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), average productivity per hour in the UK is around 20 per cent lower than other G7 member countries such as France and Germany, and companies are now starting to think about how a new approach to the design and management of the work environment could support employee performance. With knowledge workers – employees who think for a living – now making up around half of the UK’s workforce, the need to create workspaces which encourage creativity and innovation is particularly acute.
Employers have also gained a much better understanding of the role the workplace plays in the war for talent. A new generation is entering the workforce and businesses need to respond to their expectations of what a modern, supportive working environment should look like, from HR through to bricks and mortar.
This shift in understanding presents both opportunities and challenges for the facilities management industry. We need to be at the heart of the workplace debate – and part of the solution. To do this, however, we must come to the table with informed ideas and practical tools.
Acknowledging that the value of the physical working environment is about more than just head count per square foot, and recognising the power of the workplace experience as a business tool, are steps in the right direction. However, if we want to make real progress we should put some research and statistics behind the rhetoric. We need to understand what makes effective workplace experiences, the science behind it, and how organisations can start to put this learning into practice.
There has been little research specifically into what makes a good workplace experience, but there is a significant body of scientific research looking at how human beings experience the world around them. In particular, many studies have been carried out looking at how our experience of a consumer environment, such as a shopping centre or a retail outlet, affects behaviour when it comes to intent to purchase and brand loyalty.
There is a great deal we can learn from the consumer world and, in particular, around creating emotional connections with our working environments. The idea of what makes a good working environment has traditionally been focused around functional aspects – making sure that a workspace and its basic infrastructure allows employees to perform competently and consistently. Facilities management teams have historically concentrated on issues such as tackling poor lighting, temperature and faulty equipment.
What the consumer world shows us is the need for the workplace experience to do all this and more – to make employees feel good, even loved by the organisation they work for. Customers who feel that a brand understands and cares for them have consistently demonstrated loyalty to that brand. In many ways, the workplace is the embodiment of an organisation’s brand and employees’ experience of it must demonstrate that the company cares for them, understanding and evaluating their needs and designing the workplace around them.
Putting these lessons into practice will require a new way of thinking, both on the part of facilities management teams and their customers. First, businesses will have to embrace a more holistic approach to the workplace, working with FM providers to look beyond functional delivery. They need to have a clear and honest conversation about what they want to achieve, working out what matters to them and what kind of brand values they want their work environment to reflect.
We also need to create new frameworks for what success looks like. Emotional connection is not something that can be easily measured. Traditional economic metrics and KPIs have their place but they will have little relevance when it comes to quantifying, for example, how loyal employees feel towards a business, or the level of energy and enthusiasm they have when it comes to work projects. These aspirations require us to develop softer, more subjective criteria.
A research project aiming to define, understand and apply the science behind creating effective workplace experiences is being conducted by Interserve in partnership with Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA). ‘Workplace experiences – the science series’ will be carried out over a two-year period, and intends to create a toolkit of resources and supporting data to help organisations use their workplaces to boost employee engagement and performance.
The latest report, ‘Decoding the workplace experience: how the working environment shapes views, behaviours and performance’ draws on analysis of over 100 reports and scientific studies into the customer experience and its impact on consumer behaviour. It looks at the lessons that can be applied to our working environments.
Key findings point to the need to use the workplace experience to engage employees on both a functional and an emotional level to help them achieve their very best. Emotions play a key role in defining the workplace experience and employers should seek to use the workplace experience to demonstrate care for their employees.
This process needs to take into account sensory inputs, such as visual and olfactory stimuli. While it must be consistent, the workplace experience must also evolve over time to meet changing demands and expectations and continue to engage the building’s users.
If customers need to rethink their approach, then it is also incumbent on FM teams to step up and lead this process. The constituents of the workplace experience have often been seen as separate responsibilities, shouldered by IT or human resources teams. But we need someone to connect these dots.
For too long, our industry has believed that good facilities management means going about our work unnoticed. If we are to support the creation of new effective workplace experiences, this must change. FMs have an unrivalled understanding of a building and its users. Our roles necessarily require us to be familiar with all aspects of a facility and its daily patterns. We need to exploit this knowledge, coming out of the shadows to play an active role in ensuring the workplace experience is the best it can be.
Adopting this new mindset will not be easy. As an industry we will need to learn from more customer-facing industries such as retail or the hotel sector. However, making the shift will bring significant benefits for our industry and for our customers too. Facilities management has long questioned whether it should have a place at the top table; now is our chance to earn it.