The United Kingdom has about 101,456,000 square metres of office space
This paper will review the academic literature on the factors that have determined office design and how they influence productivity, and then go on to review the contribution to the debate of the work on “The Psychology of Office Design and Management” by Craig Knight of Exeter University.
When a business or organisation sets out to build or refurbish offices it will have various aims and constraints in mind. First amongst them is perhaps the capital cost of the build, and the impact on running or maintenance costs in the future. The second is likely to be capacity – how many staff will be required to be accommodated, and what growth is anticipated over the planning horizon for which the office is intended. Then, given a budget and number of staff, it is likely that the decision makers will want to create a design and project an image that fits in with the business’s brand,
The lean approach derives from Frank W Taylor’s work in the early 20th century. Taylor brought his engineering training to bear on the field of human effort,
Taylorism has led office design to the point we find it today in many buildings and cities: long, parallel lines of work stations, “clean-desk” policies, monochrome colour schemes and corner offices for senior management with panoramic views across the ranks of workers. This has been a dominant theme for a century or more: the typist pools of the early 20th century and the trading floors of the early 21st century have much in common.
By contrast, and to a large extent as a reaction to the rather bleak view of Taylorism, there is the “enriched” approach; its classic manifestation is the use of art
The underlying question, however, is which approach works best to increase productivity? The answer depends on how productivity is measured, and secondly on what effect the office design might have on that productivity,
So, the classic approach to understanding the importance of office design tends to look at the impact on self-reported productivity of its physical and behavioural dimensions. One underlying aspect that is evident is that office workers merely occupy a design that has been created for them and over which they have had little influence. “Management”, often advised by real-estate specialists or facilities managers, has determined the look, the feel, the image, the culture, the capacity and where desks and departments should be. Then the employees are moved in,
Craig Knight’s work on “The Psychology of Office Design and Management” suggests just such an idea. To the dimensions of lean and enriched offices, he adds the orthogonal notion of empowered and disempowered environments. In short, Knight proposes that if individuals in an office can decorate and design their own office space they become empowered, and this will have a positive impact on their comfort, their identification with the organization and their productivity. Such empowerment can help convey a sense of belonging, control and privacy,
Knight’s evidence for these conclusions came from a series of experiments he conducted in partnership with Alexander Haslam in 2010. The results were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology,
Knight went on to explore the impact of empowerment in care homes for the elderly and infirm. The hoped-for outcomes were not, of course, productivity improvements, but rather enhanced social interaction and thence wellbeing, reduced frailty, improved happiness and even longevity. In a natural experiment when residents of a care home were being moved to a new building Knight conducted research into the impact of empowerment at a group (as distinct to individual) level. By giving one group of residents power over the décor of their floor’s common parts in the new building, but not the others (so as to have a control group), Knight tested four hypotheses about the effects of collective empowerment: (1) social identification with fellow residents and psychological well-being would increase; (2) interaction and citizenship would increase; (3) quality of life and health would improve; and (4) residents would make more use of the communal space whose décor they influenced. Published in 2010, the results were again persuasive. All four hypotheses were supported, both according to self-report by the residents and as appraised by the care home’s staff. As Knight put it, the collectively empowered care home residents no longer felt “in a home”. Instead they felt “at home”,
Knight, it seems, has hit on a simple intervention that appears cheap, effective, and powerful: give individuals and groups the power to set up their own surroundings in an office or living space. This empowerment enhances productivity, increases psychological and physical wellbeing, and stimulates better citizenship. Furthermore it would seem to allow managers and designers to save money and time in designing lean or enriched offices and care-homes; rather they should set their staff / residents free and allow them to do it. Knight did not, however, look more broadly at the literature on empowerment. His very simple hypothesis boiled down to the idea that increasing an employee’s empowerment through giving them some control over their office design will lead to increased productivity. But that raises the question of whether empowerment more generally can increase productivity, and if so, what are the mechanisms? We could then place office design into a wider construct of empowerment and see how it fits in.
Sprietzer proposed a strong theoretical framework for understanding empowerment. She argued that psychological empowerment would lead to increased worker motivation and productivity if these four cognitions were high: meaning, self-determination, competence and impact. An employee gets meaning from his or her work if there is good alignment between their role and their own beliefs and values. A worker will have a high sense of self-determination if they believe they have a choice over the tasks and actions they carry out. Workers who believe they are capable of performing their role have a high sense of competence. Employees who feel they can influence the strategy and processes of their organization believe they have impact. If a worker has a high sense of meaning, self-determination, competence and impact they feel, overall, empowered. If any of the four are low or absent, they will not, and the proposed benefits of empowerment are less likely to flow,
Siebert, Wang and Courtright went on to propose that the degree of empowerment across the four cognitions is dependent on contextual antecedents and the individual characteristics of the employee. By contextual antecedents they meant management, support, and work characteristics; these nature of these three can strongly influence the extent of empowerment. By individual characteristics they meant, (mainly) the extent to which workers had positive self-evaluation traits. So, if management shares information, delegates authority, includes employees in decisions, offers training and coaching, and rewards staff based on performance it will increase the likelihood of staff feeling empowered. If employees have good support from the culture of the organization, from feeling valued and being trusted, as well as having sufficient material resources they will likely feel empowered. Lastly, if the nature of their work allows autonomy, is significant, feels challenging and allows feedback employees will have a sense of empowerment. Furthermore, if individuals have positive self-evaluation in the sense that they tend to have a positive sense of their own worth, then their empowerment is likely to be stronger. If empowerment is high, then the consequences include better job satisfaction, high organizational commitment, lower stress, better citizenship behavior, enhanced innovation and reduced staff turnover.
So how does office design fit into this construct? Giving employees the ability to influence the design of their work-space touches on one of the four cognitions that drive a sense of empowerment – self-determination. Employees who can decorate their office are, for that moment, given a good sense of choice over their actions, but there is no apparent a link to the other three cognitions; meaning, competence and impact. If Spreitzer’s contention that full empowerment depends on all four cognitions being in place,
Empowering people is a way of increasing intrinsic task motivation, and can have a significant positive impact on employee’s job satisfaction, organizational identifcation and citizenship, all of which will likely lead to increased productivity,
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