Research paper: Office design, empowerment and productivity

The United Kingdom has about 101,456,000 square metres of office space (UK Government, 2008). There are around ten million office workers. (Office of National Statistics, 2015). The potential influence of office design on worker productivity is evidently worth studying – a huge amount of capital is invested in office space, and around one-third of the county’s workforce operates in offices, (Office of National Statistics, 2015). If changes in office design can improve productivity, the impact could be a significant boost to the economy.

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, (Myerson & Ross, 2003). It may even be the case that an office redesign is used as an opportunity to change or update the entire brand image. Similarly, the design of an office may be used as a way of expressing or reinforcing the culture of an organisation, (Marmot & Ely, 2000). Lastly, office designers will start to think through the way in which staff work, which team needs to be near which, and how tasks are shared amongst workers and thence will try to come up with a design that helps work flow smoothly and effectively. There are traditionally two broad schools of thought as to how this might be achieved: the “lean” approach and the “enriched” approach.

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, (Taylor, 1911). “Taylorism” is a relentless focus on the increase of efficiency and productivity, (Louis, 2007). It includes the standardisation of processes and work flow, the removal of anything extraneous to the job in hand, and a highly structured and managed office environment, (Prujit, 2003). A lean office is supposed to work by the intuitively simple idea of creating more room for the office’s staff thus enabling greater economies of scale, (Durmusoglu & Kulak, 2008). To increase this dimension of performance a lean approach might include “hot-desking”, i.e. the use of the same work-space by different employees at different times, (Hobson, 2006). Finally, Taylorism implies close management control of staff and the work practices they adopt, (Keyte & Locher, 2004). All of these aspects of lean design are aimed to drive out cost by eliminating the “seven wastes”: over-production, unnecessary stock, inefficient transportation, unnecessary motion, waiting time, rejects and defects and inappropriate processing, (Jones, Hines, & Rich, 1997).

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 (Kweon, Ulrich, Walker, & Tassinary, 2008) and living plants to try to improve the surroundings in an office, (Bringslimark, Hartig, & Patil, 2007). The idea is that this creates an environment that stimulates staff to identify with their employer, increases their psychological and physical wellbeing, and thus boosts their productivity relative to the lean approach, (Zelinsky, 2006).

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, (Haynes, 2007). The measurement of office worker productivity is not straightforward, especially compared to manufacturing. In assembling cars, for instance, it is trivial to count cars built per day. In a modern office what should we measure? Emails sent? Meetings held? Reports written? None of those measures really capture the outputs of office workers. So one well-recognised approach is to ask office workers to report on their own productivity, (Lehmann & Bordass, 2000). The measures that workers self-report on include several factors that are reported to impact productivity: the number of distractions, (interruptions, noise, crowding); interaction, (common areas, meeting rooms, quiet spaces, lounges, water cooler location, kitchenettes, photocopier / printer location); surroundings, (air quality, lighting, temperature, draughts, interior design, cleanliness, overall comfort); and layout, (work-space, storage facilities, location of co-workers, desk). It is apparent that there are two broad dynamics to self-reported productivity; the influence of the physical environment (surroundings, layout, comfort), and the effect of behavioural factors (interactions and distractions). Apart from the behavioural and physical influences, there is also the effect of differing work-styles to be considered. If workers need to work alone then office layout might be set up differently to offices where collaboration is important. Research shows that the behavioural dynamics interaction and distraction have the greatest influence, (Haynes, 2007).

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, (Peters & Waterman, 2004). Might productivity, self-reported or otherwise, respond differently if office workers could influence the environment themselves?

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, (Baldry, 1997). Decorating their own space is also a way in which office workers can demonstrate their status, and thus enhance their sense of wellbeing, (Wells & Thelen, 2002). Furthermore, if teams work together to influence the design of their own space it can help them differentiate themselves from others, and can thus help motivation and engagement, (Cornelissen, Haslam, & Balmer, 2007). Citing Baldry and Cohen, Knight goes on to say that disempowering workers, by for example removing personal effects or disallowing attempts at decoration, results in alienation, discomfort (Baldry, 1997) and reduced job satisfaction, (Cohen, 2007).

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 & Haslam, 2010). The experiments involved setting a series of four different tasks to office workers, and then manipulating the environment in which they were carried out. The tasks tested workers as follows: information handling skills, (sorting out files by date, and a then a quiz on the contents to test fro information retention accuracy); attention to detail, (counting instances of a particular letter in a passage of text copied from a newspaper); citizenship behavior, (the extent that workers chose to delegate or retain of favourable and unfavourable tasks); and lastly attitudes and feelings about themselves, their organisation, their workplace and their work, (an 80-question survey). The manipulation of the environment was achieved by bringing the office worker being tested into a temporary cubicle, and creating one of four conditions: (1) a classic “lean” or “Taylorist” office with an empty desk and nothing on the walls; (2) an “enriched” office decorated with paintings and pot plants; (3) an “empowered” office, where the worker could select his/her pictures and decorative objects; and (4) a “disempowered” office, where a third party changed the decor of the office in front of the worker after he/she had set it up, and without any consultation. The results of the experiment were compelling. Workers in the enriched space proved more productive and demonstrated better citizenship than those in the lean space, and in the survey reported better identification and engagement. When workers were empowered there were further improvements in productivity, citizenship and wellbeing. But when disempowered, even though the space ended up “enriched”, wellbeing, citizenship and productivity suffered relative to the empowered and enriched conditions.

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, Haslam, & Haslam, 2010). Knight’s hypotheses is undergoing an interesting test in an extreme environment: Halley VI - the British Antarctic Survey’s Research Station – was designed by its architects (Hugh Broughton Associates) taking into account the psychological and technical needs of its staff as they live and work in isolation and in the dark for long periods of time. Interestingly, staff on the station, whilst appreciating the design and colour palette of the base that had been designed for the, were empowered to move the furniture around themselves to make it feel more like their own home, (Slavid, 2015). They did so, and this would seem to show that research scientists have a strong need to express themselves by taking some control over their living and working environment.

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, (Spreitzer, 1995).

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. (Siebert, Wang, & Courtright, 2011).

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, (Spreitzer, 1995), merely providing an element of self-determination many not be enough if the others are low or absent. Indeed, one could imagine a scenario where in the absence of meaning, competence or impact an exercise to allow office workers to redesign their office space may actually highlight the more pervasive lack of empowerment, and actually make things worse! Knight is also silent on the contextual antecedents - management, support, and work characteristics, (Siebert, Wang, & Courtright, 2011) - that can either compromise or enhance the sense of empowerment through self-determination that would arise from controlling office design. For example, if management is very centralized and controlling, if there are insufficient resources available in financial, material or personnel terms, and if the work characteristics are mundane and uninspiring then the freedom to choose to have some pot plants or paintings on the wall may have relatively little impact as a driver of empowerment. Equally, if staff have low self-evaluation traits, the freedom to select artwork may have no impact on their sense of empowerment.

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, (Thomas & Velthouse). As we have seen, though, empowering employees is perhaps more complex that Knight seems to allow. To be effective, the right contectual antecendents need to be in place, the individual characteristics of employees needs to be orientated towards positive self-evaluation, and empowerment needs to hold across all four cognitions: self-determination, impact, competence and meaning. On the face of it Knight’s work provides good evidence that giving people the freedom to influence their own office design is empowering, and that it leads to better citizenship behavior, task performance and job satisfaction. However, it is a small, point-in-time intervention that may only have a marginal and temporary impact on only one of the dimensions of empowerment. It is difficult to see that the effect of an employee’s sense of self-determination would be long-lasting as a result of a one-off exercise to decorate a work-space. Nor is it clear that the impact of such an intervention would be significant relative to disempowering contextual antecedents, or in the face of low self-evaluation traits among employees. All of that said, however, there is a deep intuitive appeal to the approach of not treating office workers as insentient machines, or care home residents as passive patients, but rather giving them some influence over their own environment as a way of enhancing their dignity, and thus their wellbeing.


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