Increasing innovation and productivity: empowering employees through customizing work spaces

The spaces in which we work directly impact on how innovative our organizations are. Recent research by Steelcase has begun to identify what types of spaces help provide the greatest levels of innovation within organizations. What they, and others, are finding is that the key to innovation is the ability of people to come together in a range of ways and in a range of spaces. The idea that innovation is dependent on the work of a lone genius is a myth. Innovation depends on people working together.

This realization has meant that office design and the use of space has come increasingly to the fore in recent years. Part of this shift can be attributed to the success of organizations such as Google and Facebook who have famously tended to prioritize open-plan office formats over the traditional cubicle style models that dominated Euro-American offices for the second half of the twentieth century. Another factor in the shift in the last twenty years towards open-plan office formats is the ability of new technologies such as laptop computers and systems to decouple the need for workers to occupy specific sites or spaces to undertake their work.

The most recent manifestation of this broader shift towards open-plan office formats is the movement towards the use of non-territorial workplaces – where individuals are not assigned specific desks but are instead able to use different types of workstations as and when they need them. The shift to this particular type of open-plan office space – and increased office density – has the financial benefit of reducing the overall amount of office space required for each person in the organization. This is an important factor for many organizations due to the generally depressed economic environment that many have been operating in since 2008.

But, the question needs to be asked: to what extent do these types of open-plan office spaces actually impact on individual’s productivity and ability to innovate?

Recent research has begun to explore this, and the related question of how these types of spaces impact worker’s comfort levels – an important aspect contributing to worker’s overall productivity (ref). The research found that spatial effects – such as the layout of desks – did have an important impact on productivity. Interestingly, in their statistical analyses, the researchers found that these spatial factors were actually more pronounced in non-territorial office spaces as opposed to spaces where workers were assigned specific workstations.

Their findings suggested that in relation to these two broad variables – whether people were assigned specific work spaces, or not; and how the work spaces were laid out – it was these spatial factors rather than the territorial or non-territorial nature of work spaces that had a greater impact on worker’s productivity.

What the research from Jungsoo Kim and his colleagues found was that the key impacts on workers productivity were:

  • the ability to adjust/personalize workspaces;
  • the ability of the office layout to enable an ease of interaction with colleagues; and
  • the amount of storage space provided (ref).

Even where workers were not assigned specific work stations – when these three factors were present – worker productivity and comfort increased. What this research shows then, is that it is possible to build out productive workspaces that also have high-occupancy densities through techniques such as the use of non-territorial workspaces. However, in order for this to occur a degree of ability for workers to customize workspaces needs to be maintained. Removing the ability for workers to customize their work spaces decreases their overall productivity and comfort – regardless of whether or not they have their own specific work stations or not.

Whilst this post has focused on the role of empowerment by employees in the use and layout of their physical spaces it’s general lesson that productivity, and innovation too, is dependent on empowering employees applies across all aspects of an organization. Organizations wanting to thrive in the modern economy would do well to heed that lesson. 

Images courtesy of: Pixabay