The role of the workplace in employee motivation

workplace motivation 2

Need to know:

  • A poor work environment can have a detrimental impact on employee motivation, performance, and wellbeing.
  • Providing a variety of workspaces can encourage new ways of working and enable staff to work in an environment that best suits them and the task at hand.
  • Organisations should consider areas that can contribute to the wider employee experience, such as spaces that allow staff to relax, recharge, exercise or socialise with colleagues.

Of the 24 hours in a day, an employee in a nine-to-five role can spend around a third of their time in the workplace, yet research by Peldon Rose, published in July 2017, found that 42% of office-based staff feel that their current working environment does not have a positive impact on their happiness.

The physical workplace can also have a bearing on factors such as employee wellbeing, performance, collaboration, and productivity. Chris Moriarty, managing director at workplace effectiveness benchmarking organisation Leesman UK and Ireland, says: “If the working environment isn’t easy to use, if it isn’t free of obstacles and barriers, then it’s going to have a real impact on performance, which, in turn, will have an impact on motivation.”

If the workplace hampers employees’ ability to perform their jobs effectively, then it will not only hinder employers’ efforts to keep staff motivated, but it can also negatively impact wider talent strategies, he adds.

So how can organisations provide a working environment that enhances employee motivation rather than detracts from it?

Enabling different ways of working
Offering a range of different spaces can enable staff to work in the environment that is conducive to performing at their best. This should include spaces that allow for concentrated individual work and areas that facilitate teamwork. An organisation can tailor these different environments to suit the types of tasks and activities that staff undertake. “It’s about workplaces having the right level and appropriate variety of spaces,” says Moriarty.

A variety of meeting areas can also foster multiple forms of collaboration and motivate employees to work together in different ways. Steve Taylor, project director at workplace consultants and office design organisation Peldon Rose, says: “We try to encourage [organisations] not to have too many closed meeting rooms and not to have too many seated meeting rooms; so things like stand-up meeting tables or stand-up benches that [employees] can huddle around for a quick conversation, whether it’s a project catch up or a brainstorm. That means people move a lot quicker, and they’re more likely to be creative.”

The working environment can also play a role in motivating staff to change the way in which they work, thereby supporting an organisation’s wider goals. Liz Walker, HR director at Unum, says: “The physical environment that we as employers create should reflect what we are asking our employees to do.”

Unum completed a revamp of its Dorking-based head office six months ago and is gradually rolling out changes to its other sites. The revamp was designed to support cultural change at the organisation and to enable employees to work as effectively as possible across divisions by breaking down silos. The organisation has now moved to an agile environment with hot desks and a range of different work spaces, such as a library area for quiet, individual work, large collaborative areas for meetings, and smaller café-style seating for more informal catch ups, as well as adjustable sitting-standing desks. Areas of the office have also been designed with the specific needs of the organisation’s different business functions in mind, for example, large tables equipped with iPads for the marketing team to deliver presentations to a group of colleagues.

“We get a lot of feedback that [employees] feel better about coming to work, that it’s a more engaging and uplifting environment,” says Walker. “We’ve seen a lot more collaboration, working across departments and divisions more effectively, and people working together who didn’t know each other before.”

The wider employee experience
It is not just spaces that are ostensibly geared towards working that are important; areas that support employees’ physical, mental, and social wellbeing also play a key role. This might include retreat areas where an employee can relax and take a break when needed or areas that facilitate play, such as a games room, says Peldon Rose’s Taylor. If spaces are designed to be multi-purpose, then they could also host wellbeing activities such as yoga or meditation, he adds.

Social areas can also serve to strengthen relationships, which can encourage greater cooperation and knowledge sharing, and contribute to the retention of staff through the establishment of workplace friendships, says Andrew Mawson, managing director at workplace consultants Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA). “Increasingly we’re recommending that [employers] have spaces that act as the heart of the building and that are designed to attract people to them,” he explains.

Organisations could then hold social activities in these spaces to draw staff to them and help build relationships.

The delivery and thought process behind the working environment should also extend beyond traditional workplace design to deliver a multi-sensory experience, says Mawson. Sounds, smells, textures, and lighting can be adapted to create different environments and moods, for example, a lavender scent could help employees to relax. Mawson says: “[It’s thinking about] how can we use every second of the experience people have in their movement around the building to reflect the culture of the organisation and the personality of the organisation, to attract and hang on to the people [the organisation] wants to, and then how to create the conditions in which people can be the best they can be.”

Looking to nature
Incorporating nature into the workspace and ensuring the environment is light and open can also have a positive effect on employees’ performance and wellbeing, explains Taylor. “We’re pushing the point of biophilic inspiration,” he says. “Biophilic inspiration is taking inspiration from nature; anything associated with the outdoors [such as] grass and trees. We, as humans, respond to that.”

This effect has also been felt at Unum’s revamped head office, where natural elements have contributed to motivating staff to improve their health and wellbeing. Walker says: “The lighting, the sense of space, and having greenery just creates a different environment for people so they’re more likely to want to make healthy choices.”

The move to agile working has also encouraged employees to be more active in moving around the office, while a no-eating-at-hot-desks policy has meant that staff are getting away from their desks to take a break at lunchtime and to socialise with colleagues in the office restaurant, adds Walker.

Making changes
When making changes to the working environment, it is important to understand both how the workplace is currently utilised and how this could be changed to enhance ways of working or encourage new behaviours. Organisations can work with consultants to gauge this information, ensuring that employees from across the business have the opportunity to provide feedback, for example, identifying any barriers they face and sharing how certain changes could improve their working experience or support their team’s goals.

The wider objectives of the business should also be considered. “If [an organisation has] change or cultural or strategic objectives, and a wellness agenda, make sure that’s aligned with the space, that the environment is helping to drive the results,” says Walker.

However, physical changes alone may not be enough to motivate staff to work differently; organisations need to help staff understand those new ways of working, says Leesman’s Moriarty. This might include communications, a top-down approach from senior management, and physically demonstrating to staff how workspaces can work for them.

As Moriarty says: “We’re seeing more [organisations] make the effort now to look at their workplace strategy as a whole and developing an environment that supports and enables work in a much better way. The next step is understanding that it’s not simply a case of putting a new workplace in, [but] that there’s a real change management layer that needs to be wrapped around it.”

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