Employee control in the workplace: The power of choice

by Diane Coles Levine — September 2016 — Designing a high performing workplace requires a deep understanding of how and where people work.  The best way to obtain this information is through those that directly perform that work.  “Involving employees in the design of the workplace provides an opportunity to increase employee engagement.  If participants are engaged in developing a new design, they are more likely to be committed to its implementation; even more important, they learn how to improve work and workplace on a continuing basis.   When key stakeholders are active and involved, the process is more responsive to the needs of the organization and tensions among participants tend to be productive.”[1]

Changing the workplace without giving employees some form of control in the design can adversely impact employee health, safety and welfare.  When employees perceive the workplace as negative, the consequences can mean an increase in employee stress, workplace injuries, absences, employee turnover, insurance claims, benefits utilization and error rates and subsequently a decrease in employee productivity, engagement, satisfaction, innovation, customer service and quality of work.

The power of choice is very powerful and studies show that “employee control of their physical environment can enhance individual, group, and organizational performance. Control can come through furnishings and work tools that can be modified or manipulated. . . . flexible meeting spaces, movable partition walls, unassigned workspaces, movable storage units, seating, adjustable shelving, task lighting, monitor arms.” In addition, “symbolic representation[s] of control could become a status marker itself, like the door on a private office was for some office workers.  By making control a central component of workplace strategy, organizations may enhance their competitive advantage.”[2]

Employees at an insurance company in Los Angeles deeply appreciate their power of choice in self-designing their office space.  Choice has improved productivity as teams are asked to experiment with the placement of their furniture while thinking of ways to improve their performance metrics.  This company is monitoring these metrics to better understand the impact of space design on employee productivity.  The sales department credits the new space with playing a part in a 57 percent increase in sales.   According to the telesales manager, “Working in the new space has improved collaboration and customer processing in telesales.”

A “Nomads in the Workplace” program allows employees the flexibility to work anywhere within a building or designated neighborhood.  Home office workers have been practicing this nomadic way of working for some time, but now even employees who must be in the office every day because of the nature of their job can benefit from the flexibility that mobile technologies enable.  The Nomads program is also geared toward employees who are not able to work at home.  Becoming more nomadic not only reduces real estate costs, it also helps break down silos, allows teams to become more creative and helps to resolve issues quickly by using collaboration areas more effectively.

Choice in design can impact creativity and innovation and studies show that “highly creative teams are more likely to actively participate in the design of new office space, whereas less creative teams do not express interest in, and even avoid, such participation, leaving design decisions to management.”  Janetta McCoy found that “Highly creative teams would collectively personalize their work areas with artifacts reflective of team goals and achievements. Less creative teams do not display team-oriented artifacts, though those individuals do tend to display items and photographs of personal interests. [3]  As one project manager at the insurance company said “I really enjoy the flexibility of the nomad status.  It’s allowed me to easily assemble a small group for quick meetings or retreat to a phone booth for quiet concentration.  The flexible state-of-the-art furniture adds to the feeling that I’m in a modern, professional environment. And, we are able to be imaginative in how we use and decorate our neighborhood.  I feel the new space has improved our creativity.”

An urban clothing company in San Diego integrated staff early in the design process to understand how people work and implemented that into the design of the facility. The workstations are all custom designed around the different departments that actually utilize the space.  For example, the apparel and footwear departments each have modifications so that the workstations respond to how they work with special racks for clothing and shelves for shoes. “We looked at requirements over five years and employee satisfaction with old facility.”  Said the Facilities Project Director. “It was clear that the employees wanted a better fitness center, an employee cafeteria, increase daylight, engaging showrooms and productive design rooms with better technology.

Employees requested more designated functional work rooms with videoconferencing capabilities to increase efficiency and enhance collaboration.  With only a few optimal hours to talk to staff in the Japan headquarters (i.e., 3:00 pm in the USA is 8:00am in Japan) and limited videoconferencing rooms, California teams were often up in the middle of the night to participate in product review meetings.  The new space provides for meeting rooms with videoconferencing, decreasing the need for late night meetings with Japan.  To improve collaboration writable surfaces were introduced along with special convergence areas equipped with Steelcase Mediascape.

 Thanks to intensifying competition for top-tier talent, recruitment and retention have become major concerns for this company.  They were able to reduce turnover rate and increase employee time to hire by listening to their employees and providing them with more amenities and the flexibility to work in a variety of places. One approach was to enhance their wellness program with:

  • A state-of-the-art fitness center
  • Walking stations on each floor
  • Running and walking paths on campus and nearby
  • Free bicycles
  • Water and fruit stations throughout the workspace
  • A new cafeteria with healthy food options and cooking lessons

The idea behind the collaborative design of their new cafeteria is that it is a respite away from the work environment.  It has a whole different feel with high ceilings, very open, very airy so you really feel like you are walking away from your work day world.   Additionally, outdoor barbeques, set near gorgeous waterfalls and palm trees, equipped with wireless access are popular areas to eat and work.    “The space has helped us reduce turnover.” Said the Human Resources Director. “People are collaborating more than ever and basketball games are played daily at lunch time with regular tournaments where colleagues cheer each other on.   They gym is full every day before work, during lunch and after work.  Morale had definitely improved and we keep monitoring employee satisfaction and making tweaks to our space. ”

Some methods to empower employee choice in design 

  1. Conduct design charrettes with representatives from all departments and look for common themes. At the insurance company, Employees were shown a series of pictures and asked to select which best represented their ideal office and explain why. The common themes that emerged from these exercises were the need for better acoustics, lighting and color, along with more freedom of choice and mobility.
  2. Get design input from staff not just management. During the space programming process, both companies worked directly with employees to understand the: who, what, when, where and how of their work.
  • Who did they need to work with
  • What tools were necessary for improved productivity
  • When did they need to work
  • Where were they most productive
  • How did they work
  1. Conduct surveys to understand employee satisfaction with the space, workplace services, environment, technology and amenities
  2. Use data to drive decisions and conversations. Data should be considered when planning the workplace including space occupancy data, desired ways of working (e.g., heads down, collaborative, hoteling, work anywhere), desired building amenities (e.g., cafeteria, fitness center), technology requirements, and workplace satisfaction, observational studies, security badging and sensors along with employee productivity and performance metrics.

 Space design shouldn’t happen in a vacuum or be determined solely by management.  For Facility Managers, this can sometimes be challenging when working with senior executives.  Keep in mind that studies show that “Improvements in well-being and productivity are observed when workers  have input into office decoration.   Moreover, these effects are attenuated if this input is overridden. . . . employees . . . should be empowered to design their own workspace rather than having predetermined space configurations thrust on them.”[4]   As Facility Managers, it’s our responsibility to explain to the C-Suite the positive impacts to business results when employees are given the power of choice.  As shown in the research and two companies mentioned in this article, including workers in design can increase productivity, creativity, teamwork, collaboration and reduce turnover and time to hire.

There are more case studies like this in the IFMA Foundation book Work on the Move co-edited by Nancy Johnson Sanquist and me.  Another resources is the IFMA Workplace Evolutionaries (WE) Community, a group formed to stimulate workplace innovation and empower people to create, lead, and implement workplace transformation. https://we.ifma.org/

[1] Turid H. Horgen, Michael L. Joroff, William L. Porter and Donald A. Schon. 1999. Excellence by Design: Transforming Workplace and Work Practice. John Wiley & Sons.

[2] Michael O’Neill. 2010. “A  Model  of  Environmental  Control  and  Effective Work.” Facilities, vol. 28, no. 3/4, pp. 118-136.

[3] Janetta McCoy. 2002. “Work Environments.” In Robert Bechtel and Arza Churchman (eds.), John Wiley and Sons: New York, pp. 443-460.

[4] Craig Knight and Alexander Haslam. 2010. “The Relative Merits of Lean, Enriched, and Empowered Offices: An Experimental Examination of the Impact of Workspace Management Strategies on Well-Being and Productivity.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 158-172.


Diane Coles Levine is the Executive Director of the IFMA Foundation. Previously, she was the founder and managing Partner at Workplace Management Solutions. She served on the IFMA Board of Directors, is Past Chair of the IFMA Foundation and was named the 2015 IFMA Corporate Real Estate Council Distinguished Member. She is an international speaker and guest lecturer at Vienna University of Technology and MIT Professional Education Programs. Diane is co-editor and author of Work on the Move.

Workplace Evolutionaries’ (WE’s) mission is to “change the world one workplace at a time.” It’s a global community of over a thousand professionals who care deeply about the world of work and where it’s going. Among its members are workplace strategists, change managers, facilities managers, architects, designers, HR professionals, IT managers, academics, and product and service providers. WE members enjoy three conferences a year, monthly WEbinars with thought leaders from around the world, a monthly round-up of the best workplace research and news, white papers, and a vehicle for connecting with fellow evolutionaries around the world. WE is a global Community of Practice within the International Facility Management Association.