Workplace ecology under the microscope

The science of connecting design, productivity and well-being in the office
Thursday, December 18, 2014
By Michelle Ervin

Ecology is a term often associated with natural environments and their corresponding animal kingdoms, but it applies equally well to employees and their relationship with the workplace. Workplace ecology can be thought of as the connection between design, productivity and well-being, said Deanna Hayko, interiors director, B + H Architects, in a Dec. 4 session on the subject at the National Summit on Corporate Real Estate.

“When we’re talking with our clients,” Hayko said, “we really see these as important features that we want get through and ask the deeper questions.”

The three questions she asks clients are: Does performance actually matter in the workplace? Should today’s workplace really be user-focused? Can happiness truly affect the company’s bottom line?

The short answers to all three are yes, but it’s important to understand how each client is addressing those questions, Hayko said. This takes on increasing urgency in light of recent and troubling articles such as “Why you hate work” and statistics suggesting this widespread dissatisfaction can be linked back to the office environment.

Hayko pointed to a global Gallup study that found only 13 per cent of the workforce is engaged, while the remaining 87 per cent is either not engaged or actively disengaged. What’s more, Steelcase and Ipsos Reid did a survey that showed the 69 per cent of employees who were least engaged at work were also the most unsatisfied with their work environment.

So, she said, what can be done in the work environment to help?


Performance is really a question of how to encourage engagement, said Hayko, and the business owner, real estate community and design professional all have roles to play.

For the business owner, being transparent is key, she said, citing the transition from the information age to the collaboration age. It has been a shift from storing, transferring and accessing data to sharing and integrating information as well as co-creating.

For the real estate community, it’s about encouraging community and connection through site selection and location, Hayko said. Instead of characterizing the current trend as a move from suburbs to cities, she characterized it as a move from sameness, or isolation, to diversity. Diversity, in this context, means connecting places of living, work and play, versus the isolation of living in one place and working in another.

Similarly, the design professional is faced with a shift from uniformity to variety, she said, with fewer assigned spaces and more collaborative spaces such as cafes, lounges and telephone rooms. The ratio of assigned to unassigned is sitting at a balanced 50:50 ratio today, as compared to 75:25 in the early 2000s, and is showing signs of tipping toward a 40:60 ratio.

“The workspace square footage really isn’t changing a whole lot,” Hayko said. “It is decreasing slightly, but what’s far more important is how it’s being assigned and unassigned.”

User-focused workplaces

If employees are largely dissatisfied with their office environment, Hayko said, the question is really one of how to make the workplace user-focused.

“Choice is key,” said Hayko, “and choice is on three different aspects: it’s about privacy; it’s about the work style especially; and it’s also about collaboration.”

Privacy considerations include information control and stimulation control. Information control goes beyond what’s on the cloud or the server to include protecting confidential information that’s on an employee’s computer screen in an open-plan office. Stimulation control is about accounting for different work styles, such as those of extroverts and introverts, in an open-plan office.

Collaboration can be supported both by physical space and virtual space through online interfaces such as GoToMeeting, Skype and WebEx. Hayko conceded that the latter is an IT issue, but added that it’s important to consider how organizations are promoting connections inside and outside the office.

“There’s a direct link between choice and well-being,” she said. “Especially if we spend 36 per cent of our time at work … we better know how to provide some choice.”

Happiness and the bottom line

There is also a link between well-being and the bottom line. As evidence, Hayko referenced the estimated $300-billion cost of workplace stress in 2010 in the U.S., as reported by Worldcrunch. How a company goes about improving well-being in the office should ultimately reflect its organizational culture.

“It’s not about indulging individuals with all kinds of means of spaces by giving them [the] ability to do yoga, or ability to have their meetings outside, or providing them an outdoor tennis court or indoor swimming pool,” Hayko said. “What’s the culture?”

As a cautionary tale, she cited the case of a video game developer that opened a campus in B.C. in the late 1990s. She was on a team subsequently called in to assess why the workspace was dysfunctional. What the group’s evaluation found was that it had to do with the company’s fixation on speed to market. Specifically, in observing how the employees connected with one another, the group found that employees had self-styled their own nap pods, modeled on Google’s, using sleeping bags under their desks.

“They were working day and night,” said Hayko. “Some were actually sometimes working 14 days straight.”

Gathering spaces should promote happiness and structure, she said.

Looking ahead to 2020, Hayko said she anticipates choice and flexibility, empowering employees, technology, and understanding organizational culture will be among the driving forces shaping the workplace. And well-being will be “front and centre.”

“The workplace rules have changed, yet again — no surprise there,” she said. “But there is no perfect formula, and there is no exact science.”

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.