Designing a Workspace to Maximize Employee Happiness

There’s an important lesson we can learn from some of Silicon Valley’s most successful startups: focusing on making employees happy leads to happy customers, which in turn leads to a successful business.

Consequently, if our people aren't happy, they won’t produce to their maximum potential. This idea has been proven by research. In their book Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, authors Jeff Sutherland and JJ Sutherland cite a 2005 paper that did a meta-analysis of 225 studies with 275,000 participants. The paper concluded:

“Happiness leads to success in nearly every domain of our lives, including marriage, health, friendship, community involvement, creativity, and, in particular, our jobs, careers, and businesses.”

In fact Sutherland and Sutherland said that happiness was a more accurate predictor of business success than financial metrics. Referring to the Happiness Metric, they said that financials look at the past, whereas happiness was predictive. The following chart from the book graphed happiness against business velocity.

Source: SCRUM: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, Jeff Sutherland and JJ Sutherland p. 153.

How The Workspace Impacts Happiness

There are several ways to impact happiness in the workplace. Autonomy in the workplace, transparency and open communications, doing meaningful work and collaboration with others are signature characteristics of a joyful work environment.

Companies who compete heavily for Millennial talent, especially those in Silicon Valley, have quickly applied these ideas, sometimes in extreme ways. But the same concepts apply to all corporations including financial institutions and healthcare providers. Done well, these ideas can help transform workplace happiness.

Open Workspaces Can Enhance Transparency

Moving from a cube-farm to an open workplace can inspire increased collaboration and enable a sense of transparency. When everybody is within view of everybody else, there is less of a sense of hidden agendas or secrecy.

Open workspaces also enable the visual elements that enhance transparency: the whiteboards, digital screens and open meetings that keep employees informed about their colleagues and managers, and what they’re working on at any given moment. This is often referred to as an Informative Workspace, and is a common element for high-functioning teams.

Companies who are striving to create transparency and collaboration to drive employee happiness and productivity should consider moving to an open plan environment.

A Healthy Amount of Variety Can Increase Employee Happiness

Many companies have realized they need to provide employees with functional workspaces, not just nice cubicles or comfortable desks.  Various kinds of spaces throughout the building, allow employees to have a level of choice in their environment, such as workspaces for solitary work, for small groups, and for large collaborative groups.

In a working paper titled, “Will Variety Make You Happy?” described in this article, Wharton marketing professor Cassie Mogilner and Duke marketing professor Jordan Etkin, found that variety in the work day and work week leads to greater happiness and helps to avoid the boredom of monotony.

Building design can help encourage variety in an employees’ work day - whether it be where to sit, where to meet, or where to eat - can lead to more fulfilled employees.

Sometimes employees need quiet time to reflect, think or do focused work. A happiness-centric design should provide employees with spaces where they can get away for a few minutes in solitude.

But employees also need time to collaborate with others, in which case a small group space is needed to avoid the distraction of a large open space. These collaboration spaces are smaller and function differently than the traditional board room or, even a training room.

Office Environments Designed to Encourage Movement Result in More Alert, Engaged and Healthy Employees

Employees also need movement to make them happier – and healthier. The human body was designed for movement, but unfortunately most corporate office employees spend their time sitting in their chairs, which is one of the greatest risks to personal health.

A recent cultural shift in urban planning is emphasizing human movement and closeness to nature, such as encouraging sustainable transportation and building green spaces with nature trails. Building design is beginning to emulate urban planning, as a recent Teknion article explained.

“Building architecture can promote movement across the office landscape. Architectural strategies include accessible open stairways with multiple landings and views into active spaces, on-site multi-purpose fitness/recreation facilities, and a variety of large- and small-scale, open and enclosed spaces that encourage people to move around to collaborate, socialize or focus on a task.”

In the modern technology-centric workspace the knowledge worker is the focus instead of the factory worker. Encouraging employee happiness is critical to any organization’s success. In fact happiness is a leading indicator of business performance, and businesses are starting to recognize the importance of the physical environment for cultivating happiness in their workforce.

Open workspaces promote collaboration. Variety in the physical environment encourages workday satisfaction. And designs that encourage movement lead to healthy employees. The physical work environment is an important contributor to employee happiness, and it affects job satisfaction and employee performance.

Are your employees happy?  Use this quick survey to rate your workspace-happiness factor.