Office Layout Can Improve Employee Experience - Learn How

Diane Gayeski
Diane Gayeski
Published on 
11.29.2022

office layout, employee experience

Going into the office today?  Is that question met with an enthusiastic “Yes!” or a dejected “The boss says we all have to be at our desks on Mondays.”.  Are they headed to a cubicle farm that’s chilly both in terms of the temperature and the vibe?  Or do they view it with as much delight as going to their favorite coffee shop or retreat center?  

Smart leaders understand that office design and layout is a critical factor to employee experience and productivity.  For many innovative companies, the office has gone from being a place where work gets done to being a place where people gather for the three C’s:

  • Collaboration, 
  • Creativity
  • Culture-building

Creating an office layout that optimizes the workplace experience centers around these 7 principles:

  1. Balance spaces to promote a variety of interactions
  2. Involve employees to learn about their total workplace experience
  3. Design spaces around key tasks and worker archetypes
  4. Optimize employee networks by office mapping
  5. Design for physical and mental health
  6. Resize and rename your spaces
  7. Maximize employee choice and autonomy 

1. Redefining the Office

The office isn’t only a space to get work done anymore - we’ve seen that for many roles, people can be more productive working from home or on the road.  Yet we’re also seeing that people miss the social parts of the office – mostly those opportunities to collaborate, informally interact, and build professional and social networks. 

These things are critically important to new employees or traditionally under-represented groups who need to build their skills and confidence. Interactions in office spaces further their understanding of the corporate culture and can ultimately help them advance.

"Our physical spaces serve a different purpose today than they did two years ago," said Brent Hyder, Salesforce president and chief people officer in a recent Washington Post article. "An essential part of our strategy is finding ways to empower our teams to come together and connect safely."  

PagerDuty, a cloud computing company that produces incident management tools for IT departments, has embraced a hybrid work model that allows employees to choose where they want to work. It removed two-thirds of its desks and created “neighborhoods” that center on a space that looks like a family room / cafe with some desks that can be reserved. 

"We basically said … we need to build a totally different vibe," said PagerDuty chairwoman and CEO Jennifer Tejada who was interviewed in that same article.  "It needs to be … more like [the private membership club] Soho House and less like an office.”

2. Hitting the Right Balance with Spaces

How do you decide what kinds of tasks and spaces need to be supported by a central office campus?  What are the advantages of having your employees close to those from other companies, such as in a co-working space?  Should you reimagine your office space and allow employees to choose a hybrid model, only coming into the office for part of the time? 

According to a framework on the optimal workplace design proposed by Harvard Business School professors Maria Roche and Andy Wu, you should start by asking two questions: 

  • What is your strategy for future growth? 
  • What is the size of the organization you need right now?

From there, you should map your answers to better understand how your needs around innovation and execution translate to physical (or virtual) spaces. Remember to also strike a balance between spaces that promote collaboration and those that promote focused work. Gensler’s U.S. Workplace Survey of over 2,000  knowledge workers found that only one in four are in optimal workplace environments. The others are having trouble working efficiently, leading to losses in productivity, innovation and engagement. 

The research found that companies were downsizing their space to reduce real estate costs, but this often created environments full of distractions that made it hard to focus.  On the opposite end of the spectrum were confined spaces that made it difficult to collaborate. The trick is creating spaces where both of these can occur, as appropriate.

“Strategies to improve collaboration proved ineffective if the ability to focus was not also considered. When focus is compromised in pursuit of collaboration, neither works well.”

3. Engage to Learn About Your Employee Experience

The employee experience is the sum of the total interactions or “touchpoints” that an employee has at work - beginning from being recruited and onboarded to celebrating work anniversaries and being mentored. 

Companies can spend all kinds of time and money on bonuses, motivational events, and tools that allow peers to digitally commend a coworker for good work.  While those are all good practices, often, it’s the office layout itself that can make or break an  experience. A poorly designed office layout can actually make it difficult for employees to do their work, be uncomfortable and unhealthy, and may also make it difficult to have the kinds of informal interactions that build social bonds and spawn innovation. The MIT study concluded:

“Employee experience is defined by work complexity—how hard it is to get work done in your organization—and behavioral norms around collaboration, creativity, and empowerment.”

How do you get a handle on employee experience? 

  1. Ask them directly; create focus groups or surveys to ascertain which aspects of their environment impede work or are just plain uninspiring.
  2. Observe them. Select some important roles, and watch employees doing their work; is it difficult for them to get quick advice from a co-worker or check in with their boss? Do they have good spaces to brainstorm and work on projects? 
  3. Audit formal company communications to them; for instance, look at your ads, your form letters to applicants, your onboarding training materials, and your employee news feeds.

As Francis Aquino, Director of Workplace & Employee Experience at Honey, told Workplace Unplugged:  “To improve employee experience, it’s very important to get to know the individual culture, voice, and inner quirks of a certain environment within an industry. Spending a good amount of time in the discovery and immersion stage almost guarantees a successful implementation.”  

4. Design Around Worker Archetypes

It’s likely that work patterns have changed for your organization over the last two years, so you may be able to consider new types of office designs.  In order to do this, you need to understand where and how different types of work occur.

Deloitte Consulting developed a set of worker archetypes that help you plan your office space.  

  • Independents spend most of their time on individual tasks and don’t engage in a lot of collaboration; they can likely do much of their work remotely or in an office that affords them the ability to concentrate on their tasks.
  • Travelers, like outside sales people or regional managers, spend the majority of their time outside the office working with customers or visiting store sites.
  • Residents spend the majority of time in the office because they need to be available to other colleagues or visitors in person, or they require specialized equipment. 
  • Teamers spend the majority of their time collaborating in scheduled meetings or team working sessions. 

While many employees are a blend of these archetypes, this can at least give you a sense of how much office space you need, and what it should look like. 

“This not only means less office space but smarter office space. Organizations should strive to create fluid, adaptive workplaces where employees and teams are more mobile, shifting as needed across different workplace environments – physical and virtual – based on the nature of the work, and where they and their teams are most productive.” -Darin Buelow, principal, Global Location Strategy Leader, Deloitte Consulting LLP

5. Optimizing Employee Networks and Design

Everybody at work has their own network: it’s not just their immediate team members and boss, but it’s a list of “go to” people that they develop over time to get advice and get work done.  

So what do networks have to do with office layout?  

A study in MIT Sloan Management Review cites the example of a biotech company that used data from an organizational network analysis to guide its return-to-office strategy. The analysis, pictured in the graphic below, revealed four key clusters where demand for in-person interactions was much higher within clusters than across clusters. This allowed them to make the decision that teams with the highest network “traffic” among them should have spaces and schedules that supported their greater need for collaboration. 

In another example, a large European Bank wanted to understand what was causing one of their branches to outperform another by over 300%, despite having similar customer bases. Through network analysis, they found that the strongest performing branches had significantly more face-to-face interactions throughout the day as compared to the poorly-performing branches. 

It turned out that poor office plans were restricting communication patterns and limiting opportunities for collaboration in the low-performing branches, so they: 

  • Re-designed their office space
  • Implemented a rotating desk system that allowed employees to interact with a wider number of co-workers, and 
  • Provided incentives and team-building meetings to promote collaboration. 

As a result of the new initiatives, the under-performing branches saw sales increase by 11% to $1 billion over the next year.

6. Design for Physical and Mental Health 

One of the biggest revelations for people during the pandemic-driven period of work-from-home was that they were much more physically active at home, and in many cases, had better air quality and comfortable furniture. 

Gartner predicts that 66% of employees will prioritize working within a wellness-equipped office over their home office by 2022. The pandemic has naturally made wellness a top priority for most. For business leaders looking to attract the best talent and, ultimately, deliver superior employee experiences, well-being must be top of mind. 

Efforts to promote the mental health of employees is also an important piece of this puzzle.  This might mean allowing your employees to bring their dogs to work, or having a space to take a quick nap or meditate.Or maybe, you add mental health days into your paid time off policy.  Some other ideas provided by Corovan, a facilities engineering support firm, include:

  • Creating relaxing spaces where employees can take a break, such as engaging break rooms or social areas with ping pong or pool tables.
  • Designing an area in your office for happy hours and celebrating milestones like birthdays, weddings, and new babies or an outdoor space for catered or pot-luck lunches and athletic activities

7. Resize and Rename Your Spaces

Once you’ve got a handle on the steps above, you can consider repurposing some of your space or adding new spaces.  

For example, TCD Companies, a financial services firm, partnered with Herman Miller (which has gone from being a furniture business to an employee experience business) to design an expansion to their office.  Based on a lot of dialogue with employees, they discovered that they “craved connection with colleagues, better access to their managers, and more conference rooms with tech that actually worked.”  In the new space:

  • 28% of the new space is dedicated to a variety of collaborative spaces.
  • 15% of the new space is dedicated to bookable private offices.
  • 30% of the new space is dedicated to individual workstations with sit-to-stand tables.
  • 7% of the new space gives TDC room to grow.

When reimagining your spaces, it’s critical to understand what employees need from the space. Before embarking on a major space change make sure to solicit input from the people your office will ultimately support.

Bottom Line: Maximize Employee Choice and Autonomy

There are a lot of headlines about employees who quit because they’re forced to come back to the office. Others say that workers are sick of the isolation of their homes.  The truth is that they want a choice. They want to be trusted to make their own call about whether they can work more effectively in the office or in some other location. 

The Gensler study of workplaces concluded that when workers have a choice about when and where they work, they perform better, are more satisfied, and feel that their company is innovative.  Companies need to provide the right tools and spaces and create policies that empower workers to decide how they best can achieve optimal productivity.

The job of leaders is to give people the resources and spaces they need to get their best work done. The office plan should:

  1. Reflect empathic design rooted in the employee experience.  
  2. Make it easy for people to engage in the behaviors that promote both working on current business and expanding their knowledge and creativity to build your future business. 
  3. Empower employees with compelling data about their own networks and space usage, and give them the tools to schedule appropriate spaces and coordinate schedules with team members.  

It’s an exciting time to re-discover what it means to work and what the workplace can look like.

Diane Gayeski, Ph.D. is acknowledged for her innovation, research, and teaching in corporate communication and performance improvement. She conducts research and shares her insights in her roles as Professor of Strategic Communication and former Dean at Ithaca College’s Roy H Park School of Communications and as Principal in Gayeski Analytics.