Supportive workplaces: The gift that keeps on giving

by Michael J. Berens –

Supportive workplaces: The gift that keeps on giving

The start of a new year is the time for evaluating performance and deciding who will get the bigger carrot and who will get the bigger stick.

Your employees’ hearts and minds may be focused on their wallets, but studies show that employee satisfaction and productivity are greatly influenced by their work environment in the long run, perhaps even more so than by their compensation or bonuses. What’s more, new research suggests the work environment also affects how employees regard the organization’s leadership.

Results of a study conducted by a group of Swedish researchers, recently published in the Journal of Corporate Real Estate, indicate a strong correlation between office type and employees’ ratings of their managers and other organizational leaders.

The researchers reviewed data on 5,358 employees from a 2010 national occupational study. Employees worked in the seven different office types identified in contemporary office design: cell offices, shared-room offices, small open-plan offices, medium-sized open-plan offices, large open-plan offices, flex offices, and combi-offices.

Study participants were asked to rate their immediate supervisors on factors such as their integrity, how autocratic they were, how inspiring the leader was, and the manager’s apparent concern for the worker.

By comparing responses to the study with the office type of the respondents, the researchers sought to determine whether there was any relationship between workplace design and perceptions of organizational leadership. Their analysis revealed that poorer ratings of leadership were found in shared-room offices and better in medium-sized open-plan offices, with ratings from other office types falling between these two.

They conclude that office type, through its architectural and functional characteristics, can influence employees’ perception of managerial leadership: “This means that office design should be considered in relation to leadership style in order for an organization to be successful.”

One possible explanation for the difference in ratings may be organizational culture. In shared-room offices with a physically absent leader, the researchers surmise, “independent subcultures could evolve, which risk becoming self-sustaining, autonomous and distanced from the management.” Whereas, an office type with a medium-sized group of employees sharing workspace with the manager “would thus not foster subcultures, but rather facilitate interaction and reduce the status barriers.”

Previous research, they note, “has found that a visibly and audibly present manager is positive for the perception of supervisor friendliness.” However, the researchers point out that other explanations are possible — e.g., perhaps some leaders function better in one kind of environment than in others — and that more research is needed.

Although, as the Swedish team contends, little research has been done in this area, their findings are consistent with those of an earlier study conducted by the National Research Council of Canada that examined the link between indoor environment conditions and organizational productivity. Among other findings, the research team in the NRC study proposes, “employees’ opinion of their management is influenced by the quality of the physical environment that the management provides and maintains.”

Moreover, their findings suggest, “employees consider their physical environment as part of their compensation package.” Thus, they conclude, “careful attention to the design and operation of indoor environments will reap benefits in how employees feel valued by the organization, and their impressions of management competence.”

So while you are reflecting on how employees performed last year and how to improve performance this year, give some thought to the work environment. Are your workspaces supporting your employees and the organization’s culture and goals, or are you hampering performance through poorly designed or arranged office layouts?

If the latter is true, start the new year off right with a redesign. You will be giving your employees and yourself a gift that will return benefits throughout the year.

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About the Author

Michael J. Berens

Michael J. Berens is a freelance researcher and writer with more than 30 years of experience in association communication and management. He can be reached


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