Design for Innovation


23 March 2016 - TIM HAWK

A few weeks ago, in large part due to the blog that I write, I was invited to lunch by a good friend, Mary Nessler. Mary is in a new position with Steelcase, a global manufacturer of office furniture systems and accessories. They are also well known for their research. I love their research arm, and have always enjoyed the various touchpoints that I have with Steelcase research that I have been able to achieve throughout my career. Well, as we are leaving lunch, Mary slips me a copy of 360° Steelcase Global Report, Engagement and the Global Workplace. My heart be still. Here is a manual that I can dig through and find the most interesting information, and just at that point in my blog schedule for 2016 where I was getting a bit desperate for compelling information! So, I dug into the book and have loved the insights that this research has provided for me as a workplace designer. Bottom line…the workplace struggle is real, global, and of great concern to all societies.

“Employee engagement is a serious bottom-line issue. It fuels organizations during times of economic growth and, more critically, when market conditions are uncertain and volatile.”

Findings from this Steelcase research endeavor indicate that the work environment can improve or hinder efforts by employers to boost employee engagement. Key findings include:

1.  Employee Engagement positively correlates with Workplace satisfaction.
2.  Engaged Employees Have more control over their Experiences at Work.
3.  Fixed technology exceeds Mobile 2:1
4.  Traditional Workstyles persist.
5.  Cultural context influences engagement levels.

As I perused the findings, I was struck by the similarities between cultural perceptions and the facts which support these biases. For instance, when Americans think of Germany, many of us would imagine a strict, rigid workplace with significant hierarchy (imagine Colonel Klink as your boss). This stereotype is certainly not the case in modern Germany, but the Steelcase research indicates that 75% of workers in Germany reside in private offices and Germans have less access to alternative work spaces for privacy, rejuvenation, or exercise than the global average. The research fuels the stereotype a bit, and, not surprisingly, Germans give low scores for their quality of life at work, ranking in the bottom third of the study.

Surprising to me, and maybe this is fueled by my ignorance, are the results of the study in India and France. Among the seventeen countries that were evaluated, Indian workers proved to have the highest level of employee engagement and workplace satisfaction, and their workers left every other country in the dust, comparatively. Twenty-eight percent (28%) of Indian workers are highly engaged and highly satisfied. The next highest country was Mexico, with an engagement and satisfaction rating of twenty-two percent (22%).

Similarly surprising are the survey results among workers in France. French workers proved to be the least engaged and least satisfied with their workplace. Among the participants, only five percent (5%) reported that they are satisfied. Considering my perception of the happy-go-lucky French people, with such a high level of energy and engagement, I was shocked to read the survey results.

So, why are workers in India engaged while French workers remain dissatisfied? What is at the root of this issue, and how can we learn from this research? What might we assign to our day-to-day work here in Ohio?

“Disengaged employees make up about one-third of the average workforce.”

Engagement begins with workplace satisfaction. Simply put, if workers feel that they can concentrate easily, if they feel a sense of belonging to the company, if they believe that they can easily and freely express and share ideas, and if they are able to socialize with their colleagues, the develop a more positive attitude toward their working environment. Look at the amazing difference among respondents in India and France.

So, what is driving happiness and engagement differentials among these two countries? I know, I know…some of you are thinking “they are in France, they would rather be sipping wine in an art gallery,” and there is some merit to this, but not enough merit to drive twenty to thirty percent differentials in satisfaction.

As I delved deeper into the data, it became clear that India’s workplace culture drives collaboration, diversity of experience, and is abundant with amenities. Overall, the percentage of respondents in India indicated that they have sufficient quantities of meeting rooms, many of them have access to an on sight cafeteria, there is plenty of private space, and space for relaxation. Their primary work area is a generally a mix of individual offices, open plan, and shared private office space. In short, they have more square footage assigned per person. The abundance of space options and amenities stands out in heightened contrast to the rich overlap that occurs in the densely populated Indian society. To these individuals, the workplace offers a reprieve from the congestion of everyday life at home and in public. Work is a safe place, rich with choices, amenities, and options for personal privacy and teaming environments.

Now, contrast this workplace with that described in France. Organizations in France primarily have traditional offices where hierarchy rules. Their office environment consists primarily of individuals working independently in an individual office or sharing a private office with colleagues. Less than a quarter work in a collaborative open office plan. But, interestingly, only 45% of the respondents believe their workplace offers privacy. In India, 79% say that their company takes a genuine interest in their well-being and 80% believe that their company recognizes and values them as employees. Same questions in France: 59% and 34% respectively. Yes, that is right, of those who responded, only 34% believe that they are valued. I don’t know about you, but most folks don’t give their all if they do not feel valued.


So, what is the fix for France? More wine? Well, we have already determined that this might be true, but in the workplace, I might suggest that they shift the real estate equation to offer a greater proportion of space for the team and reduce the space that is allocated to individuals. Mix people, provide access to privacy and collaborative space, and introduce supportive amenity space. In short, pay attention to the needs of the users. Help them be effective through the design of the workplace and watch their engagement and passion grow. It seems to be that simple.

Learn from India. Twenty percent work remote from the office in some capacity daily. Sixty-four percent are provided a mobile phone. Twenty-seven percent are offered a tablet. Almost half (43%) are offered some form of sporting or exercise facility.

“Indian workers’ generally positive statements may reflect a passion for the opportunities available to workers in a growth market. In India’s highly competitive and fluid job market, providing a desirable workplace can be a powerful strategy for attracting, retaining and engaging the talent that can help an organization thrive.”