May 09, 2014
THEME: Workplace

Engaged Employees, Stronger Teams: How Culture Creates a Connected Workforce

Workplace design, once solely the purview of architects and their clients, is now a mainstream conversation. Facebook newsfeeds are peppered with think-pieces deriding the open office. Phrases like employee engagement have gone beyond HR circles. Now companies, increasingly aware of design’s role in recruitment and retention, want enticing spaces where ideas flow.

My colleague, Pamela Steiner, recently investigated employee engagement as well as ways to facilitate cross-sector collaboration to solve complex problems. As a student at California College of the Arts, MBA in Design Strategy program, she and her team interviewed entrepreneurs as well as Baby Boomers who struggled to communicate across generations in the workplace.

Why the emphasis on employee engagement specifically? Simply stated, employees who feel connected to their organization are more productive. According to Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace” survey, disengaged workers cost companies $450 to $550 billion dollars annually. Conversely, engaged employees result in 6% higher net profit margins. It’s widely believed that a collaborative environment can enhance engagement, allowing employees to connect with their colleagues, whether purposefully or spontaneously, in meaningful ways. Think welcoming cafes and rooftop decks, dynamic stairs, and strategically placed printers, not to mention cloud computing and other tools to virtually connect us. Great ideas don’t only happen in conference rooms; connectivity makes the hours spent at work not only more enjoyable, but also more effective.

Polls reveal that 70% of employees are either disengaged or willing to sabotage workplace productivity.


Though vital, space is just one part of the equation. Workplace design is ideally an extension of an organization’s culture. Where space enables tactical shifts—greater collaboration, for example—culture can be transformative. Smart leaders recognize this; some even have roles dedicated to fostering it. Company leaders face tough challenges with disconnected workforces, chief among them increasingly dispersed teams and a lack of cross-department collaboration. How can you create a shared goal when employees aren’t in the same space? Further, the silo mentality—the idea Lisa in creative is unlikely to share information with Sue in sales—can erode efficiency and create missed opportunities to leverage relationships and create great work.

If the task is lowering the barrier to collaboration, the solution can come from a workplace redesign, a cultural shift or perhaps something even simpler: opportunities for social interaction, which management can be instrumental in creating. Shared meals, events and even water cooler chatter can facilitate future work-related collaboration. If a project would benefit from input beyond your team, you might be more apt to approach the guy down the hall that you chatted with at the company picnic, golf outing or chili cook-off.

Our Chicago office hosts an annual chili cookoff, a (delicious) way of developing stronger bonds between colleagues

Though Pamela’s team initially envisioned a physical solution (think: co-working space), they realized that there were many other factors that affected people’s ability to “play with others.” As they developed their concept, I was paired with a co-worker from another department as part of an info-gathering exercise. We were given cards with questions designed to spark conversation, such as “What’s the best job that you never got paid for?”

The mission statement that emerged from their research was simple, but important: When you have deeper relationships with the people around you, you work better as a team. Tune back next week to learn about Pamela’s project and the result. In the meantime, consider getting up from your desk from time to time—that project will still be there when you return. Engage with your colleagues, especially those in other departments. Sign up for that volunteer event, or stop by the happy hour gathering down the block. You never know what bright idea or teaming opportunity might emerge.

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