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Adaptable by Design

Shaping the Work Experience

There is no “big picture” perspective on how to design healthy and effective workplaces

Because of rapidly changing technology and complexity of workstyles, organizations increasingly struggle to create effective workplace strategies and workspaces. The stakes are high, since decisions about the workplace can affect employee retention, performance, satisfaction, and facilities costs. Implementing a successful solution is challenging because there is no unifying design principle to direct planning, other than the broad charge to provide workplace “flexibility.” Conventional wisdom suggests flexibility is linked to desirable performance outcomes for employees and organizations. Beyond that there is little guidance for organizations hoping to better their work environments.

But there is hope. From the early 1980s to the present, many studies have identified specific workplace design features linked to employee satisfaction, health and performance outcomes. We have synthesized this fragmented research and identified a singular planning principle that can guide the creation of successful workplaces—directly linked to improved health and performance outcomes.

There is a simple underlying theme: planning and furnishings that let people and groups shape their work experience contribute to a healthy and effective workplace. “Shaping” the work experience occurs when people manipulate elements of their physical environment, choose their work location or type of space, or select their time of work. Shaping is a capability conveyed through workplace programs, planning, furnishings and technology.

Organizations offering a “shaping” capability may realize greater business success than those lacking this competence

This strategy is influenced by Robert Karasek’s “job/demand control” theory (Karasek and Theorell, 1990). He found that employees in “high-strain” jobs— those with low control over decision-making and limited autonomy, paired with high work load and demands—suffer from higher stress, health and performance problems. Workers with “active jobs” (those with high demands, but with high control) have fewer health problems and better performance than those in highstrain jobs. The risks of low job control are not trivial. Karasek’s large-scale studies directly connect high-strain jobs to increased stress, higher incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD) and higher mortality rates. He also found implications for job satisfaction and work performance.

Related to Karasek’s work, a growing body of research shows the benefits provided by one’s ability to shape the work experience by choosing the type and location of workspace, and capability to modify workspace features: lower psychological and physiological stress, higher individual and group performance, faster business process time, and greater employee satisfaction (Carayon and Smith, 2000; Gifford, 2007; Lee and Brand, 2005; O’Neill and Evans, 2000; O’Neill, 1998, 2007, 2010; Sundstrom, Town, Rice, Osborn, and Brill, 1994).

In this paper, we have omitted detailed discussion of the underlying quantitative research links to health and performance, to focus on the rationale, model and application to design.