The power of participation in workplace design

New study on employee wellbeing measures impact of inviting people to create their own workspace interventions

Giving employees more control over the design of their workplace makes a positive contribution to their wellbeing, according to new research from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, London, with architectural firm Gensler.

At a time when business leaders are increasingly concerned about loss of productivity through stress, anxiety, depression and ill health, the study examined the workplace design factors that influence wellbeing. The research team discovered that an invitation to participate in the design of the work environment raised levels of wellbeing, although increasing the level of participation did not necessarily increase the level of wellbeing,

Supported by a consortium of industry names with a particular interest in creating better workplaces, including Bupa, Kinnarps, Milliken and RBS, the Workplace & Wellbeing study was conducted by the RCA and Gensler in two phases over a period of one year.

Different levels of change

In the first phase, the research team conducted a scoping study in four different organisations in London and the south east of England that have undergone different levels of workplace change over the past three years.

In the second phase of research, a participatory design project was devised with three teams in one organisation in order to test the impact of different levels of design participation (high, low and no participation) on employee wellbeing. Teams worked to create, design and test interventions in the workspace. A validated measurement of mental wellbeing, the Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale, was used to measure the effects on employees.

According to Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the RCA, Jeremy Myerson: ‘Generally, we found that employee wellbeing and satisfaction was supported by such workplace design factors as a sense of connection with the outside world, a positive and purposeful environment, a variety of spaces and control over space. People felt better about work when invited to participate in the design of their work environment, and a sense of exclusion from decision-making processes when not given a voice.’

Philip Tidd of Gensler, who co-directed the study with Myerson, adds: ‘Workplace wellbeing has risen up the agenda inside organisations large and small, in the UK and internationally. Design has been widely identified as a factor in making people feel better at and about work. This study adds to our growing knowledge about the effect of giving people a ‘sense of control’ in the workplace.’

Conceptual model

Based on the study, the research team built a workplace wellbeing conceptual model that illustrates a necessary balance between the functional and psychological needs of the individual that organisations need to provide in the workplace. The model presents two axes of need, from functional need to psychological need, and from the organisation to the individual.

Slide for RCAGensler

Four variations of the model were developed: a full alignment model (functional and psychological needs of the individual both properly aligned with organisational purpose); two partial alignment models (either functional or psychological needs unmet); and a non-alignment model (functional and psychological needs both unmet).

This model essentially maps the cultural strengths and weaknesses of any company, and will be developed into a wellbeing evaluation toolkit in the next phase of the research, which is scheduled to run until spring 2017.

The study is set in the context of a ‘wellbeing deficit’ in the UK workplace that is part of a worldwide trend, leading to unprecedented interest by organisations in ways to improve wellbeing, satisfaction and engagement of employees. It is led jointly by the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art with Gensler, the global architectural practice, thus combining the academic knowledge and practice-based skills of the RCA’s largest centre for design research with Gensler’s expertise in workplace consulting and design.

For more in-depth coverage of the Workplace & Wellbeing research study, please visit the Academy's Innovation zone
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