Can space shape a business’ bottom line?

Does the secret to a happy, engaged workforce lie in a comfortable environment?

How often do you think about the space within your immediate environment? Imagine if you lived among trees. How would this make you feel? Would the rustling sounds and the woody scents help you relax? Would the soft light filtering through the leaves put you at ease or put you to sleep? Now imagine your workplace environment. Does it enable you or inhibit you?

In the early 20th century, environmental psychologist Kurt Lewin found that psychology should pay as much attention to the “organism’s environment as it does to the organism itself.” Lewin highlighted the importance of incorporating psychology into the design of space and how by manipulating space we can control an environment, and up to a point, the individuals within it.

The fact that many of us spend considerable amounts of time, even years, working in the same environment, means it makes sense to optimise our working environments for maximum benefit.

Workers perform better if they like their office space. Also, companies which ensure their employees are feeling good make more money in the long term. Jim Stengel qualifies this in his book Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit, where he investigates the world’s 50 most successful businesses. He concludes that businesses that focus on culture and improving people’s lives have a growth rate three times that of their competitors in the same field.

The central principle behind Stengel’s ideas is to compare a business to a tree. “Businesses and their brands are living things. They have roots that people do not see. They thrive given the right conditions – and they die without care, feeding and positive energy,” he writes.

A survey by Gensler’s Workplace Performance Index (WPI) found that if workers are not in optimal workplace environments they struggle to work effectively, which can cause a loss in worker’s productivity, creative performance and engagement. The US-based study – which surveyed 2,035 workers – found that employees see a clear link between the physical work environment and personal productivity. However, only one in four workers are in ‘optimal workplace environments’.

So why aren’t businesses investing in better workplace environments? Sussex-based business owner David Ward – who is moving his spare parts distribution company VW Heritage to a new space later this year – says that “not every business has a budget like search engine giant Google. The challenge is in how to improve the working environment on a budget.”

“Businesses and their brands are living things. They have roots that people do not see. They thrive given the right conditions”

It took Ward two years to find the right site for his business, a warehouse space which provides basic creature comforts such as insulation, heating and cooling, natural light, in-house showers and a bicycle shed.

“As the UK distribution industry mushrooms with the growth of online trading, more and more workers will be offered jobs in pretty poor conditions,” Ward says. “It’s a major challenge as warehouses are usually old spaces which are not insulated, and are therefore cold in winter and too hot in summer.”

Henry Stewart of London IT, soft skills, management and e-learning training organisation Happy, agrees that space plays a large role in employee satisfaction, but it can still be possible to have a desirable workplace and no ‘trust’ between employees and management.

“If you visit Google you see both a fabulous workplace and trusted, happy staff. But there are also crummy environments where the staff are trusted and they get on and deliver a great performance. And look at the big banks; they have beautiful office environments, but the evidence suggests that bankers are very unhappy.”

Google is one organisation which takes its spaces seriously. The company recently announced its plans to open a new London headquarters in 2016. The office will span one million square feet and house an outdoor swimming pool, a full-length indoor football field, a climbing wall, a roof garden, a bicycle storage room and in-house shower facilities.

In his research, The Emergence of the Interior, architectural historian Charles Rice found that the performance, wellbeing and efficiency of employees can be achieved through creating a cultural hearth – a type of mythical fireplace – where we can embody a sense of connection to our environment, which in turn will improve our workplace efficiency.

Urban designer Richard Wolfströme uses this same principle on a larger scale when manipulating spaces in the urban environment. His work revolves around the traditional experience of storytelling. This unlocks historical stories which connect people and improves the way they work, play and interact with the space around them.

“We are human beings who have a capacity to emotionally connect to our landscapes,” says Wolfströme. “One of the best ways to do this is through story, just like the indigenous cultures have done throughout time. Western society is starting to relate to this connection.”

Even though there is no universal agreement on how to attain happy employees and a sustainable, profitable business, there is little doubt that some shapeshifting in the office environment can go a long way to establishing a more efficient workforce, no matter the budget.