Work environment guides employees’ behaviour

Collaborative workspace can increase productivity
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/16/2011

Collaborative workspace: Ken Owen, director of facilities and property management at the City of Mississauga, and Mandy Sutherland, applied research consultant at Steelcase Canada, spoke about physical workspace and its impact on employee behaviour. (Scroll down to view a video of Mandy Sutherland talking about physical workspaces.)

Work environment guides employees’ behaviour

Workplace: The final frontier (Strategic capability)

Changing people the hard part (Leadership in action)

Viewing workspace as strategic (Organizational effectiveness)

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Work environment guides employees’ behaviour

By Amanda Silliker

When Ken Owen came out of his office one day and saw his team gathered over the dividers, crammed around a desk struggling to work together, he knew he had to make some changes to the work environment.

“It was my ‘ah-ha’ moment. I realized I was asking them to be collaborative and innovative but I wasn’t providing them with the tools to do that — I was actually putting things in the way of that,” said Owen, who is director of facilities and property management at the City of Mississauga in Ontario. “That’s when I realized the workplace was more than just a collection of furniture.”

In the hopes of breaking away from the old, traditional office model, Owen met with employees and discussed what they would like to see in their workspace. When the city needed to add more office space, Owen implemented the employees’ suggestions.

The design of the new space is much more collaborative and open, he said. The managers are often on the floor with employees, instead of in an office (including Owen), tables are situated amongst departments so employees can simply swivel their chairs to conduct a meeting and there are many casual, comfortable meeting areas, such as a café, for more informal collaboration — but there are still enclosed rooms for private discussions.

“If we all agree that collaboration is the way we’re going to be successful in the future, then why would we go design a space that isolates people in individual offices and carves up the space?” said Owen, who spoke at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto in March. “It drives decisions and is done from the point of view of our business objectives.”

The physical workspace influences employees’ behaviour and impacts the bottom line of an organization, according to Mandy Sutherland, applied research consultant at Steelcase Canada in Markham, Ont.

“How you plan the work environment is either going to enhance or be a barrier to effective communication, collaboration and productivity,” said Sutherland, who also spoke at the event.

The workplace is the largest physical representation of an organization’s culture, said Sutherland. In the 1960s and 1970s, buildings were reflective of the command-and-control work culture. The offices were set up around the perimeter with a big centre core for cubicles, and many haven’t changed since then.

“Space was about status and recognition and the workplace was built to reflect the work chart,” said Sutherland. “The big box at the top of the chart got the big box in the corner and as the boxes on the chart got smaller, the boxes along the window got smaller.”

Back then, “the guy at the top made all the decisions,” information was shared on a need-to-know basis and people mostly worked alone, she said. Now, the workplace needs to be more collaborative to meet increasing demands for product quality, creativity and timeliness.

“Organizations are expected to move at the speed of light,” said Sutherland. “There is information being thrown at people constantly and organizations are expecting people to work through more complex problems than they had before and the individual just can’t do it anymore.”

To ensure the workspace is being optimized, each organization needs to identify its goals and objectives, such as increasing processing speed or generating more ideas, and create a space that supports these goals, said Sutherland.

“The workplace as an artifact provides people with clues about how we do things around here, how we work together and how we behave, which feeds into the values, which feeds into the assumptions about the organization,” she said.

After implementing the new workplace design, Owen received a lot of positive feedback from employees and saw many beneficial changes in the work environment. Casual interactions have increased, leading to greater trust among colleagues and managers, more work is done spontaneously, causing an increase in productivity and faster decision-making, and there is more cross-divisional collaboration, said Owen.

The workspace must be included in an overall business plan, said Sutherland. It should be considered in tandem with the strategies surrounding HR, business processes, technology and strategic planning.

“Don’t think of it as the necessary evil — the key is to pull it into the equation and think of it as part of a system,” she said. “If you make a change to any of those other models, you’re going to need to make changes in space.”

Additional flexibility is another benefit of designing a strategic work environment, said Owen. It is much easier to navigate changes surrounding staff, technology and last-minute projects if the space can be quickly adapted to capitalize on that — it’s not only a cost-saving measure but it increases agility, he said.

“The best way to get the bang for your buck is to think of it altogether,” said Sutherland. “If planned properly, the workplace can have a direct impact — through the shaping of behaviour and activities — on the social, environmental and economic results you’re looking for in an organization.”

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Workplace: The final frontier (Strategic capability)

By Karen Gorsline

The work environment impacts how people perform and organizations periodically make modifications to align the workspace to performance objectives — this is not a new concept.

Medieval guilds banded together to concentrate expertise — dividing labour among those with appropriate skill levels — and to create a learning environment and an economic advantage. Guild members were organized into shops and this physical proximity gave them an advantage.

During the Industrial Revolution, time, consistency and efficiency became valued. Workplaces were created to fit people into a large environment to encourage machine-like behaviour. The physical environment was sparse and industrial. Some would argue it was dehumanizing, with few creature comforts and, in some instances, dangerous physical working conditions.

As knowledge work became more prevalent and workers became more oriented toward independent contribution, rows of desks, workstations and cubicles evolved to support independent work. Even with 40 people sitting at desks in a large room, corporate culture mandated individuals to a quiet, focused performance of assigned tasks. Information exchange occurred in formal meetings, at the coffee pot or at lunch breaks.

As organizations realized the value of collaboration and information sharing, they began to look for cultural support for these behaviours and found the physical environment to be a barrier.

The presentation by Mandy Sutherland and Ken Owen at the recent Strategic Capability Network event focused on organizations searching to adapt the work environment to support a cultural change to more, and improved, teamwork and collaboration.

They clearly illustrated how the use of space can influence human behaviour which, in turn, impacts performance. Different space and work environment configurations were designed for different work styles and activities. To encourage information sharing, community spaces and informal meeting areas were created. Multiple coffee stations or kitchens were replaced with a common café. Chairs, couches and tables were added to space that was previously wasted, such as hallways and lobby foyers, to become meeting and working areas. Space was leveraged to support performance objectives.

More organizations are becoming virtual or already have significant virtual activity. Organizations are adopting “hotelling” to save space and accommodate a mobile, decentralized workforce.

If space is a key factor in employee performance, what are the ramifications of these physical arrangements to the organizational culture and performance? If workers, like turtles, carry work “homes” on their backs, how will they collaborate? Will employers use technology to create virtual offices as a proxy for physical ones? Will organizations provide independent workspaces and tools to an army of telecommuters or will organizations be composed of independent contractors who do not expect a physical workspace?

How organizations define workplace and workforce as they move forward will impact their culture and, ultimately, their performance.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. She has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at

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Changing people the hard part (Leadership in action)

By Dave Crisp

In looking at how workplace physical layout and design affect work and productivity (and whether we should try to manage it), human stories are the most striking and illustrate many of the problems we face in HR, even more starkly than those we see in other areas.

Clearly, the City of Mississauga is lucky to have Ken Owen, a well-trained change expert, running its facilities function and Mandy Sutherland, a consultant who is a top expert in the field. During the presentation, both came across as knowledgeable and alert to all the potential problems.

Owen outlined how he modelled the change he wanted his director and upper-level colleagues to embrace — sitting in a relatively small, open-concept space in the midst of team members. He asserts, believably, that he likes it, has assimilated to the noise factor entirely and finds the new setup increases both his own and the department’s productivity.

Despite several years at this, a few of his peers and quite a few middle-managers still staunchly resist. Owen’s compromise has been to shrink their offices and enclose them in glass rather than opaque walls. What better illustration can there be of human nature and emotions resisting changes proven to be productive?

Owen quoted one new manager: “We work years to become managers and now you want to take away one of the very few perks.” Owen spoke directly of the fear — yes, fear — managers have of these new options. He acknowledged there is a learning curve even for those who embrace the open concept and realize the benefits. But, clearly, Owen sees the benefits of what others refuse to even try. Sound familiar?

He went on to emphasize that to get as far as he has, with a few leaders who have been willing to change, he has had to continually emphasize this is driven not by himself or facilities planning but by the senior team’s directives to incorporate business objectives — including customer service and collegiality. Owen had to bring in Sutherland as an expert facilitator to work with the departments and solicit their feedback around the changes. Then, when he put the changes in place, he had to show them their written statements proving those are the changes they asked for because, of course, by then they’d forgotten they asked for common meeting space or whatever design element had been incorporated.

Is there any suggestion here the people in his organization are uniquely stubborn, forgetful or hidebound? Not in the least. Some of the staunchest supporters (after they adapted to the changes) are among the more long-service, crusty, business-focused members of staff, as illustrated by their direct testimonials.

What is clear is just how unbelievably resistant the majority are to change. Owen attributes a lot of this to the fact we are very attached to our workspaces and wary of any change which, in this case, was very traditional — “As a vice-president, you get 100 square feet more space, a larger desk, a meeting table and chair.”

So space is not only privacy but status, power and recognition. Who can blame individuals for their resistance? But how, in the name of progress, can we speed up the process? Do entire generations have to die off (retire, that is) to be replaced by new groups who prefer to do their work in a coffee shop with computers and empty lattes on every table?

And is it easier or harder to change the subtle ways in which we work together — improve two-way communication, say — as opposed to concrete work elements, such as furniture, everyone can literally grasp?

Dave Crisp is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on leadership in action. He shows clients how to improve results with better HR management and leadership. He has a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co., where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit

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Viewing workspace as strategic (Organizational effectiveness)

By Tracy Cocivera

Employees are a strategic organizational asset — that’s something we’ve been hearing for a long time. Now, in some organizations, furniture is being thought of as more than just chairs and desks and as strategic assets.

Spearheaded by Ken Owen and Mandy Sutherland, the City of Mississauga in Ontario, took a systemic approach to workplace design and used space as a lever for culture change. They used workplace design and space to create a more collaborative and innovative culture.

They expanded the traditional way we think about the levers of organizational change. Many models illustrate people, process, technology and tools contribute to the economic, social and environmental aspects of an organization. Owen and Sutherland added space to this model.

They highlighted that business language, human language and design language are critical to optimizing organizational effectiveness. By identifying critical success factors for the business (business language), design principles (design language) can be developed and aligned to the critical success factors which, in turn, can drive human behaviour (human language).

Will only focusing on design elements bring about culture change and increased organizational effectiveness? Owen and Sutherland claim a shift to a more collaborative culture was a result of the new workplace design.

But as we listened more to the City of Mississauga story of transformation, the following lessons were shared:

•Business leaders need to drive the change.

•Leaders need to lead by example.

•Workplace design needs to be integrated into the business planning process.

Given these learnings, it became apparent enhancing organizational effectiveness involves more than just changing a workplace design.

Optimizing an organization’s capacity involves three dimensions: leader behaviours, organizational practices and leadership culture, according to the authors of Leadership Solutions. The individual leader dimension is the extent to which leaders demonstrate holistic leadership behaviour (organizational, team, customer and personal leadership).

The organizational practices dimension is the extent to which an organization’s practices affect holistic leadership. The leadership culture dimension is the way in which the norms, values and standards in an organization shape leaders’ behaviour. All three dimensions are critical to enhancing an organizational effectiveness.

These three dimensions were at the core of the transformation at the City of Mississauga. Workplace design impacted the organizational practices and leadership culture. One of the guiding principles for space at the organization was to speed up work processes within groups. One of the other guiding principles was to support a collaborative work culture.

In addition, the lessons learned reflected the organizational practices and leadership behaviours dimensions. Integrating workplace design into the business planning process was the application of organizational practices, whereas leaders driving the change and leading by example were specific leadership behaviours.

In their work at the City of Mississauga, Owen and Sutherland were leveraging the three dimensions to drive organizational change. Their presentation broadened the thinking about workplace design. Like talent, space is a strategic asset. As more organizations treat space as such, more leaders will shift from viewing workplace design as a cost to be minimized to seeing it as a tool that needs to be maximized.

Tracy Cocivera is a commentator on organizational effectiveness for SCNetwork and a senior consultant in leadership solutions at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions. As a business psychologist, she helps executives and teams enhance their effectiveness and create more value for their organizations. She can be reached at

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