People are braving one of the most tumultuous times in their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s critical they feel valued and supported, especially in their workplaces. Leaders must now think about how they can best accommodate their employees, and see them as them as the humans they are — uniquely responsive to their environments.

As a senior associate of Workplace Strategy at global firm M Moser Associates, I am continuously trying to find new ways to optimise businesses and cultures through workplace transformation, with a focus on their people. Below, I explain why responding to employee needs and behaviours through design can ultimately benefit an organisation, and how leaders can begin to implement practices that will heighten organisational performance.

The difference between behaviour and activity

Before any business initiates a workplace transformation to accommodate its employees, leaders must understand why transformation is necessary and how it will be advantageous in the long run. This requires an understanding of the distinction between behaviour and activity.

A simple example of an activity is a phone call. A business could design a space that supports making phone calls, but what it may not account for are the behaviours and preferences of those making the calls. Some workplaces in industries like sales or PR often have open spaces with people conducting phone calls in every corner, to create excitement and a feeling of company-wide motivation. On the other hand, an industry like design consultation requires a distraction free environment. While keeping employees motivated is an important part of organisational performance, it’s important to recognize that only some people thrive in loud, buzzy settings – despite doing the same activities. For that reason, organisations must not only account for the activities, but the behaviours of their employees.

Similarly, when the world completely shifted to remote work, some of us found ourselves doing the best work we’d ever done, as a quiet, at-home environment catered to our needs. Others craved the office they knew before. Such circumstances demonstrate why organisations may need to rethink how their office design supports the behaviours of their people, as people have different ways to achieve a business’s ideal outcomes.

The distribution of a space can determine how people will use it

The key in making accommodations for employees is understanding that their needs can vary significantly, and that there’s not one type of design that will fit everyone’s working style. Certain spaces can motivate specific behaviours, which can be either beneficial or harmful to a business.

There are inherent aspects about space, like colour theory or planning methodology, that can have an impact on the way people work. Depending on how they manifest themselves within a space, they can send different messages to workers about how they should behave when engaging in an activity. For instance, many organisations use a majority of their workplace footprint for dedicated, individual focus space, sending a clear message to employees about the type of work they should do there. In many cases, this strongly contrasts with the strategic imperatives of the organisation to innovate and connect to generate value.

Suggestions for workplace leaders

Much of how workplaces have been designed in the past is based on intuition. Creating the right solution for an organisation is about conducting the right research to understand the organisation’s people and objectives so they can tie those into space. To create an accommodating workplace, I suggest leaders consider the following best practices and takeaways:

  • Your employees do not fall under one persona type. Leaders or HR professionals who tell their workers to be transparent, curious, or collaborative, set the expectation that all of their workspace has to be used with that manner in mind. However, I’ve noticed that this can be a dangerous expectation to set, as it can be isolating for employees who do not fall into any given category. Understanding employee personas and behaviours is tightly woven into the talent organisation within a company.
  • Employees should feel a sense of physical and psychological comfort. Ensuring this happens has a lot to do with providing workers with choice and freedom. When people have choice, they are more likely to tap into their own traits and behaviours like creativity, curiosity, empathy, and social cognition — all of which will likely benefit a company in the long run.
  • Productivity and creativity requires both empathy and trust, and to build that, people need to feel connected. Environments that remove power dynamics can often achieve this. When considering table shapes, try a round one so that there is no opportunity for someone to take the power seat, or perhaps consider having no table at all. Leaders can also encourage their employees to connect by providing collaborative whiteboards around the office. It is best to create spaces that do not motivate people to constantly work in private offices or consistently engage in internalizing behaviours.
  • However, allowing people to remove themselves to find that safe space is important too. Constant pressure to be active all the time can be difficult, as humans alternate between feeling introverted and extroverted throughout the day. Providing a few spaces where people can find quiet moments when needed is just as essential as offering spaces for connection.

Essentially, everything about designing for employee performance — from providing emotional support, to granting them more choice and freedom — comes down to a balance. But more importantly, leaders who design for the types of behaviours and work styles that compliment their ideal business outcomes will find themselves much further ahead in the road to success.