It might be the environment (cont’d): the influence of physical space on employee experience

The Service Line with J. N. Halm: It’s A Joke...employing Humour at the Front Line
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

In the study done in Iraqi city of Erbil referred to above, the researchers looked at different types of layout and whether they had different effects on employees. They looked at the open-plan design were there were individual workstations found inside an open space. The study also considered closed or cellular office plan. This referred to offices that were basically personal rooms surrounded by four walls. They also looked at flexible office layouts where employees sit at any workstations at any one time.

When the researchers compared elements such as Noise and Privacy, Lighting, Furniture Comfort, Temperature and Ventilation, they found that the design-related factors, such as Workstation Design, Furniture comfort, Workspace Design and Office Design had the greatest impact on employee’s performance and job satisfaction, regardless of the office type.

If there is one other element I would add to this list of elements discussed so far, I would add Temperature. There is nothing more frustrating than being in an environment that is hot, humid and ‘stuffy’. To put on a smile, while you are sweating under your shirt, is nothing pleasant. To serve a customer with a clear head is almost impossible when you have a bad headache from the heat and humidity in the office.

I would also add Noise to the list of elements of the physical environment that can affect those within it. I used to work from an office that was within a developing area on the outskirts of the capital city. With new buildings being finished, carpentry, welding and masonry works were the order of the day and with that came the noise. To say working in that environment was close to torture would not be an exaggeration. I can say with authority that it was no fun at all, especially because my kind of work required some peace and quiet. I was always stressed.

Artefacts used within the space must also be considered when dealing with the physical environment.  Wall and roof hangings and decorative items such as flower pots and plants can, and do, have some influence on those who work within that space. It is important that in using decorative pieces to enhance the environment, the overall theme of the workplace is taken into consideration.

A hotel that wants to be viewed as a traditional African residence would have no problem hanging Afrocentric masks, headgear, spears, etc around its workplace. However, those same items would be out of place in a banking hall of an international European financial institution, causing a dissonance in the work environment.

A hospital will decorate its interior in such a way that the ambience aids in the healing of patients. Therefore, there are certain decorative pieces that would be used. The right flowers, the right artworks and the right messages in the right places would be appropriate to achieve the kind of environment that helps patients heal faster.

The aforementioned Journal of Services Marketing research found that when the right physical elements were well planned and well executed, it leads to pleasure in employees. The right combination of these elements will produce the right stimuli that would lead to employees feeling good about themselves and the workplace. It is this pleasurable feeling that is translated into increase job satisfaction as well as increase loyalty from employees. 

From the ongoing discussion, it is clear that there is real power in the spaces we find ourselves in. What makes this subject matter more important for businesses is that the effects of the physical environment are not limited to employees alone. Customers who come into the space also have to contend with the effects of the physical environment. All the factors discussed in the previous paragraphs also have a telling effect on the mood of customers. Servicescape is the term that was coined to define “the environment in which the service is assembled and in which the seller and customer interact, combined with tangible commodities that facilitate performance or communication of the service.” Much research has gone into this concept.

From a customer service and experience point of view, the physical environment can affect customers in two main ways. In both cases, the customer’s experience will be negatively affected. The first instance is quite straightforward. In this instance, a customer will be affected by the physical environment if the one stays long enough within that space. A customer who has to wait for service to be rendered, such as in a restaurant, in a sports stadium or at the movies, will have to deal with the effects of that ambiance.

However, even if a customer does not stay long enough within the space to be affected by the ambiance, the customer will still have to deal with the effects of the physical environment in another way, albeit a lot more indirect. In this instance, the effects of the physical environment on customer-facing employees will be indirectly transferred on to customers.

Take the case of a staff who spends hours and hours within a physical space that will make a grumpy grouch out of the most jovial individual alive. It will take tons and tons of patience and other people skills (plus a miracle) for that employee not to transfer a bit of that negativity on to the customer. The employee would have soaked in the negativity in the place to such an extent that it will take great effort for that negative energy not to seep out.

Anyone who has worked even for just a day at the front line knows how stressful that role can be. Dealing with customers is not as easy as it looks. Having to adjust one’s emotions to deal with different customers with different emotional dispositions is not a walk in the park. The last thing a customer-facing employee, therefore, needs is to be stressed by the physical environment. The elements in the physical space are supposed to aid the customer-handling employee to better serve the customer. Anything else, and the employee would become stressed.

This discussion makes it clear that it is possible that just the environment alone is enough to make employees unhappy. Happier employees make for happier customers. Unhappy employees make for unhappy customers. If one buys into the argument that employees are actually internal customers and as such should be treated as customers, then it goes without saying that some effort must be put into ensuring that the space within which they perform is always in the best of shapes.

The influence of the work environment on those within is not too difficult to appreciate. The fact is that we spend a great percentage of our waking hours at work. Therefore, if the workplace is not a very pleasant place to be, it will definitely have an effect on the performance of those within that space. The space must be created in such a way that it supports efficient employee behaviour.

The discussion on the influence of the physical environment on the lives of employees must also be seen as one with economic benefits. It is true that creating pleasurable work environments creates higher levels of employee loyalty and commitment to the organisation. The more committed an employee is, the more the one puts in his or her work, leading to greater productivity. Greater productivity has a direct effect on the performance and fortunes of the business.

All of the afore-mentioned studies actually found that the servicescape had an effect on the job satisfaction of the employee. Employees feel better when they work in physical space that were more welcoming and much more accommodating. Employees do not want to dread coming to work in a space that is stressful all on its own. This increase in job satisfaction also leads to increase productivity of the employee as well as the delivery of better service to the customers.

In short, it is a win-win-win for everyone. The employee wins because she gets to work in a great space. The customer wins because he gets served well. Ultimately, the organisation wins because it gets to reap the benefits of increased productivity.

The direct and indirect effect of the work space on productivity of employees should be enough to get every business manager, supervisor and owner to take a serious look at the physical environment. There is a research paper that intimated that many managers found it very difficult to appreciate the important role of the physical work environment on the job satisfaction of employees. That is most unfortunate.

As alluded to earlier, the poor attitudes, low energy, bad moods and lethargic behaviours of employees could well be as a result of the work environment. It is possible that the firm might have recruited the right staff with the right work attitudes. But a few weeks and months within the wrong physical environment might have changed them. The physical environment must be seen as a managerial tool to shape the attitudes and moods of employees. Just as training regimes and reward systems can be used to influence employees, so can the physical space be employed to achieve the desired effect.

Businesses must not take for granted the physical space within which employees work. There is too much at stake for a business not to give some importance to the working space. It is entirely possible that for some businesses, their biggest competitor might just be the physical working space, and not the business next door. The physical space, if not properly considered, could be working against the fortunes of the business.

Leave a Reply