There’s No Place Like Work

How place identity enhances engagement

Illustration of man sitting at work desk with sunlight being painted upon him.Post-pandemic workspaces have become increasingly fluid, and companies are trying out hot desks and hoteling spaces as they struggle to entice workers back to the office. But new research suggests that leaders wanting to build employee engagement should think less about rearranging the furniture and more about how employees relate the office space to their own work.

“When people feel a sense of self-esteem and distinctiveness derived from their workspace, we found it enhances their engagement,” says professional faculty member Brandi Pearce. “It also increases collaboration and their commitment to the organization.”

Pearce and colleagues from Stanford and Pepperdine universities studied “place identity,” as they refer to this sense of connection, at a software company transitioning workers at sites worldwide from traditional offices to open-plan innovation centers.

The research, published in Organizational Dynamics, found that whether people accepted or rejected the innovation centers didn’t align with their work functions or professional backgrounds, nor with age, gender, location, or other factors. “What seemed to matter more than the space itself was how people felt the space connected to them personally, positively differentiated them, and reflected a sense of belonging to something meaningful to them,” Pearce says.

“When people feel a sense of self-esteem and distinctiveness derived from their workspace…it enhances their engagement.”

What’s more, workers with a distinctive sense of place identity collaborated more actively with one another and were more engaged and committed to the organization.

So how can leaders cultivate place identity? Whether the setting is physical, hybrid, or virtual, Pearce suggests three best practices:

Broadcast the vision.

No matter the setup, leaders should clearly communicate the purpose of the space and what kinds of work are best done in the various workplaces: brainstorming sessions, workshops, and other collaborative tasks in work offices, for example, and focused time in home offices. To help define virtual workspaces, leaders can state whether video conferences are meant for efficiency or connection.

Model Enthusiasm.

Equally critical to visioning is the way leaders convey a positive attitude about space. In a hybrid setting, leaders can express enthusiasm by holding in-person meetings on in-office days and visibly blocking calendar time during remote-work days for solitary work.

Empower employees.

The researchers found place identity was highest when employees were encouraged to tailor their spaces to suit their needs and preferences. In one location, for example, employees were given resources to co-create furniture and other artifacts, enhancing their personal connection to the office. Remote workers could be given materials to customize their home spaces to create a connection to their team or organization, or—if they do visit the office—to create something with co-workers to bring home.