Feel-good spaces: Study shows how to engage employees in the office

Happy diverse male and female colleagues carrying packing boxes, moving into an office to set up work spaces.
Photo: Adobe Stock

Pre-pandemic, companies sunk millions into office redesigns: cubicles were out, replaced by open, flexible layouts—often with ping pong tables, well-stocked kitchens, or other on-site perks.

Post-pandemic, companies are changing it up again, setting up hot-desking and hoteling spaces for hybrid workers. 

But new Berkeley Haas research suggests that leaders wanting to build employee engagement should think less about rearranging the furniture and more about how employees relate to their workplace.

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

Pearce refers to that sense of connection to one’s physical space as “place identity,” a term derived from environmental psychology that is often used to understand how people relate to public spaces or communities. In a paper published in the journal Organizational Dynamics, Pearce and co-authors from Stanford and Pepperdine universities explore the importance of place identity in organizations. 

Their findings offer guidance for leaders who want to build employee engagement at a time when the very concept of a workplace has become increasingly fluid.

Connections and belonging

The research team studied a software company transitioning workers at sites throughout the world from traditional offices to open-plan innovation centers—complete with movable furniture and whiteboards, colorful walls, sofas, and beanbag chairs—to promote agile work. Despite the popularity of such open-office plans, academic research on their benefits has been mixed, and Pearce said she was struck by how different people at the company reacted to the new environment.

“For some people, that type of space is amazing—they have access to their leaders and their colleagues at any time,” Pearce says. “And for others it reduces all the signals of their own status inside of the hierarchy. Or it’s impossibly distracting. Or they view it as rough and rugged.” 

Whether people accepted or rejected the innovation centers didn’t seem to align with their work functions or professional backgrounds, nor with age, gender, location, or other factors. “We got really curious about that, and started to notice that 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,” Pearce says. 

In observations, interviews, and surveys across two studies at innovation centers in the U.S., China, India, France, and Israel, the researchers found that people who described feeling most connected to the innovation centers also expressed more excitement about their work and the organization overall. “What they described was distinct from other sources of work identity, such as team, professional, and organizational identity. “

In fact, this distinctive sense of place identity was associated with critical work outcomes, their studies showed. “Overall, our data suggest that workers collaborate more actively with one another, are more engaged, and are more committed to the organization when there is more place identity.”

Cultivating place identity

To cultivate place identity, leaders should be just as intentional about setting the social conditions for the workspace as they are about the physical design, Pearce says. Whether the setting is physical, hybrid, or virtual, she suggests three best practices:

  1. Broadcast the vision of the space. No matter the setup, leaders should clearly communicate the purpose of the space and what kinds of work that will be done in the various workplaces—brainstorming sessions, workshops, and other collaborative tasks onsite, for example, while saving focused time for home offices. Leaders can help define virtual workspaces as well; such as stating whether video conferences are spaces for efficiency or connection.
  2. Model enthusiasm for how to use the space.  While visioning is important, equally critical is the way in which leaders convey a positive attitude about the space. In a hybrid setting, for example, leaders can express enthusiasm by using the various spaces as intended, such as holding in-person meetings on in-office days and visibly blocking calendar time during remote-work days for solitary work. 
  3. Empower employees. The researchers found the highest levels of place identity among the teams that spent the most time envisioning goals for their space, so leaders should involve workers when creating a new space. In established spaces, leaders should encourage workers to adapt the space to suit their work needs or create something together, like a piece of art, that can build identity. Remote workers could be given materials to customize their spaces, or—if they do visit the office—create something with co-workers to bring home.

“Companies invest a lot in their physical spaces, but we see place identity as a fundamental human process that also requires investment,” she says. “The investment that leaders make in understanding and promoting the vision of the workspace, conveying a positive attitude and empowering workers to customize their spaces helps cultivate place identity and may be key to unlocking collaboration, work engagement and organizational commitment—whether near or far or inbetween”