Helping Businesses Use Workplace Design to Impact their Bottom Line

  • Young-Sook Lee, Ph.D.
  • Assistant Professor, School of Planning, Design, and Construction
  • College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Young-Sook Lee, Ph.D.

Many studies have shown that the design of a workplace has an impact on employee performance and business efficiency. According to the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), the oldest and largest professional organization for interior designers, "Managers recognize that employee satisfaction and productivity rise in well-designed workplaces," and that "design...adds to the bottom line by stimulating sales, attracting and retaining customers or clients, and transforming rooms into destinations." But often, design principles are very industry-specific, making it challenging for a broad range of professionals in the design industry to access comprehensive data applicable to various sectors of the workforce, especially the knowledge sector.

Because knowledge sector workers spend much of their time thinking and creating, it is necessary for these workers to have work spaces that foster creativity and collaboration. These spaces are called "knowledge workplaces."

Young Lee, Assistant Professor in the School of Planning, Design, and Construction, has been studying workplace environment as it relates to employee performance since working on her doctorate in interior design at the University of Minnesota's College of Design. According to Lee, workplace design provides challenges unique from other design areas, such as hospitality, institutional, and healthcare design. "We are mostly working with profit-based organizations, so productivity and performance are critical. There's a lot of push toward design aspects because the space we work in contributes to the performance of the organization."

Workplace Environment Related to Workplace Success

Her current project, funded by an ASID Foundation Transform Grant, will use qualitative and quantitative methodologies to determine how the performance of almost 100 high-performing companies is influenced by design. She is partnering with Tracy Brower, Director of Performance Environments and Living Office Placemaking at Herman Miller furniture company in Zeeland, Michigan, and Rex LaMore, Director of MSU's Center for Community and Economic Development (CCED), in Lansing, Michigan.

"We are working to create a comprehensive knowledge workplace design benchmark and online tool that measures physical environments," said Lee. "This is the first attempt in workplace design to create an online benchmark, and also to gather expertise from practitioners of various fields, [such as] interior designers, architects, facility managers, CEOs and presidents, and workplace strategists."

This year's ASID Foundation Transform Grant is geared toward quantifying the financial effects of design practices on employee retention, engagement, and productivity. "The ASID grant is the biggest grant available in interior design," explained Lee. "This year they are targeting workplace performance, and I thought, 'This is what I've been researching—workplace environment related to workplace success.'"

Two of her previous studies, in which she developed Seven Creative Workplace Measures© and Eight Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) Criteria for Performance, Health and Well-being (PHW) ©, helped contribute to her receiving the grant, and will be used as a framework for creating the online tool.

Seven Creative Workplace Measures© Eight Indoor Environmental Quality Criteria for Performance, Health, and Well-Being©
  1. Disengage spaces
  2. Doodle spaces
  3. Unusual and fun atmosphere
  4. Relaxing environment
  5. Stimulating to the senses
  6. Technology interface for collaboration
  7. Balanced layout between work modes
  1. Acoustics
  2. Spatial layout
  3. Furniture ergonomics
  4. Neuro-aesthetics
  5. Visual comfort
  6. Thermal comfort
  7. Indoor air
  8. Healthful space

Tracy Brower, an MSU alumnus, first met Lee while working in an advisory capacity on one of Lee's previous projects, the Arts and Innovation Workplace Project. "She reached out on the ASID grant and I was delighted to collaborate with her on the project," said Brower. "We are looking forward to discovering important links between workplace attributes and business outcomes. In addition, we are enthusiastic about the online tool that will be broadly available and will in turn collect data which may be aggregated for benchmarking purposes."

Brower is able to offer her expertise gained from working with a broad base of customers to provide input on developing the concepts and framework for this project. "I shared perspectives regarding the workplace attributes on which they focus," she explained, "as well as the business outcomes they prioritize most highly."

"We are trying to bring industry expertise to the project," said Lee. "Tracy brought her expertise in workplace strategy, and she helps in every stage of the project."

The project will move forward in four stages:

  • The team will refine the Seven Creative Workplace Measures© and the Eight IEQ for PHW© and conduct focus groups with a range of representatives from the design industry to develop a weighting system that will allow design professionals the flexibility to prioritize design strategies and evaluations specific to their organization.
  • The weighting system will be incorporated into an online tool that will allow employees to evaluate their workspaces with weighted/prioritized criteria. This will be pilot-tested with a group of knowledge workplaces.
  • The online tool will gather data from 70-100 high performing companies known in the knowledge industry, establishing a baseline of key performance indicators.
  • A focus group will use the data to develop implications for interior design and economic development professionals, resulting in a set of design guidelines for all sectors of the design industry for how to provide effective knowledge work environments.

Ultimately, Lee hopes that the design tools her team is developing for businesses will go beyond positively impacting their own bottom line, to having a positive influence on regional economic development. She worked with Dr. LaMore and MSU CCED on a study previously. With more than 35 years of economic development experience, LaMore sees the value that studies like this can have on economic growth. "To the extent that we can attribute the workplace environment to measures of business growth and development and critical economic development indicators such as new products developed, new markets identified and jobs created," he explained, "then this research could provide economic development practitioners with another set of tools in their economic development tool bag."

Groundbreaking Contributions to the Design Industry

According to LaMore, an increasingly competitive knowledge sector requires businesses to integrate creative strategies into their workplaces. "If we find that high wage, high growth industries employ specific workplace characteristics," he said, "then economic developers who are engaged in helping communities and industries compete in a highly competitive global knowledge economy can offer one more set of strategies for public and private decision-makers to consider that may help them succeed."

Helping businesses succeed in a way that also improves the health and well-being of the employees will be a win-win outcome for Lee, who is thrilled for the groundbreaking contribution she and her team are able to make to the design industry. "What excites me about this work is that this is the first attempt in this field to build an online benchmark," said Lee. "And it gives me an opportunity to contribute to the field that I have a passion for, workplace design."

  • Written by Amy Byle, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of Young-Sook Lee, School of Planning, Design and Construction

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