Do great workplaces make better workers, or do great workers make the most of their workplaces? It sounds like a chicken-or-egg question, but in practice, the answer is more complex. New research suggests that what makes workplaces work well is finding the appropriate synergy between the occupants and the environment.

According to Gensler’s U.S. Workplace Survey 2019, what people want most from their workplace is a great experience. What makes for a great experience, Gensler’s researchers found, are not lots of extracurricular amenities and hip socializing spaces but a flexible environment that supports the various ways in which they need to work. The report states, "Today’s workplace is an ecosystem, and the best workplace experiences are built on variety, choice, and autonomy."

Ecosystems thrive on synergy, and it appears that the workplace’s ecosystem is no different. Businesses today have come to realize the work environment in not a static container in which employees function.

Rather, it is the interaction of the occupants with the environment, and how that evolves over time, that contributes to employees’ overall work experience. Environments that help employees do their job better produce a great experience. Environments that inhibit employees from doing their job result in a poor experience.

A case in point is a recent pre- and post-occupancy study conducted at the Centre for Work Life and Evaluation Studies at Malmö University in Sweden. Using web-based surveys, Hanne Berthelsen and her team analyzed how staff at a large Swedish university experienced the work environment before and after moving to activity-based offices.

The assumption was that staff would have a more positive experience in the new environment. Instead, the study found that after the move the vast majority of staff always occupied the same space or opted to work from home.

Social interaction declined, as did overall job satisfaction. Practically and culturally, the space did not support the way staff needed and wanted to work. They found it hard to concentrate on their work — a critical need in academia — and lost their sense of community with their colleagues.

Another recent investigation sheds some light on why the academic staff did not adapt successfully to the activity-based offices. Drawing on data from a case study of a public organization, researchers with the Center for Evidence-Based Practice at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences were interested in exploring the question, "Do flexible spaces make users more flexible?"

They found that providing workers with flexible spaces does not, on its own, motivate workers to be more flexible in their use of those spaces. Enhancing flexible work for users, they discovered, "requires an understanding of what flexibility entails in a particular context, and adjusting strategies to their needs over time."

The researchers contend spaces function better for users when they are able to engage with and adapt the space to their needs. Flexibility, they conclude, stems not from design alone but through a process of appropriation and negotiation between users and their environment.

These studies help explain why Gensler reports that environments that are mostly open environments but provide ample, on-demand private space received both the highest effectiveness and the highest experience scores from employees, preferences varied according to industry and type of position.

Likewise, the vast majority of employees who said they enjoyed a great workplace experience indicated that their workplace provided a variety of work settings and allowed a great deal of choice in where to work in the office. True flexibility occurs when the work environment and work culture go hand-in-hand to help employees achieve their work objectives in whatever way they need.