Playing for Keeps

25 October 2006

What is the inclusive workplace and how does it help raise the stakes on staff retention? Simon Pole of Woods Bagot, Corporate Interiors reveals how companies need to refocus on the employee experience.

Today, employers are using tools for recruitment and retention that would have been unimaginable only 20 years ago. Armies of recruitment consultants, the latest psychometrics and lavish perks are all used to identify and attract the right talent. Then, when company cars and futuristic PDAs have lost their novelty, workers are plied with more consultants, bonuses and luxuries in an attempt to reduce the turnover rate.

With all these sophisticated tools and big-budget bribes at their disposal, most employers still fail to take advantage of their biggest asset. Businesses that shell out millions on BMWs and motivational iPods for their employees will often have offices that depress and repel, rather than inspire and welcome.

As a professional working on designing workplaces, I find it amazing that businesses fail to use their office as a strategic resource to keep a new generation of professionals engaged.


The workplace is an organisation's most-powerful tool of internal communication. Failing to use employees' surroundings to encourage and motivate will have dire repercussions for businesses whose ethos is diluted by ambivalent, outmoded and just plain cheap work environments.

A new generation of workers, who have higher expectations and are keenly aware of the real message being conveyed, will turn a deaf ear to weekend bonding sessions and excitable HR consultants. High turnover of staff becomes inevitable if sought-after professionals are expected to work in an office that contradicts everything the business is supposed to stand for.

The pool of knowledge workers is actually decreasing. The mid-career worker wants greater work-life balance, and there are a growing number of older workers looking to retire.

We need to create cultures, human resources tactics and workplaces that actively encourage people to stay and make them feel included. This is not only an issue concerning intelligent business practice but also a legal issue, because of the new legislation surrounding age discrimination policy and employee engagement.


Inclusive workplace is a term that originated in the field of HR. In its traditional context, it means a discrimination-free environment that accommodates all workers. With recruitment and retention becoming more difficult every year, it is time to place more focus on the 'place' aspect of the workplace. This means ensuring that people feeling good about where they work.

"Many offices depress and repel, rather than inspiring and welcoming employees."

A healthy workplace offers many advantages and is an inexpensive way of attracting and retaining the best workers. A recent Gallup survey of over 2,000 American workers showed that of those that feel most included, a whopping 86%, would recommend their company to friends and family as a good place to work .

There is clearly an opportunity for businesses to make employees feel wanted, so that they recommend the company to their friends, instead of always being on the lookout for other opportunities.


The disconnect between organisational values and the workplace is caused by the chasm that exists between the two distinct groups of decision-makers. Human resources and property management rarely collaborate on projects such as office moves, property acquisition, architect briefings or new interior designs.

HR managers tell us time and time again that space-related complaints are among the most frustrating, because they have little control over the work environment. HR managers must get involved in helping to develop the workplace. After all, they are responsible for employees' well-being.

The competitive nature of the marketplace requires organisations to carefully distil their values and behaviours, in particular those that are special or unique, and look for ways to physically reinforce them. The result will be a company culture that is reflected in the workplace's design and associated amenities. Current and incoming employees will have no doubt as to the organisation's messages and values and embrace the brand.

The inclusive workplace will ideally be created by a team with design, project management, change management and communication skills. Most likely, internal and external resources will be required to achieve a real break with short-term cost-cutting. It is depressing to see how the latest low-cost property model quickly becomes the benchmark for the next wave of projects, dooming workplaces to become cookie-cutter generation-Y deterrents from day one.


Jack Welch, former CEO and chairman of General Electric, said it best in 2003:

"The best companies now know, without a doubt, where productivity - real and limitless productivity - comes from. It comes from challenged, empowered, excited, rewarded teams of people. It comes from engaging every single mind in the organisation, making everyone part of the action, and allowing everyone to have a voice - a role - in the success of the enterprise. Doing so raises productivity not incrementally, but by multiples."

"Businesses must use their office as a strategic resource to keep a new generation of professionals engaged."

There are three ways of gauging the effectiveness of the inclusive workplace - cost, value-add, and strategic. The simplest metrics to use are staff absenteeism and rent / usable space. Measuring value-add is much harder - here, the goal is to determine staff engagement and workplace performance.

Strategic measurement aims to look at specific individuals and how the workplace impacts their productivity. It is difficult to surmount meaningful, cause and effect relationships for measuring strategic value, as this can only really be gauged through qualitative assessment rather than quantitative.

Refurbishment or moving office is the best time to refocus on the employee experience, and it requires a concerted effort, initiated by management, to create an inclusive workplace.

The process inevitably requires the right team, including HR, to get together on aligning the physical surroundings, design, layout, IT and environmental factors to ensure that it all seamlessly integrates into the new space and workers' ICT experience.