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identity at work




The Issues
Organizations have been using lean space for over 100 years, with people working at bare desks with as few surrounding distractions as possible. Is this the most effective use of workspace today and what should tomorrows office environment be like? Prism, a research group led by the University of Exeter and supported by the government and business partners, uses psychology, business planning and organizational change to answer some of the fundamental questions surrounding workspace.

...and how does all this affect the organizations bottom line?
There is widespread faith in the productivity of the lean, clean office. Is this justified? We have rigorously tested this popular management theory to find out. In experiments in otherwise identical offices, some of our participants worked under lean conditions, others had their surroundings enriched with pictures and plants; whilst a third group were empowered to decorate their own workspaces. Productivity was measured across regular office tasks by comparing the speed and accuracy scores of people working in lean spaces with scores achieved by colleagues in enriched and empowered environments. The results challenge existing ideas as the graph below indicates.

Have you ever thought about how your office space affects your employees?
Considerable research has been devoted to creating efficient and effective offices. Yet the psychological effects of working within a controlled office environment have been largely ignored. How does the way in which space is managed affect an employees involvement, commitment and well-being...

Office productivity
40 20 Percentage increase or decrease 0 -20 -40 Lean O ce Enriched O ce

Speed Errors

Empowered O ce

1906 image on front cover courtesy of

Prisms work, which has been showcased at academic and commercial conferences, investigates questions such as: How are people affected when they have little input into personal workspace? What are the optimum levels of autonomy for employees and their company? How does the way space is managed affect an employees involvement, commitment and well-being?

The Findings
Prism investigates why businesses impose a corporate identity upon employees. We look at why many workers are prevented from having an input into how their workspace looks, feels and is structured. We have found that, in part, managers have traditionally had a strong desire to monitor and control their charges and this is coupled with an implicit sense that designers know best. Prism challenges the validity of these concepts and investigates whether they have any unintended consequences.

Prism has begun a programme of groundbreaking research in which key elements of workspace design and management are systematically varied to measure their impact on metrics of well-being and performance.
A lack of input into managerial decisions concerning the use of workspace may induce feelings of psychological discomfort in the office. In turn, this could lead to workers identifying less with the organization for which they work, which may have serious ramifications for well-being, job satisfaction and crucially, organizational productivity. However the opposite would also be true. Thus, including employees in decisions that directly affect their working environment should result in highly beneficial organizational outcomes.

Lack of decisional involvement

Job satisfaction

Lack of autonomy

Poor physical environment


Comfort Organizational identity

+ +

Physical well-being

Productivity UK office worker studies (Exeter University PhD thesis)

The Story
Prisms data reveal clear evidence that people who contribute to the design of their own workspace perform faster and report being far more content than colleagues or competitors who are denied their say. One particularly intriguing finding was that people who helped design their own workspace - and who could therefore see something of their own identity reflected in their surroundings - were about 30% less likely to experience sick office syndrome than those whose input was ignored. This strongly implies that empowered workers are much less likely to believe that the office air is contaminated or to complain of headaches or tiredness than colleagues expected to work in a lean office environment. Positive reactions to empowerment have also been visible in research studies outside of the office environment. Two sets of residents were moving from one care home into another. Four weeks before the move they were asked if they were happy in their present surroundings. At the time of the move, residents of one care home were empowered to have influence over how their social meeting spaces should look, whilst in the other home all issues of dcor were taken care of by the care home managers. Residents empowered to look after their own social space came to prefer their home much more than residents who had their decisions made for them by benevolent management. These positive feelings held good over time with no sign of a reduction in the sense of pleasure given to the residents by their living space.

Enjoyment of life in a new care home

7 6 5 4 3 2 1 4 weeks before move 4 weeks after move 4 months after move Empowered Non-empowered

Next Steps
Recent work in the architecture and design community has highlighted that physical structures and facilities impact differently on diverse groups within organizations. Aligned with findings from our own research1, this suggests that performance and well-being are enhanced when space does not constrain identity but instead allows it to be expressed and to develop. Our research indicates that empowerment and identity are key to well-being and productivity at work. Improvements are possible within large business settings and Prism is working to translate this research into the development of an optimum model of space management. Through a consultative process, Prism can provide organizations with significant benefits. Prism is keen to forge links with any organization seeking to enhance its office environment and the experience of the people working within it. Our goal is to make the provision of a psychologically rewarding environment an economic necessity, not just a moral option. We invite you to be part of an exciting research project where the potential to make a positive difference is very real.

Haslam S. A. (2004) Psychology in Organizations: The Social Identity Approach (2nd Ed.). London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Prisms Founding Partners

The University of Exeter, with over 30million of recent research investment, is recognized as one of the top universities in the country. The internationally renowned School of Psychology sees its partnership with Prism as an important opportunity to improve wellbeing and productivity in a misunderstood business sector.

The ESRC is the UKs largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and government. ESRC support has been crucial to the success of the Prism project.

Founded by G.W. Haworth in Michigan in 1948, there are now approximately 8,000 Haworth members worldwide. Haworth expanded into Europe in 1988 with the opening of Haworth UK. With the launch of Haworth Asia Pacific in 2000, the company now supports corporate clients in 124 countries worldwide. Prism enables Haworth to increase the knowledge capital available to its clients.

Ambius is the world leader at enriching workplaces. Its interior plant displays, art and ambient fragrances create harmonious surroundings that improve well-being, productivity and enhance brand image. Ambius is proud to be a founding member of Prism and looks forward to promoting more effective, humane and inspiring work places.

T +44 (0) 1392 262300 E The Innovation Centre University of Exeter Rennes Drive Exeter EX4 4RN

identity at work