The scariest part of the 2017 Gallup Report on “The State of the American Workplace”  is that only 33% of employees feel engaged at work. That means that 67% of employees (or time) are NOT engaged. Even the world’s best organizations have only 70% engagement. What can design do to enhance the employee experience and engagement?1

Free food and coffee has been doled out in corporate offices for so long that workers assume that they will get this, thus losing its perk status. LS&A’s first “corporate café’s” (with more than free coffee) were designed in the late 90’s. By 2001 the enhanced central café became de rigueur. Since then, young people, accustomed to free snacks and drinks, a gym, museum passes, and more compare the perks along with the salary when comparing employment opportunities. In a full-employment economic environment like the one in Boston, a new job has been created: Happiness Ambassador. This person, upon employee request, will get the most esoteric coconut water with real gold flakes (just kidding, or is there coconut water with gold flakes in it?) The theory is that when people’s wants are fulfilled they will be more engaged at work.

These perks may attract the talent, and they do satisfy social needs, but do they help with the low engagement cited in the Gallup poll? A person takes the job with the special coconut water, but then she still has to sit down and

  • Write a report or
  • Write code or
  • Figure out the navigations for a new website or
  • Balance the books or
  • Think of a new marketing campaign or
  • Develop an employee handbook

You get it…there is work to be done!

I have a theory about the lack of engagement:

1. Distractions and Interruptions –

    a. Cell phones ringing (apparently, we are addicted to checking our phones frequently and get anxious if more than 5                 minutes goes by without opening the phone to check for emails, texts, instagrams, whatever (source: 60 Minutes).

    b. Food and drink in the café – if we are distracted, we are not able to do the hard work of starting a project.

2. We don’t know what we are supposed to do, and how to get started. “Modern Management Style” is to tell the goal to the     employees and let them get there on their own. I think if almost every project had a clear starting point, such as,                  “Research title records first” … “Review the client comments from our last iteration” … “Here’s what a similar ‘x’ looks like –       start there, and look for ways to improve it”… employees would be able to get into the “meat” of the project quickly, and         get so engaged that cellphones and free food might stop being a distraction.

3. Purpose – once employees understand the purpose of the task – (another great reason to have a start-up meeting)                 worker engagement and productivity go up. I cite the old story of a construction worker digging a ditch for a sewage pipe       alteration at a Children’s Hospital. When asked what he was doing, he replied, “I’m helping sick children get well.” This is         someone who understood the purpose of what he was doing. Purpose does not need to be lofty. Purpose can be straight     forward – “I need this report quickly so that the board will have an accurate sense of how well/poorly we are doing and           make better decisions going forward. Better decisions at the top will result in a stronger company and therefore more           jobs and job security for us…and we can continue to sponsor that 5K that you love.”

4. Schedule/priorities – most workers are given multiple tasks to accomplish. That start-up meeting can clear the fog of            which project to do first.

A task that looks like fun and is easy to start might actually be the lowest priority project. Deadlines can get people engaged, but only after the other 3 problems are solved.

To recap:

1. Reduce distractions

2. Give clear direction on what has to be done – and how to start it

3. Communicate the “purpose” of the work: The Why

4. Set rough or actual deadlines and prioritize projects

So how can design support employee engagement?

1. Provide rooms that support focus/engagement.

2. Provide some open meeting spaces that can function well for start-up meetings – that everyone on the team can hear –         maybe speaker phone/teleconference those not working in the office?

3. Install photographs or phrases that remind people why we do it, perhaps in the café with the free food?

4. Use technology to set priorities and keep a group calendar in plain sight – when people see tight deadlines they might           even volunteer to help. Those volunteers are engaged with the purpose.

Think about it – you may not need to hire more employees, you may just need to engage the ones you have. An investment in training, start-up meetings, and in the renewal of purpose, could pay off faster than investing in gold flaked coconut water.

If you want to learn more about how Leslie Saul & Associates can help you improve employee engagement through good design, please contact us at or call the office at (617) 234-5300 x 0.

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