Man is by nature a social animal. We have an instinctive need to belong to a group and feel included, accepted and respected. In fact, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, love and belonging are fundamental needs, following right after our basic physiological and safety needs.
And it’s only after the need for belonging has been fulfilled that one can move onwards to esteem and self-actualisation. While a part of this need is fulfilled by family, friends and our social circles outside of work, the fact is, we spend a big part of our time with the people we work with. So quite naturally, enjoying your colleagues’ company makes a day at the office a lot more fun. Research has shown that we’re also likely to perform better when we feel a sense of belonging. And just like in sports, team spirit can make or break even the most talented group of individuals. If the group doesn’t work together as a team, if they don’t form a cohesive community with shared goals, successful results are unlikely to be achieved.
Unfortunately though, a positive community does not always form itself automatically. It might need something to instigate it, and something that then glues people together. For example, mutual interests or shared experiences might draw people closer. But very importantly, it needs places to happen. A campfire to gather around, marketplaces to meet and share stories. So while it’s not the sole contributing factor in creating a sense of community at work, the workplace is definitely an enabler, sometimes an instigator and – unfortunately – sometimes an obstacle.
Across the 169,838 respondents in our entire database, only 58% report that their workplace contributes to a sense of community. Yet in the high performing Leesman+ certified workplaces, that figure jumps to 72% agreement. When comparing those who think that their environment contributes to a sense of community and those who don’t, it is unlikely to be a coincidence that the activities where we find the largest gaps in perceived support from the workplace are those of a more collaborative nature. The top five activities, based on the difference in perceived support, are:
- Collaborating on creative work (40% for those who don’t think that their workplaces contributes to a sense of community vs 75% for those who do)
- Thinking / creative thinking (28% vs 62%)
- Informal social interaction (51% vs 84%)
- Learning from others (54% vs 87%)
- Relaxing / taking a break (40% vs 71%)
A look at the features where we find the largest satisfaction score differences might point in the direction of what creates an infrastructure that contributes to a sense of community:
- Accessibility of colleagues (43% vs 81%)
- General décor (19% vs 56%)
- Atriums and communal areas (22% vs 54%)
- Informal work areas / breakout zones (17% vs 48%)
- Variety of different types of workspaces (10% vs 41%)
While not quite in the top 5, I’d also like to highlight the feature that probably brings out most smiles when we report back results to our clients: ‘tea, coffee and other refreshment facilities’. In most of our client surveys, this feature comes out at the top in importance, which is often met by a slight chuckle. It is also 3rd most important in our entire database. But as a bit of a coffee snob who easily goes through 5 skinny flat whites a day when visiting coffee capital Melbourne, I’m not at all surprised. Not only can coffee (or tea, if you prefer that) be a fuel for individual productivity (think sitting down with a steaming leaf-decorated latte next to you, immersing yourself in your screen), it also brings people together. It’s not a coincidence that 56% of the respondents who are dissatisfied with ‘tea, coffee and other refreshment facilities’ feel that the workplace supports informal social interaction, compared to 81% of those who are satisfied.
We also find a strong correlation between the workplace contributing to a sense of community and providing an enjoyable environment to work in. Out of those employees who feel that their environment contributes to a sense of community at work, 84% feel that their workplace creates an enjoyable environment to work in, while only 11% of those who don’t agree with sense of community agree with enjoyable environment.
A valid question to ask then is whether different types of workplaces support a sense of community to a different extent? For example, how do flexible environments, where employees do not have a designated workspace, compare to other office solutions? Can flexible environments contribute to a sense of community even though the flexible nature of the environment might mean that you won’t always sit next to the same colleagues – especially as ‘accessibility of colleagues’ is so crucial? And is it possible to tackle the challenge of making employees feel that they belong, even though they don’t have a desk of their own that works as a token of their place in the organisation?
Our data seems to tell us that it is. Out of the respondents in our database who work in a private or shared enclosed office, 57% think that their workplace contributes to a sense of community. It is not difficult to imagine that a sense of community is hard to achieve in environments where employees are sat alone or with 1-2 other colleagues in an office, perhaps even with the door closed. The figure is slightly higher for those in a cubicle or with a desk in an open plan area, 59% of these respondents agree. And while the lowest percentage is found among those who mainly use a flexible workstation but have low choice – 52% agree – those who work in a flexible way and who perceive their environment to have high variety have by far the highest agreement – 78%. That is in fact higher than the Leesman+ average. One contributing factor could be that flexible environments with a lot of variety foster equality, as everyone is offered the same choice and treated equally.
But let’s face it, a colourful sofa and tasty coffee alone won’t turn an individualistic workplace that is lacking a sense of community into a group of best friends, and fulfil the human need for a sense of belonging. Especially not if the starting point is a culture where nobody dares to hang out and enjoy a beverage, in fear of being labelled lazy. As always when we’re talking about workplaces, we need to take a holistic view and understand it as a larger system where all the building blocks influence each other. And those building blocks are both physical, virtual and social.
Dr Peggie Rothe | Leesman
Peggie is Leesman’s resident academic. Before joining the team in September 2014, she worked as a researcher at Aalto University (Finland) with a focus on corporate real estate, workplace management and short-distance office relocations, publishing her findings in several peer-reviewed academic journals.