Evidence-Based Workplace Design - Three Workshops Hosted By Allsteel


In October we were in the US, sharing the outcomes of a Rapid Evidence Assessment we conducted on Knowledge Worker productivity. Allsteel was one of the sponsors of this important effort, acted as host for conversations in three major US cities – New York, Chicago and San Francisco. The participants were senior leaders in the Corporate Real Estate teams within major companies, including American Express and LinkedIn. The workshops were led by Eric Barends from CEBMa and Andrew Mawson from AWA. Here is a brief summary of the workshop by Jan Johnson, AllSteel’s vice president Design and Workplace Resources.



WorkplacesMost everyone associated with ‘workplace making’ – from workplace strategists, furniture manufacturers, planners/designers, real estate, and facilities managers to the organization for whom the workplace is developed – has been seeking the Holy Grail: a universal, broadly applicable metric for measuring knowledge worker productivity. If only it existed, it would be a way to prove that certain attributes of the workplace – lower panels, white noise, blue walls, more natural light, etc. – have a positive effect on productivity (or not). The industry would be able to prove causation, and have clearer answers about what to do and what not to do to contribute to worker performance – to have proven data instead of subjective opinions.


CEBMa, AWA, and their sponsors set out to search for evidence once and for all that such indisputable metrics exist. To identify any and all cause and effect relationships between some aspect of the physical or virtual workplace environment and measureable performance of the knowledge worker occupant. To do so, CEBMa conducted their “rapid evidence assessment” to comb through scholarly, peer-reviewed research published between 1990 and 2013. They extensively searched all major academic databases against a carefully defined set of criteria designed to ensure that only the best quality evidence was included in the study and weed out those that represent merely collective opinions or the latest fad in thinking.


Not surprisingly, they found that there is no standard or single, widely acknowledged metric, method, or set of key performance indicators for measuring the more complex forms of knowledge worker productivity. Knowledge work is so varied and its outputs so intangible that it is not possible to come up with a single universal measure. And, while we might hope that in lieu of that, we can apply related measures like self-reported engagement or other survey data – the subjective measures we mentioned in the above paragraph – very few of them are valid and reliable. Interesting and informative, yes, but – with a few exceptions we’ll discuss below – not scientifically proven proxies for productivity measures.


While CEBMa’s assessment confirmed that there are not any macro effective causal relationships they did find several scientifically proven, broadly generalizeable correlations or “proxy measures”.  From the review of more than 800 individual research papers and 35 meta analyses, the six factors that had the highest statistical association with the performance of teams involved in knowledge work are:

– Social cohesion

– Perceived supervisory support

– Information sharing

– Vision and goal clarity

– External communication

– Trust


As these findings were shared, the conversation turned to how this new information might be applied within each organization, either in informing new initiatives or refining existing programs – perhaps providing new opportunities to partner more closely with HR, for example. Knowing these six factors so closely correlate to team performance enables us to focus on what truly matters. This new information will enable organizations to prioritize activities beyond the design of the physical environment – aspects of organizational culture, leadership and management behaviors, performance management systems, workplace design, and technology deployment – to improve social cohesion between teammates, the supportive role of the manager, effective internal and external communication and information sharing, goal clarity, and trust.


Jan Johnson

jan johnson