It seems we can’t open any form of social media lately without running into articles on Forbes, Inc., HBR, and others about talent wars, attrition, and what makes employees move on. With younger generations being characterized as much more likely to move on to find the right fit, employers are scrambling to identify the best ways to bring talent in and keep them engaged.

Attracting top talent goes well beyond salary and job descriptions. Knowledge workers crave a sense of meaning and purpose from their career. With so many opportunities, potential candidates have the ability to base employment decisions on the qualitative attributes of a potential employer. Will I fit in here? How can I contribute or make a difference? Will this help me grow towards my professional goals?

The work environment, whether intentional or not, is often speaking the loudest to these qualitative attributes. What is the physical space saying about the company’s values and culture? Is there transparency to leadership and the organization’s mission?

…actively disengaged employees are toxic to a healthy work environment– employers are better off paying them to not come to work.

I often cringe when I hear colleagues speak of attraction & retention. While retaining key talent is critical for an organization’s ability to compete in a competitive marketplace, having a strict focus on retention brings to mind images of desperate employers hanging on for dear life and crossing their fingers that employees won’t decide to move on. Rather than focusing on the outcome of retention, let’s proactively shift our focus to employee development and engagement.

Steelcase RedThread Office
The work environment can speak volumes about a company’s values and culture, as well as its attitude towards staff engagement and needs.

A recent survey from Deloitte found that more than 63% of Millennials are considering leaving their current place of employment because there’s no clear path for advancement or they feel they are being overlooked for leadership opportunities. While this may mainly be a reflection of management and HR programs, it is also an opportunity to understand that your physical office space can, and should, reinforce your staff development initiatives.

Create opportunities for intentional interactions

An important element in developing new talent is intentional mentoring and knowledge transfer. Employees are seeking strong connections to their peers, to good managers and leadership, and to the organization’s mission and values. Spaces that are designed to encourage informal connections and chance encounters help build social bonds. These bonds naturally lead to tribal knowledge transfer and an understanding of the organization that extend well beyond the employee handbook.

Creativity and innovation is spatial, and a core function of the workplace is to bring the right people together at the right time to share and build on ideas. While formal and scheduled meetings are important, chance encounters or serendipitous collaboration often lead to the most unexpected and beneficial outcomes by capitalizing on a diversity of thoughts and experiences, shared in real-time. By manipulating work environments to accelerate this serendipity, the rate of innovation can increase exponentially.

Steelcase Boston Office
Open collaboration spaces located near a coffee counter will allow for chance encounters and serendipitous collaboration.

A main goal of a recent refresh in our own office was to create opportunities for employees to engage with each other in more meaningful ways, building social bonds that in turn strengthen mentoring relationships and team dynamics on projects. To that end, an undersized and tucked away kitchenette and satellite coffee counter were replaced with an open kitchen with a large island as well as an open, informal café. Both quickly became central hubs in the office for casual connections and informal meetings. Similar to the campfire where tribal knowledge was passed down, these informal and social gathering places become critical for mentoring, building culture, and most importantly – innovation.

Make it visible, both literally and figuratively

Statistics on engagement are staggering. Gallup’s most recent surveys find that nearly 50% of US workers are not engaged at work, and an additional 17% are actively disengaged. While disengaged workers are a drain on resources and efficiency, actively disengaged employees are toxic to a healthy work environment – employers are better off paying them to not come to work.

Steelcase Portland Office
Environments that allow the work to be visible can help employees be more actively engaged while at the office.

Millennials care about the values their workplaces promote, and want to understand how their role can contribute to furthering organizational strategy. Many have characterized this generation as having short attention spans or lack of commitment because of their average 3-year tenure, but what we need to recognize is the reprioritization of career paths. No longer is the corner office the ultimate goal, but a portfolio of purpose driven roles and experiences that lead to meaningful fulfilment from work.

Work spaces that provide visibility to an organization’s goals and practices allow employees to identify how their goals and strengths align and where there might be opportunities for growth. With this increased awareness, employees are finding visible paths to leadership and opportunities to contribute in meaningful ways without having to leave. With this level of ownership and empowerment comes an exciting level of engagement.

Why is all of this important?

Quite simply, strong employee development and engagement directly impact business performance. Meaningful employee development programs contribute to a higher sense of engagement. Engaged employees naturally perform better and give beyond their job descriptions or what is asked of them. This leads to greater efficiency and productivity, higher levels of innovation, and better return on investments in recruitment and training.

The work space is one of the most authentic representations of an organization’s culture, mission, and priorities. When planned correctly, it becomes not just a real estate asset but a strategic tool used to empower, support, and influence growth and development. The key is being human-centric and authentic to your organization – there’s no one size fits all solution.