The Power of Choice in the Workplace

Sit to stand desks present many options for these employees in this space designed by EYP Architecture & Engineering. Photo by Eric Levin.

Most of us inherently know that having “choice” at work is a good thing and that it helps us to be more productive, more creative, healthier, and more engaged. When we don’t have control over aspects of our work, we become stressed, we feel trapped, and our performance suffers. But, you may ask, is there any proof that this is true? I mean, maybe we have a general sense that choice is good, but are there studies that prove this out? Turns out, there are.


Fundamental research by Karasek and Theorell

Robert Karasek, an industrial engineer and sociologist, and Tores Theorell, a specialist in industrial medicine, have been studying stress and jobs for a long time. Their epidemiological studies over decades have carefully measured the stress level of hundreds of jobs and the impact of those jobs on the productivity, but also the health of workers (particularly heart disease). They created a model that organizes each job they have studied using two factors, 1) the levels of “psychological demands” of the job, and 2) the “decision latitude” or control of the worker to manage how he or she could deal with psychological demands.

The results of their studies show that those workers with the greatest risk for illness are those with high psychological demands and low decision latitude. In other words, if you have a stressful job that does not provide much choice in how you are able to manage stress, you were more likely to suffer mentally and physically. Theorell describes how workers who have control over their work and work environment typically have more positive health outcomes, even if they have stressful jobs. “The combination of high psychological demand and high decision latitude is defined as the active situation. In this situation, the worker has been given more resources to cope with high psychological demands because he/she can make relevant decisions, such as planning working hours according to his/her own biological rhythm. In addition, he/she has greater possibilities to improve coping strategies – facilitating feeling of mastery and control in unforeseen situations. This situation corresponds to psychological growth.”

Karasek and Theorell describe how jobs can be adjusted to better balance “choice” and stress today, such as providing employees skills education or training, increasing their decision authority and possibly decreasing the psychological demands of their job. In their book Healthy Work: Stress, Productivity and the Reconstruction of the Working Life, they describe ideal jobs as ones that, beyond material rewards, “give workers influence over the selection of work routines such as working at home or flexible hours” and “have routine demands mixed with a liberal element of new learning challenges.” So, regardless of our profession or position, some choice as to where, when and how we work can greatly impact creativity, engagement, health and the bottom line.

Sally Augustin, a noted environmental psychologist claims, “When we don’t feel in control of what happens to us in a place, we are stressed, discouraged and frustrated. Feeling in control is the key here; we don’t have to actually exercise control to reap psychological benefits.” Just knowing that we can adjust our work and environment to better suit our needs makes a huge difference in how we feel about work and our ability to be productive.

Latest IFMA report confirms flexibility and choice is important

This “choice” idea, especially in terms of workplace provisioning, is really taking hold. In a recent survey colleagues and I conducted for IFMA, in their new report titled Distributed Work Revisited, of 538 organizations surveyed, respondents claimed they are already using or about to roll out the use of highly flexible spaces where employees can choose the best environment for the task at hand, such as touchdown spaces, activity-based settings, shared address, hoteling, group address, and free address environments (see table below).

How familiar is your organization with the following on-premise work settings/strategies?



In this same IFMA survey, respondents were asked why they are exploring new ways of provisioning employees, both on- and off-site. The responses were consistent. Companies are adopting these new workplace policies to support work-life balance for employees, flexibility, aligning with organizational goals, aligning with advances in technology, and the perceived benefit to workers. Cost savings and real estate size reduction were also important drivers for trying something new (and an important part of the business case), but cost was chosen less often than organizational or employee-driven goals.

How important is each of the following reasons you have considered or implemented off-premise options?


Provide choice for where employees work

Technology has greatly increased the ability of workers to get things done outside of traditional workspaces. Many people can work effectively and efficiently at home, in a satellite office, coworking facility, a plane, train, hotel room, park or coffee shop. The key is determining what activities are best suited for more “flexible work” and providing employees the right tools to be mobile, like a laptop, cell or soft phone, VPN connection, security controls in place, etc.

Employees who are given permission to work at home or away from the office find that they can get more done, usually because they are naturally able to work through tasks without interruption. Studies show that by giving employees the flexibility to move around their workplace to find “quiet space,” or to allow them to work from home, employees are not only more productive and less stressed, but they work more hours and are more satisfied with their job. According to Gallup Panel Workforce survey of 13,968 U.S. full-time workers from 2012, “Remote workers log an average of four more hours per week than their on-site counterparts. Despite working longer hours, working remotely seems to have a slightly positive effect on worker’s employee engagement levels.”

Provide choice as to when employees can work

Flexible work schedules are an alternative to the traditional 9 to 5, 40-hour work week. They allow employees to vary their arrival and/or departure times. Under some policies, employees must work a prescribed number of hours per pay period and be present during a daily “core time.” Other arrangements include job sharing, where a full-time position is split between two coworkers by mutual agreement, and benefits are given in proportion to the number of hours each person works. A third option is a compressed workweek where employees complete their weekly work hour requirements in fewer than five days. Whatever the arrangement, employee choice is at the center of these policies.

Allow employees to choose how they work

It may be too difficult for your company to allow certain employees to choose where and when they work, but helping them change the way they carry out their workday might be a strategy to help them cope with stress and the daily grind. Even if the company does not provide adjustable desks, it may be possible for employees to change position or location in their workplace so that they can work while standing, like working a table in the break room or attending a “stand up” or walking meeting. Making small adjustments, like moving or adding a monitor, turning on a task light, orienting furniture or organizing the work being done can make a major difference in how employees feel about the health of their workplace.

Credit Suisse sees benefits of offering choice

David Crew, Global Head of Workplace Strategy, Planning and Innovation for Credit Suisse and his colleague, Per Hansen, Global Head of their Smart Working Program, have been rolling out a flexible work program globally that addresses where, when and how employees work. Today, over 10,000 employees sit in Smart Working environments. They have been measuring the effect of these environments carefully as they roll them out to each site. They state in IFMA’s Distributed Work Revisited Report, “Although it is difficult to prove exact cause and effect across all of the active Smart Working locations, the HR team has found a 60 percent decrease in attrition for those people who had been with the company less than 18 months in new environments. Across the entire population, attrition was reduced by roughly 30 percent. Of particular note, absence thru sickness reduced by 30 percent for employees working in flexible work environments in Zurich. This may be because people who are sick are more enabled to work from home, and feel less obligated to come into the office.”

“Place” is only a part of the solution

The work solutions shared here have been all about choice as it relates to the physical environment and workplace policies. But choice fits into a larger picture, and into all aspects of our work – how we are valued, measured, incentivized, and managed. It’s unfair to say that the workplace is the only place where choice should occur. That said, flexibility as to where, when and how we work clearly makes a difference. Plus, engaging leaders, managers and employees in discussions about how choice and “ownership” of work can be integrated into the workplace can be a catalyst for making other changes to workflow and job responsibilities.



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