‘This Experience’ is the latest in a long line of words to be adopted by the Workplace community to capture the essence of its ever-shifting agenda. Since ‘new ways of working’ first appeared in the early nineties, there has been a steady stream of monikers to capture the essence of the focus at particular times. In the post-pandemic hybrid world, we now have ‘experience’ perhaps one of the more difficult to grasp hold of. 
What does it actually mean? How do we differentiate good and bad experience? How do we level up on the inevitable differences between people – one person’s fantastic experience is another’s nightmare: see the crass attempts in the noughties for designs that appealed to extroverts at the expense of introverts. 
The most common means of measuring experience, which gained much traction during the pandemic, has been staff satisfaction surveys. Countless surveys have asked workers about their experience of space planning, ergonomics, air quality, noise and so on. And guess what? Most people are not satisfied; they’re having a bad experience. There is an inevitability about the outcome which begs the question: why do we bother? This is a serious question. 
Nevertheless the results are seized upon by workplace consultants, change consultants, interior designers, surveyors and digital disciples to underpin claims that we need a new workplace design agenda – one based on providing a ‘quality of experience’ in the office to compete with that of working from home. 
Setting aside for a moment the fact that workers have been dissatisfied with their workplaces for 200 years (yes, that’s two noughts), the quality of the best workplaces (often where workplace satisfaction surveys are carried out) have been transformed over the past few decades. Just since the Millennium, countless new buildings have been delivered to modern design and specification, taking account of shifting agendas in terms of, among others, health and wellbeing, nutrition, changing workstyles, ESG, neurodiversity and attracting and retaining expensive workers. 
So, if we are improving the quality of the work environment, then why does the average experience rating show no sign of improvement? The only rational response is that we are measuring the wrong things; or perhaps failing to measure the right things. 
For my money, a large part of the explanation lies in the fact that measuring experience is focused on the designed environment – fitout, furniture, specification and so on – with the inevitable conclusion that the solution is to reinvigorate office design agenda. 
I believe that this is entirely wrong. 
Can you imagine a hotel experience questionnaire that asked customers about the air con system, the bathroom facilities, the furniture in the foyer and the temperature of the indoor pool; but failed to ask about their experience of the reception, concierge, service levels and attitude of staff? 
The focus on the designed environment (the ‘workplace hardware’) has led to a neglect of the managed environment, or the ‘workplace software’. The fact is that we are failing to measure the impact of the software – management regimes, corporate culture, team dynamics, career paths and workloads. 
I have witnessed plenty of examples of workplaces that manifestly fail in terms of the quality of the workplace, but which succeed because the staff, in the main, are fully engaged in what they are doing and who they are doing it with. 
If it were possible to measure such a thing (which it is not) I would expect to see a positive correlation between poor workplace experience and size and bureaucracy: larger, more bureaucratic organisations have poorer workplace experience. 
Workers can, and do, overcome all sorts of actual or perceived problems with the physical environment if their experience in terms of leadership, motivation, sense of connection and purpose, and their sense of engagement are all positive. These aspects of experience cannot be designed. 
To illustrate this point, on the one hand, much of the workplace narrative revolves around designing space for creativity, collaboration, innovation; around serendipity at the water cooler, and about removing obstacles that might have a fractional impact on productivity. But on the other hand, the plain fact is that much office work is dull, repetitive, reactive and routine. It is often accompanied by unrealistic targets and unsympathetic management (features the workplace culture seeks to hide). And yes, some workers need to be present and supervised. 
The CEO of HP, Enrique Lore, recently referred to an employee survey involving 15,000 office workers across 12 countries. Key among the ‘HP Work Relationship Index’ findings was that just 27% of knowledge workers feel they have a healthy relationship with their work. Further, only 25% feel they consistently receive the respect and value they deserve. Respondents said they yearn for purpose, empowerment, and genuine connection to their work, but just 29% say their job consistently fulfils these needs. 83% of people say they are willing to earn less if it means feeling happier at work. 
And herein lies a fantastic opportunity to make a transformative impact on workplace experience. If the separate silos of Facilities, People and Real Estate were to re-brand themselves as Service, Staff and Space, respectively, and begin to work in harmony, then together they could make a measurable impact on workplace experience. 
Too much workplace design and debate takes place in the real estate echo chamber. If we are to seriously address the experience of work then we need to engage with business. If we can align the best thinking in ‘Workplace’ (and there is plenty of it out there) with positive and progressive people management thinking, then real strides might be made in increasing worker satisfaction. 
We could continue to measure workplace hardware for another few decades, but better hardware will not lead to positive experience. Workers will continue to express dissatisfaction with work culture through the proxies of layout, furniture, lighting, temperature and so on. More investment in hardware will not resolve dissatisfaction with work itself. 
As the supply industry gears up to create workplace experience as a means of competing with working from home, we need to recognise that no amount of experience will overcome antipathy for traditional management structures. In this respect, workplace satisfaction is a chimera. Now is the time to bring the design of place, provision of services and management of people together into a single workplace experience function. 
With thanks to Dr Rob Harris, Ramidus Consulting 
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