This post is the first in a two-part mini-series on understanding Workplace Choice and Designing for it

Workplace choice has been a hot topic of late. However, like most new industry trends, many are ready to jump on the bandwagon and few take the time to understand the concept and implement it correctly.

Workplace choice centres on the fact that employees are empowered and engaged when they can choose where to work.

Why Is Choice Important?

Workplace Choice at Medium

(Photographer: Darren Hull)

The importance of choice goes back to our basic human needs. Choice is intrinsically linked to the feeling of control. When someone has options, or choice, they have control. Psychologically, the need for control is innate for us humans. This is supported by Leotti, Iyengar (Author of The Art of Choosing) and Ochsner in their study “Born to Choose: The Origins and Value of the Need for Control”. This study shows that even infants and animals show a preference for choice, suggesting that it is a biological factor.

In the workplace, choice emerges as the ability for employees to choose where they work when completing a task. In any given day, an employee with workplace choice may be sending emails from an on-site café, using a collaborative area for a team meeting and switching to a private workstation for concentrative work.

Fulfilling employee desire for choice in the workplace provides a sense of control that yields a number of benefits:

  • Steelcase recently highlighted the correlation between employee performance and different workplace factors in their 2016 Global Engagement Study. They noted that there was a direct correlation between an employees control in the workplace and their engagement. The most engaged employees also had the most choice in where they worked on tasks within the office.
  • Gensler found similar results in their 2016 Workplace Survey. They note that “Top-performers have access to, and use, a greater variety of workspaces in and out of the office”. Gensler highlights choice as a way to empower workers through design.

Choice equals control and with this empowerment and engagement, employees perform better.

A Deeper Look: Effects of Workplace Choice and Empowerment

Workplace Choice Inside Medium - Darren Hull

(Photographer: Darren Hull)


Providing employees with the ability to choose where they work has a multiplier effect. The empowerment transfers into other aspects of their work. They can take increased ownership over not just where they work, but what they are working on.

In a business environment where changes are happening rapidly and responses must occur accordingly, quick thinking is important. Choice and control are essential for any type of swift response. Employees on the ground are often closest to issues that arise. Having them react appropriately is a huge advantage. Navy SEALs refer to this principle of empowerment as “Decentralized Command” and employ it as part of their leadership and success strategy. Ensuring that employees have the confidence to take control of their tasks and make decisions is a big strategic advantage.

Promoting Trust:

When employers design spaces to truly empower employees it shows that they trust employees to utilize the space appropriately. This trust helps create a mutual respect between employee and employer and further supports the sense of autonomy in an organization.

When an employee knows that they are trusted, they are more likely to take ownership of tasks to maintain that trust. That trust also supports their ability to make decisions. Trust is strongly tied to empowerment and the decentralized command concept.

Consider the alternative

The latest Gallup numbers show that a stark 67.2% of the American workforce are disengaged. Employees that are provided a confined desk, set hours, and little autonomy will also have little incentive to go above and beyond or take initiative. Disengaged employees may become complacent and pass off responsibility.

Who would you rather have on your team or leading your team: an employee that feels they are in control, and trusted, who acts and takes pride and ownership in their tasks, or one that does only what is required? The choice should be clear. Empowered employees, supported by strong leadership and workplace choice, provide a company with a clear advantage.

Leveraging Choice in Your Workplace

In addition to helping employees perform better, workplace choice can also help retain and attract high performing employees who need to feel empowered. In part 2 of this post, we look at how workplace choice can be applied through company culture, leadership, communication and design.

All Images from Darren Hull’s “Inside Medium”