Why the built work environment is so valuable to those just beginning their careers

Socio-Technical Centre
Workplace Behaviour Research Centre

Dr Helen Hughes is an Associate Professor at Leeds University Business School, and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. She has expertise in workplace collaboration, studying the social dynamics of workplace relationships and the ways that these can be harnessed by organizations to improve both their performance and efficiency, and the wellbeing and satisfaction of their employees. Currently, she is a Co-Investigator on an ESRC funded project: “Adapting Offices for the Future of Work”, which is looking to support economic recovery by identifying effective office design and work practice adaptations that also support remote and hybrid working.

Modern empty office

This is the second blog post in a series exploring the experience of remote and hybrid working for those starting their careers during the pandemic. Read the first blog post - How remote working can affect workplace learning - here.

Rishi Sunak, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, recently warned those early in their careers that home working might be damaging to their career prospects. With comments that caused widespread debate – and some degree of controversy – he talked about the value of being in a physical workplace, and the opportunities that he felt he would personally not have had if he had started out remotely.

These comments are interesting in the context of our own research. Over the last 12 months we have been interviewing interns employed on 9-12 month contracts to better understand their experiences of working remotely at the start of their career, and specifically the value that they believe they have gained from the physical workplace. 

Making sense of organisational politics and cultural norms

First, interns who had been working in their employer’s workspace described how the built environment had helped them better understand their employer's politics and company culture.

They found it easier to learn the technical aspects of work than they did the culture and norms of the workplace. The physical workspace more readily provided them with cues about the hierarchy of the organisation (e.g. through office sizes, décor, or restricted spaces), and how to communicate with others because they could better gauge the degree of formality in the office, or get a sense of the approachability of different colleagues. 

The office also provided insights into their employer’s values. The citizenship behaviours of colleagues were more visible, and flexible working practices were seen more transparently. All of these aspects were useful to interns, helping them quickly make sense of their employer and then adapt their own behaviours accordingly.

Those working in physical workspaces from the outset described this sense-making process as being "quick" and "obvious", whereas several remote interns referenced the challenges of navigating such aspects remotely, without access to the clues you might get from the physical infrastructure.

Nurturing commitment

Second, interns spoke about how the built environment had helped them to build a sense of commitment to the organisation. For some, the value of the built environment was immediate, and helped them to quickly feel part of the organisation. One intern described attending the company’s head office for their assessment centre as “almost like a customer journey”, helping them develop a loyalty and commitment to the organisation before their internship even started. Others described picking up ‘signals’ as they walked through the building during assessment centres and interviews, which made them feel that working there would be a good fit with their personal values.

Some even described their visit to the workplace during the assessment centre or interview as the ‘decider’ in helping them to choose between multiple job offers. Others talked of the “excitement” and “pride” they felt at being able to work in the building that they were working in:

Under normal circumstances, I would have been working in Westminster… Part of the attraction of the civil service is working in and around that historic postcode of the United Kingdom, so I was disappointed to miss out on that.

Others reported feeling a closer connection to the organisation after having the opportunity to work in the office, following a period of enforced remote working. This was not necessarily always simply due to the prestige or design of the building, or even the configuration of the office space, but just because simply being in the workplace had facilitated interactions that were difficult to replicate online.

Being in the workplace improved mood

As well as helping nurture commitment, being in the workplace was credited with improving an employee’s mood because of the sense of comradery that face-to-face collaboration created. Some interns had not realised until working in the office how much they valued such interactions and the positive feelings they got from working in the presence of others because they only had chance to experience it at the end of the internship:

I attended the office and met my team for the first time in my final week of placement. It was this experience that made me increase the importance I placed on social contact with co-workers. Although only in the office for two days, I realized how much this boosted my mood, productivity and feeling of belonging in the team. Having social contact with my team is now a very important value to me and would have a large part of my decision-making process when selecting a graduate job.

The workplace can facilitate social comparison... and this can be motivating!

Finally, some interns gave examples of how being in a workplace and seeing the pace and quality of the work being undertaken by peers had encouraged them to ‘up their game’ in response. For the most part, interns spoke favourably about this – they felt they thrived on such friendly competition and found role models more easily to learn from in the office. 

In contrast, those who had worked entirely from home during their internship reported feeling uncertain about their own standards of performance, the quality of the opportunities they were given, and their pace of work relative to their peers. They frequently described insecurities about whether they were working hard enough or for long enough, with some reporting excessive home-working hours as they sought to satisfy their employer. 

It seems that the physical workspace is valuable to people starting out in their careers for a variety of different reasons – and not all of these appear to be motivated by a desire to improve career prospects. The physical workplace, it seems, can help those new to the workforce to settle in more quickly, learn more readily from others, and can also improve mood and commitment – all of which are, of course, valuable to organisations who want to retain their employees, and who want them to be motivated towards achieving the organisation’s goals. 

These findings raise interesting questions. Is there an optimal ratio of remote to office working that is needed to realise these benefits? How can these benefits be achieved in the context of the wider workforce? 

While an early career worker might well benefit from being in the office five days a week, this might well be contingent on more senior colleagues adopting a similar pattern, so the needs of early career employees should not be considered in isolation. 

If hybrid working is here to stay, organisations need to think about how they can most effectively facilitate working patterns that achieve these benefits, or replicate some of the advantages of the physical workplace in the online world. 

For further information:

Next blog post: The challenges of remote communication for new workers.

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Email: research.lubs@leeds.ac.uk
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.