Top 5 Reasons Your Workplace Design Survey Isn’t Giving You the Whole Picture

September 24, 2019 by Meghan McDonald

Architects, interior designers, how often do you survey your client’s workforce to get the data you need—and then you end up relying on prior experience or resorting to educated guesses to create the best office environment for them?

Workplace design surveys often don’t paint the whole picture—they don’t provide the quality data you need. Based on years of partnership with design professionals, plus our own research, Survature has identified five common reasons why this is. Which do you recognize from surveys you’ve used in the past?

 

1. The survey is satisfied with rating current satisfaction

Workplace design surveys commonly ask respondents to rate their satisfaction with various elements of the current office environment. These questions might reveal a few relevant pain points, but focusing on current satisfaction can hold respondents back from thinking outside the box of their existing office. The data you’ll get from these questions could actually lead you down the path of merely improving a space, not creating the distinctly new space that workers expect.

To get the whole picture from your survey, go beyond rating current satisfaction. This will help you build your survey toward the end goal of a new space, not incremental improvements. Specifically, use behavior-enabled questions (like Survature's AnswerCloud pictured below) to get answers that shed light on people’s subconscious priorities of their needs.

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2. The survey assumes current work activities = how people want to work

People shape spaces, but spaces also shape people—and the ways they work. When spaces refuse to be wrangled into submission to workers’ needs, some people develop processes or habits that allow them to cope. That’s why the influence that space exerts on work activities can be hard to spot, even in real life. In a typical survey, it can be invisible. This is the very data that can help your design go beyond incremental improvement to make a real difference in how people work.

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To get the whole picture from your survey, don’t stop at wanting to know “what is.” Dig deeper to understand how space has shaped current work activities so you can more accurately predict the way things should be. Specifically, people work in teams. For example, it’s impossible to analyze how a running back prefers to play without understanding his offensive line. Do spend the time to understand the information flows in people’s workplace.

 

3. The survey assumes job titles say it all

When you’re asked, “What do you do?” do a million things come to your mind before you respond, perhaps by simply stating your job title? Most workplace design surveys ask for the respondent’s department, profession, seniority, and job title. These bits of information are important to know, but a person’s job is defined by so much more—the team they’re on, the roles they play, the interpersonal dynamics.

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To get the whole picture from your survey, figure out respondents’ identities on the knowledge-work scale (read up on it here) and the generalist-specialist continuum (learn more here). Both of these help you get at the “why” behind people’s wants and needs by examining the roles they really play and where they devote their energy.

 

4. The survey asks for percentages—and gets guesswork

Many surveys ask respondents to assign percentages to how much time they spend at their desk vs. in meetings, working alone vs. collaborating, etc. Not only do most people not think about their time in terms of percentages that must equal 100, but just recalling what they did last week might prove difficult. You’re guaranteed to get best guesses, ball parks, and plain made-up numbers—not quality data that can inform your design. If you can’t accurately answer the question, chances are your respondents can’t, either.

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To get the whole picture from your survey, you should have used the previous steps to understand who the people are and how they want to work team-wise and task-wise. Now use behavior-enabled questions to understand how they feel is the function of each space, because the functions of a space are in the eyes of the beholders. This information is a more reliable predictor than time percentages of current space use.

 

5. The survey doesn’t show images—so everyone sees something different

The maxim “a picture is worth a thousand words” definitely applies to surveys. When you ask respondents if they want a workplace break area, they say yes. Sounds straightforward. But what if one person answers yes imagining a station with coffee and snacks, someone else says yes envisioning a foosball table, and yet another person is hoping for a private space new mothers can use? If you don’t capture the nuance, you may design something totally different than what respondents had in mind. If you do capture everyone’s ideas, you must choose which to prioritize.

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To get the whole picture from your survey, ensure that questions are as precise as possible. One of the (and easiest) ways to evaluate concepts accurately is by using real photos or images. A picture is worth a thousand words.

 

Questions that paint the whole picture

Now you know why typical workplace design surveys don’t give you the whole picture—they don’t help you understand how people really work.

So how do you design the right questions to understand that? Stay tuned for Part II of this three-part series on workplace design. In the meantime, check out our recent articles in Work Design Magazine.

Meghan McDonald is a Knoxville-based freelance writer with a bent for science and a love for art. Meghan received her MA in creative writing from the University of Tennessee in 2012 and has been writing for organizations that serve people through science and/or art ever since. She’s pleased to be writing with Survature, a company that brings together data science and design. Read more of her work at meghanmcdonaldwriter.com.