Can the office environment affect staff satisfaction?

Last week I went for a meeting with a potential new client.  I had visited this hospital once before to visit a friend.  This time, I entered through the blue cast iron gates with my “What would it be like to work here?” hat on.

I was immediately struck by how smart and clean the building was.  The reception and security area looked modern, and I was even more impressed by the faux-leather seats in the staff-only cafe.  Every member of staff wore a visible name badge.  There was an energetic buzz in the air that I could almost touch.   Before I even got to meet the client, my impressions of this hospital were overwhelmingly positive. 

As I left the hospital, I began to think about the impact the hospital environment had left on me, and how this might also impact on the staff who work there.  I had done my homework so I knew that this hospital has a high staff satisfaction rating.  I then thought about the other hospitals or PCTs that I know well:  those Trusts whose staff work in poor office environments also performed badly on their staff satisfaction scores*.  I’ll admit that there are a number of factors that are considered in determining a Trust’s Staff Satisfaction Score.  But correlation (slightly unscientific) between the working environment and the staff satisfaction scores is so strong that it cannot be ignored.  But this should not come as a surprise, as the famous Hawthorne experiments have already demonstrated this.

And this is where the dilema lies for public organisations.   Michael West of Aston University has demonstrated through his research that there is a direct correlation between staff engagement and the quality of clinincal care.   A pleasant office environment will raise staff satisfaction & engagement, but to create this requires money to be invested in the building, maintenance and furniture (at the very minimum).  This is money which is diverted from services delivering clinical care to patients.   In other words, to create the environment for staff to provide high levels of clinical care, money needs to be taken out of these services to improve the working environment. 

Managing the public relations of this is difficult.  How do you explain to patients that they will have to wait a bit longer for their operation because money is being spent on improving the hospital building, but it is hoped that, as a result, they will receive better patient care as a result?  

And are NHS Trusts who have influential HRDs and / or have Board members who are interested in staff engagement and satisfication more likely to support investment in this area whilst simultaneously managing the public perception of this?  And why should it depend on members of the senior team to drive this agenda, when the evidence on potential benefits is clear?

The staff engagement agenda and the associated measure of staff satisfaction is high on the agenda of NHS HR Directors at present.  It will interesting to see the developments in this area over the next couple of years.

* All NHS Trusts are required to complete a staff attitude survey every year.  As this is a national survey, the results can be meaningfully compared bewteen NHS Trust.