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Show Me the Meaning! Designing the Not-for-Profit Workplace.

Purchased at a local home improvement store, the staff mailboxes at Habitat for Humanity’s Twin Cities headquarters are evocative of the organization’s commitment to improving lives through residential housing. Photo by Jasper Sanidad.

As part of a blog series exploring Gensler’s 2016 Workplace Surveys, this post examines findings specific to the Not-for-Profit sector, and how high performance workplaces support how—and why—people work.

Not-for-Profits don’t tend to shy away from a challenge—taking on big challenges is the very reason many of them exist. But as they fight the good fight, the difficulties ahead are not related solely to mission. Operationally, the sector is experiencing a daunting internal problem: high employee turnover. In a recent NFF survey of Not-for-Profit leaders, the ability to offer competitive pay and/or retain staff was cited as one of the top challenges they face, second only to long-term financial sustainability.

While fair pay is a critical issue within any sector, there is good reason to believe compensation is not a causal factor in Not-for-Profits’ high voluntary turnover rate. A 2015 UST survey of Not-for-Profit employees asked them to rank the importance of 16 key factors contributing to job satisfaction. The results were unequivocal: compensation came in last. This result, while striking, isn’t necessarily surprising; the NFP sector’s pay differential—at least 15 percent less than for profit organizations for comparable positions—is unlikely to attract a workforce particularly motivated by money alone.

So if Not-for-Profits can’t pay their way to talent retention—either because of their own financial limitations or the unique predilections of their workforce—what is the path forward? The answer may lie in what Not-for-Profit workers in the UST survey said was the most important factor contributing to their job satisfaction: “strong affinity for organization’s mission or purpose.”

Purpose and Innovation

Gensler has been conducting formal research into workplace design for over a decade. We look at consistent core topics—how people are working, where they’re working, and how well the built environment supports them—but we also explore new ideas to uncover new opportunities for design to positively impact the workplace experience.

New for the latest U.S. Workplace Survey 2016, released in July, we included questions exploring the importance of purpose for today’s knowledge workers. The results were enlightening; in detailed analysis, higher scores around purpose correlated to positive outcomes on a variety of critical performance factors, from job satisfaction and workplace satisfaction to, notably, innovation.

These findings are potentially encouraging for the Not-for-Profit sector. Of the 11 industries surveyed, the sector emerged with the highest purpose scores. This should give the sector a leg up over other industries in achieving innovation. But that isn’t the case. Rather than leading in innovation scores, Not-for-Profit sector ranked second to the last.

This discrepancy presents a paradox—overall, the survey’s highly innovative benchmark group tended to report higher purpose scores, for which the NFP sector leads all others. What seems to be missing is a workplace designed to match the high meaning and purpose orientation of the Not-for-Profit workforce.

More than a mission statement on the wall

A workplace designed for meaning involves much more than just aesthetics. For a workforce deeply committed to making a difference and doing good, an environment that effectively supports them and allows them to perform at their best communicates a tacit recognition of the importance of their work and conveys a sense that their individual contribution is valued, ultimately reinforcing personal commitment to the organization and its mission.

Based on the survey analysis, this means a workplace that supports workers in focus and concentration, that allows them to effectively collaborate and interact with others, that provides a variety of space types, and empowers them with the freedom to choose how and where they work. It means thoughtfulness in all design decisions, ranging from building location to materials. This care is especially important in a sector where cost is a critical factor and every dime spent has to count.

To deliver on their promise, Not-for-Profit organizations need an engaged workforce—people who stay with the organization, who learn and grow and prosper in their roles. As an immersive experience, the workplace environment can be designed to realize these outcomes. With so much at stake, an environment that drives innovation is an opportunity that can’t be left by the wayside.

For more insight on the Not-for-Profit workplace design opportunity, we’ve created a Not-For-Profit industry report based on the U.S. Workplace Survey with findings specific to the sector. We also encourage you to reach out to any of our practice area experts to talk about how to use the Workplace Performance Index® to find where your own organization stands within the findings.

Erik Lucken
Erik Lucken has played many roles in the design industry— from architecture, interiors and strategy to research, marketing and communications. For the last decade he has studied the intersection of business performance and the built environment, and now leverages his unique range of experience to help clients identify workplace design opportunities through unconventional insights into people, place, policy and process. Contact him at erik_lucken@gensler.com.
Amanda Ramos
Amanda Ramos is a firmwide leader for Gensler’s Not-for-Profit Practice Area and holds a degree in architecture and building science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Through nearly 20 years of experience, she has developed organizational programs, campus master plans, workplace prototypes and change communications across virtually every industry sector, from not-for-profit institutions to Fortune 500 companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Ericsson, GSK, Nokia, the Ford Foundation and the Robin Hood Foundation. Contact her at amanda_ramos@gensler.com .