Few people would go regularly to a restaurant that offered one item, served one way, with no opportunity for customization. Even someone who really enjoyed that dish would probably tire pretty quickly of it, and the vast majority of the public would either never go or visit only once.

That hasn't stopped companies from taking a one-size-fits-all approach to employees. That's been very evident in the open-office trend. Many businesses have implemented that setup without considering what their employees actually want.

In reality, the best way to retain workers and keep office morale might be to offer employees more choice. Most workers -- a full 90% -- said more flexible work arrangements and schedules will increase morale, according to the 2019 Staples Workplace Survey.

Workers cluster around a computer.

Workers place a high level of value on flexibility. Image source: Getty Images.

What do workers want?

Workers want choice, and they're not in favor of offices that take a one-size-fits-all approach. Specifically, 52% said "an open office layout creates distractions," while 40% said their office is "too open."

Employees aren't necessarily asking for a return to closed offices. Instead, they want more choice -- private rooms for calls and meetings, as well as the ability to work from home when possible. In fact, 64% of workers said they work from home at least some of the time, but only 34% of employers have a formal or informal policy regulating that work. 

That's a situation that could lead to worker discontent if a company tries to tighten up its policy. Two-thirds of survey respondents (67%) said they "would consider leaving their job if their work arrangements became less flexible."

Addressing workplace flexibility requires a company to engage in a dialogue with its employees. It also means thinking about the relationship between work and worker in a different way.

"The concept of work-life balance has given way to the simpler concept of 'work life' -- one's life at work," said Staples Brand Group Vice President Chris DeMeo in a press release. "Employees no longer embrace the traditional 9-to-5 and instead seek an environment that accommodates the fact that their needs may change day to day." 

What can your company do?

Offering flexibility is harder than having a single policy that applies in all situations. You need to craft rules that work for the entire workforce without favoring one person or group over another. That requires a thoughtful discussion -- maybe a lot of them -- and a willingness to constantly re-evaluate.

"The smartest employers are acknowledging this reality and offering their workers more autonomy when it comes to where, when, and how they work," DeMeo said. "It may be a leap of faith for offices used to the old ways of doing things, but it's one that could yield dividends in terms of recruitment, retention, and productivity."

There's no single answer here that applies to every company. Instead, employers need to embrace that what seems right for them may not be what's best for their employees. Finding solutions requires a willingness to give employees a voice and to change policies that may have been in place for a very long time.