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Exploring the link between workplace environment and productivity

Today, we work in a near 24/7 environment. Our jobs and personal lives are blurring and the notion of work-life balance is becoming illusory. Where we work is increasingly a nominal function and many of us spend time in multiple locations.

The nature of work is also becoming more collaborative. As we play our individual part in cross-departmental teams that form, disband and reform over time, work requires a greater degree of cooperation and sharing.

Work is more varied than ever before. There are times we need to concentrate and times we need to collaborate. There are times we need to talk and times we need to listen intently. We perform different tasks at different times of the day.

Technological change has enabled greater flexibility around working hours, too. Increasingly, office spaces are being designed to mirror all these aspects of modern working life. However, most offices still continue to stifle many of our basic needs — causing productivity levels to flounder.

As humans, we want to spend time in places that energise and inspire us. We want to work in spaces that help us be more creative, engaged and connected with the company we work for. We want a workplace to give us purpose and fulfilment.

This goes far beyond ensuring that a working environment merely passes health and safety inspections. Offices need to encourage greater health and wellbeing and stimulate people to work at their best. If utilised properly, a well-designed office space can facilitate a culture of virtuosity.

Working life and the pitfalls of modern offices

“There is overwhelming evidence which demonstrates that the design of an office impacts the health, wellbeing and productivity of its occupants.”

— The World Green Building Council

 

Where we work is almost as fundamental to the fabric of our identity as who we work for. While a well-designed office can bolster trust, galvanise collaboration and even brighten people’s moods, a poorly designed one can make someone’s day-to-day experience thoroughly miserable. It’s no surprise, then, that the environment in which we work — the workspace — has a major impact on the quality of our work, our levels of productivity and our psychological wellbeing.

The statistics certainly paint a picture that highlights the importance of the working environment. Only 55% of people believe that their workspace enables them to be more productive.

The average person gets interrupted every eight minutes. The average interruption takes five minutes to deal with. The end result? Only three minutes are left for productive work. 80% of distractions are unimportant. It takes 25 minutes after a distraction to return to the task.

Too many businesses have blanket uniformity, providing an oasis of monochrome — identikit desks and identical flooring. The vast majority of us would never accept such uninspiring drabness in our homes, so why are our offices designed like this? Offices need to go beyond simply mirroring the design of homes, however. They need to reflect the reality of how we work — providing environments which enable us to operate productively.

Nor is this a discussion about open or closed offices. At one point, open plan offices were thought to drive collaboration, increase face-to-face encounters and enhance productivity. However, research by Harvard University proved that people who switched from individual cubicles to open-plan offices collaborated less. According to the study, they spent:

  • 73% less time in face-to-face interactions
  • 67% more time on email
  • 75% more time on instant messenger

Most humans value privacy and personal, one-on-one conversations. In an open-plan office, the only way this is possible is via electronic means. Meanwhile, closed offices discourage the natural fluidity of conversations and restrict collaboration, even if they do encourage more individually focused work.

Ultimately, an office space needs to reflect the work that people do. People perform better when they can move around and occupy different spaces within the same building — just like at home. In agile workspaces such as WeWork, different areas are allocated for different tasks. And with more places to work than people but fewer traditional desks, people in such an environment no longer have to contend with the stress of competing for scarce resources.

Measuring the success of the office space

An article in the Harvard Business Review found that people who have more choice over their workplace scored higher on innovation, job performance, job satisfaction and workplace satisfaction. By understanding the activities that people perform each day, and how they work, businesses can start to understand the best environment for their people to thrive.

In his book, The Employee Experience Advantage, Jacob Morgan argues that successful companies offer their people not just engagement, but a real experience that means something. A key element is the working environment, which Morgan suggests should be “cool” — i.e. an office which:

  • People choose to bring friends and visitors to
  • Offers flexibility
  • Reflects the values of the business
  • Offers multiple workspace options

The physical environment should be a reflection of the values of the organisation. When designed with the needs of the individuals who will occupy it in mind, the physical workspace can create a real connection between the organisation and the person. People who work in desirable places feel a deep sense of pride in their workspace.

To improve productivity, companies should look at their working environments. In fact, doing so can help businesses improve their productivity by 220%.

 

Feature

Gain(s)

Stand-up desks

+ 10% productivity

+ 12% engagement

Decluttered desks

+ Focus

+ Persistence

+ Motivation

Optimal temperature

+ 150% productivity

+ Accuracy

Natural lighting

+ 15% productivity

+ 6.4% sleep

Choice

+ 30% productivity

+ Engagement

Indoor plants

+ Long-term decision making

+ 7-12% processing time

+ Creativity

Vibrant colours

+ Creativity

- Stress

- Depression

Ventilation

+ 100% cognitive performance


The takeaway

The office as the primary place of work is not going to disappear. What will disappear, however, is the depersonalised, identikit office. As we traverse the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the nature of work continues to evolve — and the office of the future will need to adapt and transform to meet these changes.

Doing so cannot only engender trust across an organisation, but it can also act as a boon to a company’s recruitment strategy. Modern candidates care about where they work — businesses that provide an environment which is conducive to productivity, engagement and fulfilment will attract and retain the best people. The bottom line? Businesses should treat the workplace as their competitive advantage.

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