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December 29, 2011

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Work environment – Better by design

The design and comfort of the work environment may not be priority issues for many employers in these straitened times but, as Tim Oldman points out, failure to appreciate the damaging effect on productivity of mediocre workplaces can cost businesses dear.

Of the subjects most likely to fuel vociferous discussion among workplace designers, strategists, managers and owners, ‘productivity’ is surely the most recurrent, i.e. do the design and management of a workplace affect the productivity of those it accommodates?

Most debates falter first on whether productivity is, in fact, a valid unit of measurement in a knowledge economy. Critics dismiss productivity as outdated, pointing to its origins in 16th-century, pre-industrial revolution ‘piecework’, which sought to measure the number of physical items or operational steps completed, regardless of the time required.

But piecework was conceived as an indisputable measure of an individual craftsman’s personal performance and, since the majority of those who dislike references to productivity prefer instead to discuss performance, are we not all simply concerning ourselves with a common shared objective: measuring how effective workplace environment design contributes to employees performing at their peak?

Since the first arrival of white-collar work, the design of the office space has twisted and turned with each new technology development, creating an ever-contending series of ‘people and place’ demands: openness then later privacy, interaction later versus autonomy.

American engineer Frederick Taylor is credited as one of the first people to ‘design’ an office space back in the early 20th century – though in truth, as an engineer himself, he engineered it. Taylor positioned serried rows of workers in completely open environments, while managers looked on from elevated private offices, applying Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ principles to divide supervisory and production tasks.

Today, we rebound between analysis of productivity and performance, and designers engage clients in debate about how workplaces can foster greater knowledge exchange and collaboration, and improve outputs in our knowledge economy. But in this environment of economic uncertainty, that means eyes are once again focused on the ‘people and place’ equation of productivity versus performance.

Business leaders are concerned with productivity and performance in equal measure; they simply desire clear information on which physical environmental factors will directly and positively affect their business performance and thus finances. Intellectual preamble as to whether knowledge can be measured or benchmarked does little to engage them.

So, while workplace professionals ruminate, human resources-management professionals pretty much agree that staff performance is a collective factor of ability and motivation. Does this, then, validate the workplace designer’s drive to create motivational and uplifting workplaces?

All in the mind?
Whether you are feeling up or down, energetic or lethargic, anxious or calm, your mood affects the way your mind works and, in a knowledge business, research has proven that outputs will be affected by stimuli that engender positivity.

It has been posited that mood is the foundation of our mental health and thus the basis of our behaviours, thinking, emotions and general well-being. Bad moods give rise to bad thoughts, unhelpful emotions and poor mental and physical health, whereas a good mood engenders positive thinking, enhanced creativity and intelligence.1

Recent research in the UK found that stress and mental-health problems are now the most common causes of long-term sickness absence.2 Clearly, this rise will have greater roots in social economic uncertainty than in workplace design, but could workplace design do more to help?

The recently published results of a 12-year American research programme add yet another dimension to the productivity-versus-performance debate.3 Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and independent researcher and consultant Steven Kramer sought to examine the factors affording enhanced innovation and increased knowledge productivity.

They concluded that the single thing that motivates employees most is the simple and straightforward sense that they are making progress. So, says the report, the biggest contribution employers can make is to ensure their teams are provided with the right “catalysts and nourishers” that allow work to progress, removing “obstacles and toxins” that present impediments and cause setbacks.

The work examines “the power of progress” and carefully considers the factors that lead employees to categorise days as “progress days” or “setback days”. It found that simple incremental progress increases engagement in the work being undertaken. Of those incidents that respondents classed as mere “minor” progress points, 28 per cent elicited a major impact on the employee’s sense of achievement. The research suggests that it is this inner work-life reward that potently fuels personal creativity and productivity.

But the research also exposes the diametric picture. While small progressive steps have a disproportionately large impact on individual sense of productivity and fulfilment, small losses, setbacks, or obstructions to progression have an even more disproportionately negative impact on inner work life.

This points, then, to business leaders needing to invest greater time and resources in understanding where the processes, systems and workplaces they provide are supporting or failing the staff they accommodate. As an experiment, try carrying a small pad of brightly-coloured sticky-notes with you for a day and, each time something impedes you doing what you are employed to do, however small, write it down – then see how many accumulate by the end of a day!

Toxic shock
The Leesman Index employee workplace satisfaction database, though in infancy compared to the Harvard Business School work, exposes obstacles and inhibitors. It is an open and unified benchmarking tool that measures how a workplace environment is performing for those it houses.

This allows clear vision of which activities staff are undertaking and then which physical features staff rank as important in order to complete these activities. The data collection then reveals whether those features are supporting or obstructing the work staff are doing. Early data points to a series of key recurrent issues causing concern:

  1. 72 per cent of respondents rank “informal unplanned meetings” as an important workplace activity, but 51.6 per cent report that the design of their workplace does not support the activity.
  2. 54 per cent of respondents rank “hosting clients, visitors, or customers” as an important workplace activity, but 58.9 per cent report that the design of their workplace does not support it.
  3. 63 per cent of respondents rank “confidential conversations” as an important workplace activity, but 68.4 per cent report that the design of their workplace does not support it.
  4. 29 per cent of respondents rank “video conferencing” as an important workplace activity, but 68.2 per cent of them report that the design of their workplace does not support it.
  5. 79 per cent of respondents rank “noise levels” as an important workplace feature, with 48.2 per cent of them dissatisfied with this feature in their space.
  6. 71 per cent of respondents rank “air quality” as an important workplace feature, with 51.2 per cent of them dissatisfied with this feature in their space.
  7. 87 per cent of respondents rank “temperature control” as an important workplace feature, with 61.9 per cent of them dissatisfied with this feature in their space.
  8. 61 per cent of respondents rank “quiet rooms for working alone or in pairs” as an important workplace feature, with 75.8 per cent of them dissatisfied with this feature in their space.

So, in three-quarters of these examples, the physical feature described is seen by less than half of the respondents who ranked it as important as satisfactorily meeting their requirements. As an employer, I would find this concerning.

The extent to which these failings, or staff dissatisfaction are inhibiting progress and workflow requires considerably greater analysis, but clearly where large numbers report similar concerns, investigation and intervention by those who provide the facilities are necessary. These issues are modern-day unseen toxins; they are toxically prohibiting employees from progressing through the work that their employer is paying them to do. They are creating a daily smog of frustration and disengagement that must surely be impacting on the psychological and physiological wellness of staff.

Most shockingly, this is quite clearly contributing to a sense of impediment. Just 52.1 per cent of the 5000 or so staff surveyed in the last 12 months report that “the design of their organisation’s office enables them to work productively”. This must surely be resulting in lower morale, increased absenteeism and reduced discretionary effort.

In an economically constrained time, employers might argue that the capital is just not there to intervene, but this is undervaluing staff as a commodity, instead of seeing them as an asset. Assets need tending and protecting, not poisoning. The antidote is not necessarily costly; it merely involves asking, consulting, listening and then acting.

To improve productivity in your workplace, start by thinking about the things that are done there on a daily basis. Then consider how well these activities are supported – how many of them could be done better, quicker, or just more effectively if the environment and the equipment provided by your employer were better, and more attuned to the needs of employees? Then think about the things that irritate you and the other employees in your workplace in order to begin to determine where and what the obstacles and toxins are that are inhibiting employees and thus their productivity.

Even in these economically challenged times, safeguarding employee physiological and psychological health is crucial – particularly when it has a direct and measurable impact on productivity. Administering an antidote is relatively easy, but first relies on understanding the nature of the toxin. 

1    Miller, Dr Liz (2009): Mood mapping: plot your way to emotional health and happiness –
2    SHP November 2011, News: ‘Stress jumps to top of sickness-absence chart’ – stress-jumps-to-top-of-sickness-absence-chart
3    Amabile, Teresa M, and Kramer, Steve J (2011): The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, Harvard Business Press

Tim Oldman is managing director of the Leesman Index, which gathers workplace effectiveness data

Approaches to managing the risks associated Musculoskeletal disorders

In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we hear from Matt Birtles, Principal Ergonomics Consultant at HSE’s Science and Research Centre, about the different approaches to managing the risks associated with Musculoskeletal disorders.

Matt, an ergonomics and human factors expert, shares his thoughts on why MSDs are important, the various prevalent rates across the UK, what you can do within your own organisation and the Risk Management process surrounding MSD’s.

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