There are a number of good, interrelated, reasons to focus on the physical environment that you are creating for your employees, and these include well-being, employee engagement and brand, impact on customer (direct or indirect) and, ultimately productivity.
So how can the physical work environment impact productivity and how?
Jacob Morgan, in his book The Employee Experience advantage, talks about three elements of the Employee Experience: the Physical, the Technological and the Cultural. His research suggested that companies that pay attention and deliberately design all three of these elements outperform the market significantly. This of course makes sense – why put ineffective technology into a great workspace and why not consider the kinds of behaviour that you want it to promote?
There are a number of levels that you can work at when designing your work environment for optimal productivity, some of which you’re already likely to be considering.
Capacity & Efficiency
Very simply, are you providing enough space, at a basic level, to avoid wasting time – hunting for desks or meeting space; being able to access printers, stationery and storage close to their work area? This is pretty simple to observe and measure, and is based largely on numbers.
Job and Task Demands
To what extent does the office space facilitate the demands of the job (e.g. focused, quiet working; collaboration; optical review)? This is a bit more complex, but still pretty concrete. We can analyse roles and tasks, and predict what kinds of space are required, how much of the time, in different areas (e.g. department). How do we marry up current ways of working with future, strategic needs?
The workplace of the future will be far more dependent on effective (physical and virtual) social networks than in the past, as project teams need to mobilise quickly and effectively across traditional boundaries.
To what extent does the physical environment support the human interaction that is needed to work effectively and efficiently? This is guided by formal process and information flows, informal interactions, and knowledge requirements. Do Sales need to be close to Marketing, technical Product teams, Finance? Make it easier for teams that need to collaborate to interact physically. What cross-functional projects will be important? What communities of practice / knowledge sharing will help to boost performance?
Of course, alongside physical interaction there is virtual. Technology that supports efficient interaction and sharing of knowledge will support your efforts to create an enabling physical environment. An email culture won’t.
There is plenty of focus on some regulation on the physical environment and its relationship to well-being in terms of light and air, ergonomics and so on. However, you might also consider whether the office environment:
- Encourages people to get up and move occasionally to access a different kind of space (e.g. moving from a bank of desks to a quiet pod, and back);
- Provides opportunities to work or meet standing up (stand up desks can be a matter of debate and add cost, but for most the opportunity to move and stand somewhere, or to meet standing up may be enough)
- Promotes use of stairs over the lift? Are the stairs more obvious, closer to entrances and exits, etc. Of course, these may be out of your control in a refurb, but you could make people more aware of and motivated to use the stairs (e.g. sharing snippets on the wall with the benefits of taking the stairs)
- Supports healthy eating (and break-taking), including discouraging eating at desks or on the floor plate at all.
I’m not talking about ping pong, free beer or slides here, and this is probably the most difficult element to get right, because it is about culture.
How does the environment ‘engage’ people is a critical question. It needs to link to your business strategy and desired culture.
Does it provide a motivationally rich environment that helps people to access different emotional states required to work effectively and more productively, that links to the needs of the business? There’s no one-size-fits-all example. We’re not all Google, or Apple, or to the same point the Prudential or Network Rail. All companies have different needs for creativity, innovation, safety and risk management. However, there are some things that you can ask at a basic level, for example:
- Are they reminded of the vision, mission and values of the organisation?
- How does it help them to connect to their customers’ needs?
- Does it help to provide feedback on current performance (e.g. up-to-date metrics in sales, via displays)
- Do they have (need) a place where they can be noisier, more playful and creative?
- Do they have (need) quiet areas, to escape and think?
- Do they have social zones?
- Can they personalise their spaces and build a team identity?
How are all of the above supported by the use of space, colour, materials?
There a range of things that can be done to get deeper into this area, from analysis and design – taking existing evidence from strategy, employee surveys, exit interviews, customer insights, and marrying up with interview and focus group data – to post-implementation measurement. This can be done with surveys and interviews or focus groups, but technology we can also use mobile technology to gather mood or emotion at specific time intervals or in specific locations.
The physical environment has a crucial role to play in promoting workforce productivity. It does that on rational and emotional levels. It isn’t just a case of putting some funky furniture in place, or that ping pong table, but creating an environment, with good use of physical design and technology, that reinforces the kind of culture that you want to create.
For further information on the impact of the workplace on employee productivity, download a summary of the British Council for Offices and LCMB’s research:
About the author
Rob Robson is an Organisational Development Consultant and Business Psychologist, and founder of 8Connect Consulting Ltd. In his previous organisation he was responsible for the build and move to a new European HQ, before taking on the role of VP HR, Europe.