Debate

How important is the physical space in improving the productivity of your people? CLOSING REMARKS

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Jeff Flanagan - Managing Director - Commercial, InterserveWhat a great few weeks this has been. We’ve heard excellent arguments on both sides regarding whether the physical space can impact workplace productivity.

Both Andrew and Julia have heard your views from the rebuttal stage and have now made their closing statements.

Thank you for all those who are contributing to the debate. With the debate drawing to a close this Friday, there is still time to have your say. Join the debate vote, comment or tweet us using #workplacedebate.

We will announce the winner on 16th December.

Do you think the physical workplace is the most important to improve employee productivity and engagement? We invite you to vote and leave a comment below. Information and guidance on online debates

  • Physical space

    Andrew Mawson, founder of Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA)

    Andrew Mawson

    Owner, Advanced Workplace Associates

    A well-designed workplace can never overcome poor leadership, culture, rituals or behaviour. But, in the right hands, it can be a powerful tool in supporting people and organisations in being the best they can be.

    Every day millions of people around the world spend most of their waking hours in the ‘workplace’. Many of them are engaged in ‘knowledge work’, where they are paid to use their brains to deliver value. The DNA of knowledge work is all about concentrating, communicating, committing ideas to memory, remembering, planning, thinking.

    Regardless of whether that workplace is an office, a train table or a desk at home, it can either create the conditions that get in the way of people’s cognitive performance or it can be pro-actively designed and managed to support it. And by the way, the workplace today is not just your desk and chair; it’s the physical and psychological environment in which work is undertaken.

    Sadly, many of today’s workplaces are poor in supporting knowledge workers in doing their best work, having been designed with ‘space performance’ (and not ‘human performance’) in mind. Workers report distraction and task interruptions as the biggest killer because they can’t get access to environments that enable them to concentrate and think. Many offices are dull and uninspiring, designed as if people and their emotions don’t matter.

    Valuable people can give you 120% of their energy and ideas or 80% depending on how engaged they are. But many are wasting their brain power and time overcoming things that shouldn’t be in their way in the first place, which can destroy morale. We’re leaking brainpower; we can’t see it but it’s costing money. If the office was a manufacturing plant, we’d see scrap items littering every corner of the workplace and poor efficiency metrics. We’d shut the place down.

    There’s now industry-wide recognition that the workplace can actually enhance organisational performance. Our research into cognitive performance and knowledge worker productivity reveals that if you want to enhance the productivity of an organisation, you have to get everyone doing the right things to enhance their brain functions. This involves creating fault-free workplaces that consciously support the tasks people need to perform individually and collectively. A workspace should also encourage and facilitate the right rituals, behaviour, culture and atmosphere to enhance team and community performance.

    A well thought through workplace can be a powerful, competitive weapon for creating the functional and emotional conditions that enable people and organisations to fulfil their potential.

Other factors

Julia Lindsay, CEO of iOpener Institute

Julia Lindsay

CEO of iOpener Institute

The most amazing physical space in the world means nothing if the universal elements which sustain people’s happiness at work aren’t in place. Being happy at work improves productivity sustainably. For example, our research shows that our most happy at work colleagues are focused on their tasks for 78% of their working week. Whereas our least happy at work colleagues are focused on their tasks 53% of their working week. And 10 years’ research with c. 50,000 working people shows that this is pretty stable over time. Put another way, if we found a way for everyone to increase time focused on task by 5%, this would yield 12 more days’ productive time per year. Per employee.

We’ve spent a lot of time looking at what is most connected to being happy and productive at work. So where does physical space fit in? When we look at the 25 items that explain most of the difference between those most and least happy at work, physical space isn’t one of them. That doesn’t mean it’s not important, it’s just not as important as things like trusting in the vision of your organization’s leaders, or having some control of what you do day-to-day.

If you perceive your culture isn’t fair, if you feel you’re not doing something worthwhile or if you feel unable to raise issues (all things which are highly correlated with low levels of happiness and productivity at work), then the most wonderful physical space won’t make up for that. Of course, physical space and changes in it may impact the universal elements that build happiness and productivity in people.

I once worked with a large blue chip organization who upgraded the IT department’s physical space to be more like the contemporary, funky spaces found in tech start-ups. Being in the provinces, attracting and retaining the best engineers was tough and this was one of the ways they chose to tackle this. All the other departments’ space remained unchanged: comfortable and functional but somewhat ‘old fashioned’. No prizes for guessing that everyone not working in IT felt this was unfair. And they felt undervalued too. Did it make a difference to the IT department? Somewhat. But other longstanding issues such as a lack of control of daily activities remained an issue. Therefore, after an initial spike, happiness at work soon returned to its previous level.

Physical space is the icing on the cake. It’s not the cake.

Physical workspace is important

47%


Other factors are important

53%


Physical space

Andrew Mawson, founder of Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA)

Andrew Mawson

Owner, Advanced Workplace Associates

I’ve enjoyed reading all your comments so thank you all for contributing so far.

My definition of the workplace is the ‘A social, physical and information environment in which work tasks are performed’.  In my perfect world we  would all be in the business of creating  fault free ‘environments’ designed to support great work,  social cohesion to re-enforce good working practices, and subtly reflect the personality and culture of an organisation. It costs no more to design and deliver a great workplace experience than a bad one, so why don’t we all do it?

The workplace is a daily and persistent manifestation of the organisations relationship with its employees. Perceptions of it are created every second of every day by employees and help make their minds up about the organisation. They perceive the ‘workplace’ as one experience, not the endeavours of a range of ‘disparate’ functions (each optimising against their own drivers, budgets and imperatives).  Intriguingly there is not one person in any organisation, that I have come across, that is solely responsible for their holistic workplace creation and management. Not one person looking after the conditions that will make people give 120% or 80%. Not one person responsible for creating the conditions under which an organisations most powerful resource, its people, are able to shine and deliver their values.

Poor workplaces, where things don’t work, don’t get fixed and where blandness and conformity are the watchwords, send strong messages to individuals about the degree to which their organisation cares about them and their performance.  ‘Why should I give my all if they can’t even give me the tools for the job?’ they will say. Often a workplace will provide employees with the truth about how their organisation feels about them, well beyond leadership rhetoric. Bad leadership is often synonymous with a bad workplace experience.

So I’m sticking to my guns. In a world where increasingly knowledge based organisations rely on the ingenuity and energy of their people, the workplace can be a massive weapon in both giving them a fault free and effective day AND inspiring them to deliver their best work and be ‘knowledge’ generous with colleagues. These are the fundamental ingredients of knowledge worker productivity.

Leaders come and go; workplaces remain a constant reminder of what the organisation cares about.

Other factors

Julia Lindsay, CEO of iOpener Institute

Julia Lindsay

CEO of iOpener Institute

Let’s return to my assertion that physical space is the icing on the cake in the workplace. The fact is that I want to have my cake and eat the icing too.  Icing adds prettiness and value to a cake, and helps differentiate it from others.  However, without the cake the icing is simply empty calories.  And who wants to work somewhere with no substance?

We all know organizations where the office design and set-up is amazing but the culture is toxic.  Just today I was talking with a friend who was talking about her experience of working at the carefully designed, impressive head office of a prestigious global scientific organization. And then comparing that to her time spent working in a quite grotty office.  She loved the second job and couldn’t wait to leave the first. Why? Because the cultural environment wasn’t a good one.  So she voted with her feet and took her talent elsewhere. My friend’s experience echoes Jude’s comment who posted that she ‘prefers to work in an outdated building and have great colleagues/managers’.

Daniel posted that ‘culture is very important in the workplace and it’s hard to achieve the desired culture without a physical space that supports it’. I agree that alignment is beneficial; it helps build trust and belief in what the organization is aiming for and undoubtedly, if achieved, will help get things done.  However, it comes down to this: if people aren’t getting the things from their organization that deliver Happiness at Work they won’t want to have ‘innovative discussions’: well-designed office or not.  Things that deliver Happiness at Work include being able to raise issues, believing you are doing something worthwhile and perceiving the culture to be fair.  To illustrate, those who find their culture most unfair report that they are disengaged for 32% of their working day.  People who find their culture fairest are disengaged for 6% of the day.  That’s a quite staggering difference.

I totally agree with Andrew that knowledge workers may be ‘wasting their brain power and time overcoming things that shouldn’t be in their way in the first place’.  So where that’s the case, let’s improve levels of trust, increase levels of recognition and appreciation, listen carefully and behave respectfully.  And we can reflect this amazing culture in our careful office design.  Then we can gather round for tea and cake to celebrate!

Physical workspace is important

51%


Other factors are important

49%


  • Physical space

    Andrew Mawson, founder of Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA)

    Andrew Mawson

    Owner, Advanced Workplace Associates

    Great debate and some great points are emerging.

    From everything that’s been said, you can’t fix toxic culture and bad management with a great workplace. No argument.

    But what you can do is to use the excuse of a workplace ‘event’ (like an office lease expiring, a new building, consolidation into a single building etc.), as a moment to overhaul management practices, behaviours and cultures, using the design of the ‘workplace experience’ as a tool to get everyone involved, providing a constant reminder of the new practices and behaviour and what’s important to the organisation. How so?

    Imagine the situation (extreme I admit). Toxic culture, un-supportive leaders, lack of vision, poor morale. The problem is often that it’s no-ones’ day job and anyway nobody believes they can do anything about it. Leaders and middle managers are so focused on today’s results that they don’t see it. Culture and behaviour is seen as a ‘fluffy’ topic, and anyway isn’t that something to do with ‘HR’? Senior leaders are insulated from the realities of what’s going on by middle managers who often ‘airbrush’ what’s really going on.

    Now, let’s imagine we have a lease expiring at one of the organisations key locations. A smart workplace leader (from HR, FM, CRE or a COO) can use this moment as a powerful weapon for change. Because a move to a new workplace is a significant long term decision senior leaders suddenly get interested. It’s perfectly legitimate for a workplace leader to ask key questions: What kind of culture and behaviours do we need in our organisation in the future in order to be successful and how can we shape our workplace to support? What kind of people do we need to recruit, can we use the ‘workplace experience’ as a weapon? How will technology impact on our business and do we need to think about the type of work people will be doing in the future and will we need a building at all?; What pressures exist in our markets and how flexible will we need to be? And crucially how can we best construct a ‘workplace experience’ that aligns with business drivers and enables our people to be the best they can be both individually and collectively?

    Smart workplace leaders can use the moment of workplace change as a catalysts for real cultural change. Through studies about the ‘current state’ of the workplace using hard data on culture, behaviours, space utilisation, workplace effectiveness, productivity and technology you can put a mirror up in front of senior leaders grabbing their attention and forcing them to face the current realities. Through workshops and ‘one to one’ sessions you can engage with colleagues at all levels to articulate how things need to be in the future to maximise the likelihood of success using the workplace experience as a tool. Then you can get everyone to agree the strategies needed to get you to the future using the workplace as an excuse and an omnipresent reminder of how we want the world to be.

    In the right hands the ‘workplace experience’ is a powerful weapon and I’m keen that senior leaders start to understand it’s power. That’s why right now, supported by Interserve, we’re putting the finishing touches on a step by step process that will be published early 2017 that will help organisations develop joined up, multi-sensory ‘workplace experiences’ to help their people do their best work and subtly uniquely represent and reinforce organisational culture, behaviours and identity.

    FM….but not as we know it!

  • Other factors

    Julia Lindsay, CEO of iOpener Institute

    Julia Lindsay

    CEO of iOpener Institute

    Thanks everyone for your interesting contributions and comments so far, I’ve really enjoyed being part of this debate and look forward to continuing the discussion!

    Graham makes the excellent point that “To get the most from people in my experience of working 40 years in organisations both large and small the most important factor in getting real commitment to the job is a result of relationships built through common interest and excitement in the achievement of individual and team goals.” And I completely agree with him: the people and the relationships they build together are more important than the building that surround them.

    iOpener Iberia MD Santi Garcia is currently conducting some research into why people choose to leave jobs, asking respondents to anonymously give the reasons why they decided to leave a company. As we’re in the middle of this research journey, the interim results are hot off the press! And the data so far backs up my assertion that while workplace design is one important factor to consider, it’s way down the list in terms of what employees think really matters. The top four reasons people have given us so far for leaving are:

    1. Professional development (or lack of it)

    2. Managers

    3. Company governance

    4. Lack of autonomy.

    These are all strongly linked to the factors that we know affect your Happiness at Work. ‘Workplace’ comes in at a distant 16th position, a less frequent response than ethical reasons, personal circumstances and a lack of challenge. People also consider perhaps more mainstream reasons to be more important than the physical workplace, such as pay, stress, workload and culture.

    So what does this all mean when it comes to designing workplaces?

    Well, I agree with Andrew that physical workspace is important, but not as important as the factors that make up the fundamental building blocks of Happiness at Work, such as Trust, Recognition and Pride. And without these strong foundations in place, you can build a workspace as up-to-date, aesthetically pleasing and snazzy as you like, but the people inside will feel as if they’re on shifting sands. And you may find in time that the whole thing comes crashing down around your ears.

Physical workspace is important

51%


Other factors are important

49%


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Further reading...

Workplace experience blogs Workplace experience round table debate Workplace experience research Workplace experience publication

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