Jan 08, 2014
THEME: Workplace

For Workplace Productivity, Choice Trumps All

Productivity in the office is a hot topic. Workplace analytics experts Leesman® found that nearly 85% of people feel that the design of their workplace is important to them, but only about 53% believe their current workplace allows them to work productively.

Many view the now “tried and tested” approach to work—agile, flexible, collaborative spaces—as a panacea for lagging productivity. When everyone shares ideas, the sky is the limit, right? Unfortunately it’s not that simple, and there isn’t a blanket, quick-fix solution. Further, even positive changes administered in the wrong way can cause disengagement, especially when they’re believed to be enforced changes. Psychological studies have shown that a key driver in employee productivity is choice. This can be manifested by giving employees input into how their workplaces are configured and allowing them to personalize them, or permitting them to choose the most appropriate space in which to conduct their work.

The Relative Merits of Lean, Enriched, and Empowered Offices: An Experimental Examination of the Impact of Workspace Management is a study conducted by the University of Exeter that illustrates the importance of choice. In this study, participants were assessed while completing simulated work activities over periods of time in varying environments. The first setting was a “lean” environment where the space was stripped back to basic furniture and the minimal equipment required to complete the task. Not surprisingly, the effect was a gradual decrease in work speed and quality. (If you put an animal in a stark, non-stimulating environment, it will inevitably cause disengagement and stress; why would the effect on us be any different?)

The same scenario was run again, but this time the space had been “enriched” with artwork, plants and other ornaments positioned by the observers (an enforced change). The increased vibrancy of the space had an initial impact on productivity, but output levels then gradually went back to those of the Lean environment. Although the change was a positive one and the initial novelty had an uplifting effect, the lasting connection with the environment was still not there.

Finally, the subjects were tested completing the same task, within the same space as before, but this time the participants were “empowered” to decorate the space with the artwork, plants and ornaments however they liked. Although they were all using the same set of items, the spaces were all set up slightly differently, reflecting each individual’s personality. The study revealed the same uplifting effect as the enriched space but with prolonged improvements in productivity and wellbeing over time, demonstrating a lasting engagement with the space and the tasks the subjects were completing.

Though the study’s situations were within simulated environments, over periods of time that can’t be truly be compared to the life cycle of a “real life” workplace, there are some important lessons: It is widely accepted that the design of a workspace is not a “one size fits all” solution, but at the same time, it’s also not realistic to tailor to every individual’s needs. But engaging with employees to learn about the many facets of their working lives allows designers and clients to put together a standard “kit of parts” with various configuration possibilities. This approach results in spaces that feel personal and encourage empowerment, engagement and ownership that (fingers crossed) have a prolonged positive impact on wellbeing and productivity of those who occupy them.

This post authored by Tom Helliwell. 

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