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The workplace – could it fill the productivity gap?

Productivity is a hot topic at the moment following the recent ONS concerns over the UK’s output being ‘exceptionally weak’ across many industries. Prior to the budget, there were rumours the chancellor would unveil a raft of productivity plans, what materialised has had mixed reviews. Article by Chris Moriarty, development director, Leesman

Employees will certainly be delighted with the new living wage and business performance may well be buoyed by the new investment allowance thresholds, corporation tax cuts and employment allowance increases, however as a number of politicians have opined, there are no measures to support what they commonly perceive to be the foundations of workplace productivity; skills, investment and infrastructure.

In a bid to boost skills, the CIPD advocates the need for more education and training and while I agree these are crucial elements of the equation, we need to go further and include another fundamental basic; the workplace itself. This physical environment is often overlooked, yet it impacts on the people within it, shapes their interaction with others and the organisation that employs them.

Since 2010, the Leesman Index has been measuring the relationship between people and place in organisations of varying sizes, sectors and global reach. It carries data from more than 100,000 respondents assessing their satisfaction in 90 areas including workplace design, activities, features and facilities.

Understanding how your business environment impacts on employees’ performance is crucial to unlocking workplace productivity. These benchmarks provide a platform from which to work from; they identify areas to address and improve and perhaps will even challenge you to make changes that go against the grain. Our headline statistic however should strike a chord with every HR professional in the UK; our data tells us only 54% of respondents agree the design of their workplace enables them to work productively.

So why are businesses failing to provide the right environment for their staff? Given that people and property occupy the top two costs in a business is it acceptable to simply write half of that investment off?

What our data helps organisations do is identify what high performance workplaces are getting right. We see some clear correlations between those organisations whose workforce believe their workplace design supports productivity.

Noise

A theme coming through strongly is the impact noise can have on productivity. An employee dissatisfied with the noise level, above anything, is more likely to report a low sense of personal productivity.

This challenge is becoming more difficult as organisations favour open plan workspaces rather than the private settings we have seen in the past. Overall, satisfaction with noise is as low as 30% across our Index, this rises to 43% for organisations in a private setting and drops to 25% when in an open plan office.

Interestingly, organisations that offer a variety of workspaces for employees are bucking the trend. Their satisfaction with noise levels rises to 45%, which is certainly still not great but considerably outperforms those without that choice of areas.

Flexibility versus open plan

This links to another of the key areas we see in our data; variety.

There’s plenty cynicism around open plan offices, none more evident than the recent W1A TV programme. It’s fair to say some people certainly struggle to come to terms with the new flexible method of working but don’t be fooled into thinking this is a ‘millennial’ thing. While not a huge difference, we see middle managers struggling the most. Perhaps they were a year away from that private office with their name on the door.

This cynicism could lay at the feet of those who fail to introduce a variety of workspaces when going open plan; instead offering a sea of desks without allocation. Sit where you like but essentially you’re choosing between a desk closer to the window or closer to the coffee machine. It’s the same workstation (although this does help with temperature satisfaction, being able to move to more clement environments rather than wrestling with the air con).

When we ask respondents to select activities important to their role, the average employee chooses somewhere between 11 and 12 different activities. How can one working environment option possibly support them all?  The simple answer is it can’t.

Clients who have a high satisfaction with varying workspaces also report greater satisfaction with certain workplace features; especially noise. They are therefore more likely to report a higher sense of personal productivity.

The importance of social cohesion

As we move to more open, flexible working environments, one of the challenges facing organisations is maintaining that crucial sense of togetherness. Too often an open plan decision is born out of the realisation that a few desks appear to be empty, due to people working at home. This consolidation of space could be hurting organisations more than they realise.

Our top-performing clients all report high satisfaction with tea/coffee facilities, restaurants and social break out areas – something consistent across our Index. It helps with that feeling of togetherness and also getting work done. Rather than booking a meeting room why not grab a coffee and talk it out. Now.

Until now it’s been difficult to justify the inclusion of these spaces, they look inefficient on a floor plan, but it’s these ‘we’ areas that separate the high and low performers. The ‘me’ spaces are becoming a hygiene factor, the desk, chair and other features associated with the single workstation, aren’t making a difference. Don’t confuse that though with ignoring the need for the ability to work individually; it’s variety that counts.

Cost liability or productivity asset

For too long workplaces have been seen as a necessary cost rather than an opportunity to create competitive advantage.  I’ve only scratched the surface on what our Index tells us, but if these three areas create better workplaces what impact could that have on other business metrics? Our top 15 performing buildings report a productivity score of 74% compared to the 54% average. That’s a huge jump. So while the Chancellor’s measures and more learning and training will help, you have to ask the question; is your workplace supporting productivity or hindering it?

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