Leadership & Productivity

Does your workplace environment promote productivity?

7 min read

13 November 2018

Simon Eastlake, developments director at Office Space in Town, outlines how cultivating the right office environment can help make staff more engaged and inspired and, ultimately, more productive.

Enhancing productivity is a consistent issue for the UK economy. Since the Great Financial Crisis, workplace productivity in the UK has remained historically low.

Between 2010 and 2015, productivity growth was a disappointing 0.2% a year, far below its long-term average of 2.4% from 1970 to 2007. The most recent body to try and address this issue is Centre for Cities, which suggests that the focus should be on boosting skills in the regions.

Improving the skills of the UK’s workforce is advocated by many experts seeking to find a solution to this problem and, increasingly the idea that the working environment itself could provide part of the answer to this persistent challenge.

According to Gensler’s Workplace Performance Index, a good office design can boost employee productivity by 20%.

Productivity is essentially about the best use of time and resources. Creating an office environment which allows employees to enhance their capabilities requires research, not luck.

Whilst many companies have estimated that digitisation, corporate wellness programmes or diet and exercise programmes will have a positive impact on their business and employees productivity, the analysis overlooks one key factor – the office environment.

Here’s how cultivating the right office environment can help make staff more engaged.

One size does not fit all

The flexible office boom and rising popularity of co-working are beginning to set precedent in terms of office design and layout. Much office design at present is based on the belief that the future of offices is open.

Communal desks, open-plan design and hot-desking have become commonplace. UniSpace suggests open plan office fit-outs are completed in the belief that they encourage collaboration, which is thought to be crucial in encouraging productivity.

Whilst the open-plan workplace may work for some, perhaps millennials and startup companies, the fact remains 30% of the workforce are introverts. Designing a workplace based on the assumption ‘one size fits all’ is not going to help maximise employee productivity levels.

In fact, Unispace’s research shows companies are overestimating the amount of time that they need to spend in meetings and “collaborating” while underestimating the time for tasks requiring concentration.

In all financial, professional services and technology sectors, more than two-thirds of the working day is devoted to tasks requiring concentration and less than 10% of time for “socialising”. In such a case, open-plan workspaces do not offer the privacy and quiet that workers crucially require.

It is not to completely dismiss open-plan working spaces – communal areas can be good break-out spaces and for collaborative work they are functional.

However, firms need to look towards spaces that are designed to accommodate the multitude of working styles – allowing workers to be flexible and able to adapt to different parts of their job whilst giving them the privacy they need to flourish.

Breathe in breathe out

An often unexpected, but serious impediment to productivity is air quality.

Studies have shown that due to chemicals, machinery, fabrics and building materials, the indoor air can be 2-50 times more polluted than the outdoor air. This is worrying given that on average, workers spend 40 hours in the office per week.

Poor air quality has dire consequences for our productivity. Stale and polluted air can lead to tiredness, headaches and trouble concentrating. It’s no surprise therefore that a YouGov survey stated that almost 70% of office workers believe that poor air quality is having a negative effect on their day-to-day productivity and wellbeing.

In addition to this, a study by Harvard on indoor air quality showed that employees in a ‘greener’ air environment performed 61% better on cognitive tasks than in the standard office conditions, with other research suggesting that improved indoor air quality can improve productivity by 10%.

The cost of providing better quality environments in the workplace may be considered a factor limiting organisations from implementing change – but in assessing the costs incurred from absenteeism, idleness and an unproductive workforce, the return on investment makes it worthwhile.

Connect with nature

Human beings have an inherent need to connect with nature and green spaces. Reports from the UK Green Building Council and other bodies have all revealed that natural light is the most desired feature employees want in the workplace.

The importance of natural light enhances concentration, creativity and learning – all of which are crucial for workplace productivity. Studies have shown that workers with good access to natural light have increased their productivity by up to 40%. New technologies such as dynamic glass offer intelligent, electrochromic windows that automatically tint to maximize natural light, depending on the time of day and availability of sun.

Increasing the use of natural products in the workplace is also vital to enhancing productivity. Simply introducing plants into the office can improve the quality of air along with helping to improve employee wellbeing and happiness.

A study from the University of Exeter found that when plants were brought into the office, employee performance on memory retention and other basic tests improved substantially, and overall productivity was increased by 15%.

In such performance-driven times, it simply isn’t enough to provide workers with the right tools to do their jobs properly.

Cultivating the right physical work environment could well be the forgotten facilitator in solving the productivity puzzle.

Simon Eastlake is developments director at Office Space in Town.