ThinkingWorkplace productivity: Does your workspace affect your performance?

Natasha Wallace, an organisational wellbeing specialist looks at the impact of space on our workplace productivity.
Content Team5 years ago15 min

My job as an organisational wellbeing specialist is to figure out what’s getting in the way of organisations performing better. What I’m noticing more and more is the impact of space. Even as a worker myself, I want to be in different environments depending on the different type of work I’m doing. The environment I choose to be in has an impact on the quality of my work. I’ll hide away in a coffee shop when I’m doing thought heavy work and I’ll want to be amongst the team, and the hustle and bustle of the office when I need reenergising. 

I’m lucky though. I have control over where and how I work. That’s not the case for many workers and if you need to work from a fixed office, sitting at a desk day in day out, with no other options, there’s every chance it could be affecting your performance.

57% of employees around the globe agree that their workplaces allows them to work productively

The research is interesting on this. It suggests that only 57% of employees around the globe agree that their workplaces allows them to work productively.  I would argue that figure should be lower. That’s because through my work I know that many of us think we’re being productive and working effectively when we’re not. Also, unless you’ve had the opportunity to work in a few different ways, and found what’s worked for you, how to you know what enables you to do your best work? Many people haven’t really given it much thought.

It’s not a silver bullet but space has an important role to play in our productivity and in how creative and innovative we’re able to be. It can also help our wellbeing. Think about the environment that allows you quiet space to concentrate or even to meditate (for the more enlightened amongst us), spacious and naturally lit collaboration areas for brain storming, and space to socialise and make a bite to eat. When your desk and the odd poorly lit meeting room are your only options, it limits you.

The ingredients for great work

There are a growing number of companies who get this. They are investing in space that enables people to do great work. It’s not just Google who are thinking about this, in fact, Leesman have come up with categories to describe the type of employer you might be. The catalysts, who proactively shape the way people work to support them work in the best possible way. Obstructers who expect employees have to jump over hurdles to do their jobs and enablers who ‘make work possible’ without actively pushing the boundaries. Where do you think your organisation is? Do you provide mediocre space or are you mindful of the space that enables the workforce to be more productive? Do you organise space around the different types of space that people need where they can reflect, rest, collaborate, create, work quietly, socialise, the list goes on.

A happier workforce keeps customers happier and produces better results

There are other benefits to shaping space around employee needs. Many employers are finding that they can reduce the size of space they need and that they can do different things with the fixed space that is left over. When you look at space through the lens of the user, as we do with so many other aspects of the built environment, it gives a new perspective. When people enjoy working in the space you’ve created, and when they can achieve all that they need to in that space, it makes them happier. And it’s fair to say that a happier workforce keeps customers happier and produces better results. It’s a win-win situation.

Even though building design is about a compromise between planning, the history of the building, materials, and the needs of the users, there is still plenty that can be done to create space which is both functional and creates a culture that enables people to do great work.

What kind of a leader are you?

It’s not just about creating space that enables though. There’s an important behavioural component to this and it’s the way leaders lead. Unless you as a leader are comfortable with allowing people to work in a way that suits them and unless you trust them to make good decisions about how to be productive, you will be wasting your time creating awesome space. Think about the leader who says that they are happy for their people to work flexibly but then they get twitchy when they can’t see them in the office. Or the manager who in principle supports a move to a more flexible working environment but who is used to measuring success based on how many tasks are completed. These approaches to people management will undermine any efforts being made to create great flexible space.

So, what can we do? It means managing people based on outcomes. We’re moving away from a command and control, autocratic approach to leadership and reviewing the way we lead has become totally necessary if we want to perform in this new ‘era of distraction’. It means agreeing clear goals, regularly reviewing them and discussing feedback in real time. It’s called continuous performance development (not performance management) and it’s how organisations are empowering people to own their work and performance. Goals are agile and can be adjusted to reflect the changing needs of the organisation and employees know what they are working towards. The ability to see we’re making progress is proven to be motivational from a neuroscientific perspective which is why this is more effective than the old annual appraisal process which just doesn’t work effectively. And it means managers don’t need to stay so close to people’s day to day work, so where they are working becomes less of an issue.

Space and culture

It’s a grown-up approach to leadership and it requires employers to give more consideration to how office space interfaces with the work culture, more specifically how leaders lead. The best employers will be creating space that shows they care about their employees while developing the leadership skills and operating practices that empower employees. And they will be the ones who will attract the best people – as they will be offering the best experience where people can do their best work. The employers who offer poorly thought out space that doesn’t support the needs of employees will be affected long term and will struggle to retain people.

The fact is, the best companies are upping their game, looking at all of the opportunities to enable employees to perform – considering their needs and not just those of the shareholder. It’s what I call Conscious Leadership – a more human and responsible approach to achieving high performance.

How can you optimise the performance of your office?

  1. Space – look at the work your people do and how they like to work (so ask them). Once you have a list e.g. calls, emails, critical thinking, creating, meetings, reading, socialising, time at home, etc, you can critically assess whether your space and work practices meet those needs.
  2. Flexibility – discuss as leaders how flexible you’re willing to be. People want to be treated like adults and need flexibility but are you willing to give it to them? How flexible is your culture? What is getting in the way of people being able to work in a more flexible way?
  3. Outcomes based – review how you measure performance. Is your annual appraisal or review process working? Then consider moving to a continuous performance development model and build the process and skills to empower employees to own their own progress and performance.

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Natasha Wallace, founder of Conscious Works specialises in organisational performance and wellbeing. She works with organisations to create the conditions that enable people to perform and take better care of their wellbeing. If you’d like to talk more about anything in this article, please get in touch with Natasha Wallace here.

Content Team

Work in Mind is a content platform designed to give a voice to thinkers, businesses, journalists and regulatory bodies in the field of healthy buildings.

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