Creating a productive workplace

Creating a productive workplace is of increasing interest to asset owners and facilities managers. What can the findings of a recent research project tell us about the most effective spaces?


  • Tim Oldman

07 March 2019

office layout

Workplace effectiveness is a slippery subject for property professionals. Where the conversation once obsessed over the productivity problem, it has now pivoted in an experiential direction to reflect a growing understanding that, in the workplace, experience and effectiveness are inextricably linked.

The standard definition of effectiveness states that it is the degree to which something is successful in producing a desired result. But before we can hope to quantify the level of success, we need to know what it is we are measuring. One could argue, generally speaking, that the chief objective of most property functions is neither to enhance the employee experience nor improve the workforce's performance. Rather, the desired result tends to be weighted towards reducing operating costs, regardless of whether doing so is at the expense of employees' workplace experience.

Rising property prices and technological advancement, which has made it possible to work anywhere, have prompted organisations to reduce their overheads and, in turn, shrink their workspaces. There is a tendency to conflate cutting space with creating efficiency, a cost-effective initiative in its own right, and there are still finance directors today who believe sacrificing property is the key to improving the bottom line. On paper this might make sense. For those on the ground, however, it does not.

Acknowledging that employees respond to their surroundings shouldn't prove that difficult for most leadership teams; but accepting that poor-quality workplaces may be bad for employees and thus bad for productivity may be hard to swallow for those who see cost reduction as the only path to greater effectiveness. Smart organisations are beginning to challenge this view, and sophisticated, savvy real-estate leaders are refining and finessing the meaning of effectiveness in the process. True effectiveness must be a balance between cost efficiencies and higher outputs, so if you can increase the output and reduce the cost you're on to a winner.

Measuring effectiveness is a balancing act between the cost and the value of output. What's more, it's not just about empowering employees to increase output, it's about empowering them to increase the quality of output. For example, a software developer's performance shouldn't simply be measured by how much code they write because value must be attributed to the quality of the code in question.

Intelligent organisations recognise that workplace effectiveness involves setting the right objectives, collecting the right data and making the right decisions. Property professionals in these firms know they can only transform their organisations for the better by understanding their employees' experience.

This approach supports the analysis of traditional metrics that have been collected and measured over the years, but without neglecting the most important dimension – the employees themselves. It's not just about how many people can fit into the space, it's about the impact that space has on the people using it.

Most organisations are considering this impact on business operations. To that end, many look at floor space, lease lengths, rents and rates and the number of workstations to try to understand whether a space is being used appropriately. It's important to measure these areas, but to gauge fully how the portfolio is performing organisations need to understand the user experience. Sentiment data can help such organisations ascertain whether employees are satisfied with the workplace and whether the physical, virtual and social infrastructures meet their needs. If not, employers should ask themselves what needs to be improved.

To build a case for change, it's vital that the insight gleaned from conversations, surveys and observations paints a true picture of the employee experience. Designers may offer their own tools for measuring the impact of a transformation after the workplace is in use, but it's important to remember that they're essentially assessing their own performance. Some organisations have their own tailored employee experience surveys, which is a great way of engaging staff, but there's a risk that they will still hold back even if this is anonymous. By engaging with employees through an independent third party, organisations can begin to create workplaces with effective real estate and technical infrastructure that support the needs of their workforce.

The workplace revolution

Successful brands such as Apple, Strava, Uber and Sonos now offer immersive, participatory experiences, and, as consumers, we are getting used to special treatment of this kind. We expect products and services that cater to our needs and daily lives, address our concerns and make us feel good.

Employees' expectations are being heightened by what they experience in their lives outside work, and in effect are becoming workplace consumers. Intelligent organisations are responding to this shift in expectations because they recognise that a failure to cater to their employees will see them lose out in the war for talent.

The most recent research report from workplace effectiveness assessors Leesman, The Workplace Experience Revolution, is based on a sample of 401,362 employees worldwide from a variety of organisations and reveals the business-critical factors on which employee sentiment hinges. Leesman's analysis, which was conducted by independent statisticians, reveals that the strongest influences on employee experience are the factors that aid individual, focused work, so quiet areas where people can get their head down and concentrate are important.

While our sense of personal productivity is principally governed by our ability to concentrate, employees also rate learning from others and accessibility of colleagues as being particularly important. From this we can deduce that organisations must provide both quiet and collaborative areas if they are to empower workers with more complex activity profiles. Interestingly, the findings show that personalisation of space affects employees' ability to work, too, suggesting that people work more productively in spaces where they feel comfortable and at home.

Leesman has surveyed more than 3,500 workspaces worldwide since the turn of the decade, and to date, just 6% of the buildings we've surveyed have achieved the prestigious Leesman+ accreditation that recognises the world's best workplaces. In addition to offering features, services and infrastructures that comprehensively meet the needs of their employees, Leesman+ buildings all offer a variety of spaces.

Our research has found that nearly half of workers participate in 10 or more activities in their day-to-day roles, and those who conduct a multitude of activities over the course of a working day are more likely to identify variety as a crucial component of the workspace. Such variety has a number of benefits.

First, people can choose the right environment for the specific task in hand and, second, an array of spaces can drastically reduce the impact of noise. Considering that only 31% of employees are satisfied with the level of variety in their office, this gives property and facilities managers grounds to argue for a budget that will allow for a range of spaces to accommodate the people with more complex and multifaceted responsibilities.

Perhaps most importantly, the Leesman+ spaces all provide an outstanding employee experience. Our research has revealed that the employee workplace experience clusters around three distinct emotional responses: doing, seeing and feeling. The first relates to whether the workplace supports getting work done, while 'seeing' concerns how employees view their workplace – does itembody a strong corporate image and reflectwell on the employer? 'Feeling' then comes down to whether the workplace evokes any sense of pride.

'Effective workplaces that provide an outstanding employee experience provide benefits ranging from competitive employee attraction and retention rates to better team work'

There are 13 so-called super drivers that have a positive effect across these three specific outcomes. The Leesman+ winners are not only providing infrastructures that support key activities but are also offering physical features and services that are prime drivers of overall performance.

An effective blueprint

Effective workplaces that provide an outstanding employee experience enjoy an array of benefits – everything from competitive employee attraction and retention rates to improved creative collaboration and team work.

Some of the benefits can even provide an immediate return on investment. According to research by PricewaterhouseCoopers, sick leave costs UK employers £29bn a year. One of the world's leading construction companies compared its headline Leesman index score (Lmi) across five locations to the average number of days lost per employee to sick leave per quarter, and its analysis found that the most effective building out of the five surveyed had the lowest level of absenteeism.

The people occupying this particular workplace, which had an Lmi of 78.9, only claimed 0.2 days every three months. The absenteeism number for the building that scored an Lmi of 39 was 1.8 sick days in the same period. Over the course of a year, then, individuals in the ineffective workplace would be off sick from work for around 6.4 days, compared to 0.8 days for those in the highest-scoring workplace certified to Leesman+. For an organisation with 100 employees, this figure equates to an additional 640 days lost every year to sick leave; whether those days were the result of actual sickness or not is by the by, the correlation speaks volumes for a workplace's impact on its occupants.

Despite appraising employees every year to see whether they are fulfilling the requirements of their roles, organisations rarely appraise the business space to find out whether it is effectively supporting the employees in question. That said, businesses are waking up to the idea that the modern workspace can improve collaboration, increase innovation, boost productivity and, ultimately, have an impact on overall business performance. These organisations have realised the competitive advantages their workplaces provide – and that's why data is becoming so important.

Big data is the new oil, but it is currently in its crude form and needs to be processed if it is to be used to fuel change. When businesses are able to exploit its full potential, data will help organisations and their design teams create effective workplaces that provide an outstanding employee experience.

Related competencies include: Asset management, Corporate real estate

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