UK productivity may be down but you don’t have to be

By Rosie Haslem on 17 October 2017

On Friday 6th October, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) published the quarterly Labour Productivity bulletin for the UK labour market. Productivity, as measured by output per hour, is estimated to have fallen by 0.1% from Quarter 1 (January to March) 2017 to Quarter 2 (April to June) 2017. Here we discuss how workplace design can impact on productivity – and how to better design workplaces to ensure a positive impact.

Can the workplace affect productivity?

Productivity today is about more than output per hour, or output per worker. Innovation can also be key to productivity, for example, by improving the processes that produce outputs and the quality thereof, and by generating ideas for new outputs. Physical space can enhance innovation. It can be designed to bring people together to interact, collaborate and share knowledge – and potentially spark innovative ideas.

In addition, the empowering effect of being together and sharing knowledge can increase engagement, motivation and again, productivity. Good workplace design can therefore play a key role in the productivity of those working in it.

What can you do?

From our database of evidence – working with more than 50 businesses and engaging more than 30,000 employees in the last five years alone – we’ve identified four ways that space can be used to boost a business’ productivity:

1. Out of sight doesn't have to mean out of mind

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One of the key drivers of productivity is collaboration. However, the silo-ing of different departments across different floors of a building (often out of necessity, as large businesses can’t all fit on one, or a few floorplates) can be a barrier to collaboration.

In the 1970s, researchers at MIT (Massachussets Institute of Technology) first established that distance has a strong influence on who we talk to most frequently in the office. While distance findings are widely accepted, there has been limited research to date on the impact of splitting colleagues across different floors. Social network analysis of data from our online staff surveys, where we ask staff about their daily interactions with their colleagues, reveals that on average, 78% of daily contact is restricted within a floor. On occasion this has risen as high as 90%. So, the potential for collaboration is limited by the vertical separation.

A central staircase through a multi-floor building can improve visibility and connectivity through the space. As people walk up and down the stairs they’re more likely to become aware of, and come into contact with, their colleagues – providing more opportunities for productive collaboration and knowledge sharing.

2. Plan for the unplanned

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Meeting room booking often appears as one of the biggest frustrations that people express in staff surveys. But beyond just the frustration, is the productivity hindrance – both in terms of the time taken to book the room, but also in preventing people from coming together to solve problems as and when they arise. Often, the more ‘productive’ interactions are the more immediate, ad-hoc ones, or the ‘watercooler’ chats that spark ‘lightbulb’ moments – when you bump into a colleague and have an unexpected conversation. It’s surprising how many offices don’t seem to have many spaces that are conducive to this.

Workplaces need to provide spaces both for interactions that need to happen there and then – spaces where people can meet without having to book – and for interactions to happen serendipitously.

3. It's not all about the desk

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The nature of work has changed, and is still changing. Our working days are far more complex and varied than they once were. The tools and spaces we use, therefore, need to be more varied to reflect this. People need different spaces to support different tasks.

We know that, on average, people think that they’re at their desks for 68% of the time. However, people are actually only at their desks, on average, for 44% of the time. People are involved in activities that go beyond just those at a desk. The working day is more varied than many might think. Yes, people spend time at a desk, but they also spend time in meetings, chatting to colleagues, having a break, or out of the office. A workplace that is set-up with the appropriate spaces to support peoples’ different tasks – rather than just to support desk-based working – is a much more productive one.

4. Concentration is just as important as collaboration

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Whilst interaction is something we try and foster in our design, at the other end of the spectrum, providing space for concentration is equally important. We find that, on average, 69% of people surveyed think that quiet areas are important for their work. However, only 29% feel that they have spaces that support quiet working. This perceived lack of space for concentration is one of the main factors in peoples’ fear of open plan offices. We therefore recommend providing a choice of spaces to meet both of these needs.

The evidence

One of our clients was moving to a new building, with the intention of increasing productivity – by bringing their previously-siloed teams together in a more collaborative working environment. However, the building they were moving into was inherently segregating, split across four floors with very limited connectivity between them. We therefore created a central atrium, with an open staircase connecting through it – to bring people together and drive movement through the heart of space. Tea points and social areas wrapping around the atrium provide further opportunities for unplanned interaction.

Having carried out a post-occupancy evaluation of the building, here are three ways we’ve proven to have increased productivity for their business:

1. There's more collaboration

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2. People are less dependent on bookable meeting rooms

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3. People are happier

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People positively responded to the new office design, reporting that the workplace is a dynamic environment that allows for more unplanned meetings and chats to happen than before.

Why does productivity really come down to empowering people?

Because supporting people to be as productive as they can be, leads to increased satisfaction, engagement and motivation, which in turn can breed more productivity. But, with a people-first approach, and in the context of today's knowledge economy, is ‘productivity’ (and the subsequent focus on ‘output’) really the right measure to be focussing on? This is a topic we plan to explore further in future blogs.

Read the full ONS bulletin. 

For further reading, we made evidence-based recommendations about how the design of buildings and spaces can foster productive, innovative and creative behaviours to the Parliamentary Design Commission. Read our recommendations here.

Topics: spacelab, workplace productivity, workspace productivity, design productive spaces, office of national statistics labour productivity, ons labour productivity