January 17, 2024
The Stoddart Review, published in 2016, was one of the most significant reports of recent years to explore the role of the workplace for employee productivity in extensive detail and why the office environment was key for productivity purposes. There has been a huge shift in the world of work since then. What we once knew as the workplace has changed forever.
In the highest-performing Leesman Index cited in the Stoddart review, an independent employee experience benchmarking tool, 86 percent of employees agreed that their workplace enabled them to work productively. This dropped to 64 percent in 2021, demonstrating the drop in office productivity and preference. Comparably, 84 percent of home workers surveyed felt most productive at home, illustrating the shift that has taken place when it comes to the perceptions of productivity in the workplace now the home is a viable option.
A Nicholas Bloom study from 2015, before the Stoddart Review, also found that employees who opted into work-from-home policies saw a 13 percent lift in their productivity. It seems that where we work is not the key, but rather that greater autonomy inspires smarter, productive working.
How do we use the office, and does it distract us?
One of the key statistics from the Stoddart Review that doesn’t ring true today is that 91 percent of UK employees work solely from the office. The Centre for Cities revealed in May 2023 that only 14 percent of workers reported working in the office five days a week. However, the Stanford Institute WFH research report stated that 12.7 percent of full-time employees work from home, and 28.2 percent work in a hybrid model.
This indicates that more than half of UK workers are working from the office full time. It is worth noting, however, that the Stanford Institute research did not differentiate contractors, the self-employed, or part-time workers in its study and acknowledges that the definition of the “office” stretches beyond the white-collared job, making this misleading. One of the researchers told Fortune magazine: “There are many people in that sample that do frontline jobs, for example in retail, manufacturing, or hotels and restaurants, and they naturally don’t work from home because of the nature of those jobs”.
A 2008 study found that people are distracted every four minutes in the office, with the top offenders being our co-workers, noise, smartphone notifications, and emails. The same study concluded that it takes the average employee 23 minutes to get full focus back on a task after they are interrupted. While our emails and phones do follow us home, the lack of human interruptions and noise means the home working environment poses significantly fewer distractions.
The office design conundrum
The Stoddart Review data showed that noise levels are the number one inhibitor of productivity, with only 30 percent of office workers satisfied with current levels. Not much has changed, with Nigel Oseland’s new research, The Enticing Office, highlighting that the office is still performing poorly on so-called ‘hygiene factors’ such as noise pollution and visual privacy.
Oseland determines that allocated desks are a good motivation to have more people in the office and that organisations looking to transition to a hotdesking system should think about the impact the move will have on their employees. There is a shift happening where employees are being commanded to come back to the office, but when they arrive, they don’t feel there’s a space for them to work.
Coca-Cola and poor design
We have also seen new office designs create workplace challenges in recent years. The Stoddart Review provided a great analogy for this. When Coca-Cola introduced “New Cola”, it was only sipped by testers once or twice. However, you don’t sip a cola once or twice, you drink the whole can. Once the new recipe was on the shelves, the company received more than 400,000 customer complaints and they had to revert to the old recipe.
The same mistake is arguably being made today. Senior decision-makers are pushing ahead without the views of those who will use the space. By only seeing a snapshot of what the space will look like, aesthetics can dominate decisions. Paul Urmston of NatWest discussed this phenomenon at the 2022 Workplace Trends conference, whereby leaders are not considering the actual day-to-day needs of their teams when redesigning their space, resulting in new office spaces that employees don’t know how to utilise. Better change management is required as the lack of communication around office redesign permeates workplace productivity and satisfaction.
Where we stand in 2024
The psychology and academic approach of the Stoddart Review still rings true today. We need a human-centric approach to the workplace. The pandemic has heightened this as a priority, both for supporting productivity and to try and get people back to the workplace again.
ISS reported last year that nearly two-thirds of global businesses are currently investing in their office. It is imperative that this is done strategically, otherwise the changes may not have the desired impact.
Recently, the Office for National Statistics reported that UK output per hour in the three months to September last year was 0.3 percent below the same quarter a year ago. This brings our current level of labour productivity to just 2.5 percent above its level in the last quarter of 2019 before the pandemic. This tells us that productivity has grown by at least 1 percent since the Stoddart review in 2016, although it is tricky to pin down the reason for the growth.
A new edition of the Stoddart Review would offer a deep dive into the realities of working from home and what the measurement of ‘productivity’ means in the 2020s. For the people who are choosing to come to the office, we need to ask the question of why? Ultimately, productivity is a wholly personal thing, to an individual, and a business.