Creating a productive workplace for people is all about context

commercial property innovationThe quest for a proper understanding of the links between the places we work, the things with which we fill them and our wellbeing and productivity has been ongoing for a very long time. It predates our current thinking on productive workplace design and the facilities management discipline as we now know it by decades and has its roots in the design of early landmark offices such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin building and research such as that carried out at the Hawthorne Works in Chicago in the late 1920s. Yet the constantly evolving nature of work means that we are forever tantalised by an idea that we can never fully grasp and makes established ideas seem like revelations.

The Hawthorne work has become seminal not only in the study of productivity and ergonomics, but also in wider management thinking in that while it was initially interpreted as proof that an increase in illumination in a factory improved productivity levels, things were a bit more complex than that. Subsequent experiments at the same site on the effects of changes like maintaining clean work stations, clearing floors of obstacles, and even relocating workstations  also yielded increases in productivity.

When it was discovered that productivity fell back to some degree at the end of the experiments, a second interpretation was postulated; namely that the workers were not merely responding to better conditions but also to the experiment itself. They liked the attention. And so The Hawthorne Effect was born.

If the Hawthorne experiment proved anything it was that people don’t like being disengaged from work and like to know that their employers are paying attention to them and their wellbeing.  The better lighting in the experiment was welcomed and had a role to play, but there was a complex process going on.  The lighting itself was not enough without the management and the focus on the individual. We’d take that thinking for granted nowadays to some extent, but then it must have been revolutionary.

This point was supported by the researcher Frederick Hertzberg who in 1966 showed that in his own terms the workplace was a ‘hygiene factor’, meaning that a poor workplace was a demotivator but a good workplace was not necessarily an important motivator. In layman’s terms, it doesn’t matter where you work if you don’t like your job, your boss, or your co-workers. It all has to fit.

This idea runs counter to the ideas espoused by many suppliers when they claim say that a product will make people more productive or creative.  Those terms are meaningless without context. For example, ergonomics is about the relationship between people and their environment, so however well designed a product is, the benefits of that design can only be fully appreciated when it is used properly, with proper training and in the context of organisational culture and management style.

A great deal of research has been carried out over the years which has painted a sophisticated picture of the complex relationship we have with our surroundings. These range from the academic, such as the work of Adrian Leaman and Bill Bordass at the end of the 1990s, which identified what it called four killer variables that linked building design to personal productivity, to a 2006 report from CABE and the BCO called ‘The impact of office design on business performance’ and last year’s research from Nigel Oseland and Adrian Burton not so snappily entitled Quantifying the impact of environmental conditions on worker performance for inputting to a business case to justify enhanced workplace design features, which looked at a  range of factors and prior analysis to establish an overall business case.

What we can conclude from this is that we should be extremely wary of the claims of suppliers that any particular product can increase our productivity, make us more creative, reduce our chance of harm or improve our wellness by itself. Things would be a lot easier if they were that simple but they are not. The benefits of any particular product or idea are only achievable as part of a complex system.