October 6, 2014
Perhaps the most widely reported news from the world of workplace over the last couple of weeks has been the analysis from the World Green Building Council that links office design with productivity and wellness. And the two words from the report that have featured most commonly in the associated stories’ headlines have been ‘overwhelming evidence’. While this has been repeated as if it’s some kind of revelation, the truth is that we have had compelling and overwhelming evidence for many years, and barely a year goes past without some study or other making the same point in no uncertain terms. Each report merely serves to raise a more interesting question; given the sheer body of work linking the workplace with productivity (and happiness and motivation and so on), why does the argument still need to be made?
Last year, this report from workplace strategist Nigel Oseland and the Atomic Weapons Establishment’s estate masterplanner Adrian Burton described their research quantifying the effect on worker performance of improvements to the office environment. It’s compelling work but it has a number of precedents and an ever growing body of antecedents.
In fact, this whole debate should be over by now, given the sheer volume of proof that now exists both in academic research and the less lofty but perhaps more convincing realms of personal experience. It’s because of this that we should acknowledge that at some level everybody knows already that there is a link between our surroundings and our wellbeing and happiness, otherwise the only thing making employers provide decent workplaces for employees would be the big stick of legislation.
What we find in practice is that most people work in decent if not exceptional workplaces and are provided by their employers with a fair degree of comfort, natural light, fresh air and control over how they work along with all those other enlightened features of the contemporary office we take for granted.
So why is there still a constant need to convince ourselves? And why is the feature on office design and productivity a staple element in the media. If we assume that the main argument has already been proved beyond reasonable doubt, the only answer can be that there is another, more interesting point lurking behind it all, namely some sort of perception that facilities design and management is not necessarily something that should occupy too much management time.
This flies in the face of all the evidence. Our quest to determine the nature of the link between the office and performance dates back to the 1920s with the famous Hawthorn experiments. More research by Frederick Hertzberg in 1966, appeared to show that the workplace was a hygiene factor, meaning that a poor workplace was a demotivator but a good workplace was not necessarily an important motivator (something worthy of another feature). Since that time however, a great deal of research has been carried out which paints a rather more 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, through to the general such as Management Today’s now sadly defunct Workplace Satisfaction Survey.
More recently we have seen the general point again made in a report from CABE and the BCO called ‘The impact of office design on business performance’. The German Fraunhofer Institute recently published The Office Performance user study, conducted as part of the OFFICE 21 research project, to investigate causal relationships and determine the values of various influencing factors and thereby establish a strategy for improving performance within an office context. And of course there is the excellent ongoing work of the Leesman Index.
The case is, frankly, incontrovertible. So too is the business case for going beyond what is demanded by legislation and providing a solution based on what is best for the people who work for the organisation. Small investments in design, equipment, management and working culture can produce disproportionately significant effects on productivity, wellbeing and staff recruitment and retention.
So we are left with the problem of perception and it is this that we should be addressing, not finding more evidence for something that is already supported by overwhelming evidence.