How Office Design Can Increase Productivity

Office design is important.

Over the last three decades or so, I have worked in a variety of different offices.  One of these was a small private office, where there was only just enough room to open the desk drawer.  At the other end of the scale was a large open-plan office housing fifty people.   I have worked with a hot-desking policy. There have been times when I have worked in a co-working space.  Now I work at home.

I have worked both in the city and in a business park.  I have worked in a historic, listed building and a new, purpose-built office block.   The view I have looked at has ranged from a blank wall to rolling countryside to an industrial landscape.

All of these have advantages and disadvantages.  I could tell you which I liked best and why.  I can also tell you some stories about how they all made me feel (looking at a blank wall was incredibly depressing). But I cannot tell you what works and what doesn’t work.  We are all different, with different needs and experiences.  And so some environments suit one person, but not another.

The aim of this article is to help you understand how the environment we work in can affect our productivity.  There are some simple changes you can make which might have a huge effect on how well and quickly the work gets done.

Office design considerations

The Estate Agency, Savills, ran a Europe-wide “What Workers Want” survey  earlier this year.  This looked at how office design can affect the satisfaction – and productivity – of the people who work there.

The survey found that some of the key factors which affect productivity are:

  • Length and cost of commute;
  • Hot-desking;
  • Open plan offices.

Another important factor for a business to consider are the ability to work in a variety of workspaces.  Some other considerations are the provision of quality IT structure; natural lighting; plants; colour; temperature; smell.   An easy, but important, area to regulate is cleanliness.  It is easier to keep a work area clean if it is organised.  I have looked at the advantages of being organised in a previous article.

How the journey to work can affect productivity

If you are thinking of moving your business, or if you are a start-up, then have you thought about the site of your office?

It is not as simple a choice as you might think.  For example, if you like peace and quiet you may want to place your business in the heart of the countryside.  But have you considered how your employees can get to work?  Not everyone can drive or wants to do so.  Your ideal employee may prefer to work in town, with plenty of public transport.

And for the drivers, have you considered the parking facilities.  The ease, cost and availability of secure parking is one of the major factors that people consider when they are job seeking.

As a business owner, you may consider that rent and availability of premises may be much cheaper and easier outside the city centre.  But if that means you cannot attract people to work for you, then your business is a non-starter. Even in the city, you need to be aware of the parking situation.  Some of your employees may be commuting for up to an hour and if that is a drive, they will want to be able to park easily and cheaply.  The Savills’ survey found that a high proportion of workers were concerned about the length, cost and ease of the commute to work.

Does a hot-desking policy work?

Hot-desking has become more popular in recent years.  Employers see it as a great way to maximise the use of desk space.  It is likely that a percentage of people will be away from work at any one time (on holiday, off sick, working elsewhere, or at meetings).  So hot-desking surely makes sense?

The Savills’ survey would suggest otherwise.  The number of employees who said that hot-desking harmed productivity was about one-third and this had increased since the previous survey.  More than half of the workers surveyed said that they would prefer to have a dedicated desk.  People like to personalise their workspace.  We are creatures of habit and like to work in a familiar setting. Specifically in the UK, 50% of workers feel that hot-desking has had a negative impact on their productivity and only 12% feel it has increased productivity.

Open Plan Offices

Open plan offices have become commonplace and many people believe that they encourage collaboration and so increase productivity. But a third of people in open plan offices feel that their workplace layout has a negative impact on their productivity levels.  This can be linked to other factors like smell and noise.

From a personal perspective, I have worked in open plan offices where people persist in having lunch at their desk.  If this includes a meal which has a distinctive and evident smell, others around may find this very distracting.  Even strong perfume or air fresheners in an open plan office can cause difficulties for some people.

Many workers are introverts and these people are less likely to be comfortable in an open plan environment.   Even the more extroverted among us need to concentrate on some tasks.  An open plan office is not going to be helpful where a job requires concentration rather than collaboration.

This is where it is important to provide a variety of workplace options.  An open plan office can be combined with some break-out spaces, or even some private offices available. People like to have the choice and some control over where they choose to work.  Few roles need to be done completely in one place or at one desk.  So good office design needs to give people options, including somewhere for some privacy.

Keep the noise down

As well as smell, noise can be a source of contention in an open office.  Some people like to work with background music or some noise.  Others cannot concentrate if there is noise, even if it is just subdued conversation elsewhere in the office.

The What People Want survey found that 83% of workers said that noise levels are important to them.   Leaders and managers need to consider solutions to some of these issues.   If you are designing an office, then you need to consider the acoustics.  But it may be difficult or important to change the physical aspects of the office.   It is never helpful to enforce a strict ban (on radios or music, or conversation).  But, for example,  you might want to consider allowing people to use headphones to listen to music.

What about the air that we breathe?

There are other office design factors which may impede productivity.  An important one is air quality.  Stale and polluted air can lead to tiredness, headache and difficulty in concentrating.   So the provision of fresh air in the office is really important.

Machinery, fabrics, building materials can all affect this.  An ability to open windows may be all that is needed.  But some buildings don’t have this facility.  It can also be a source of contention due to the temperature variation which can be caused.  Air conditioning might be the answer, but how fresh is the air which is circulated?  There may be a large cost implication for solving this one.  But it might bring a good return on investment in terms of productivity; absence and retention.

Human beings need to connect with nature.  More plants in the office can improve the quality of the air in the office and will also help the wellbeing of the employees.  Studies have found that plants  and natural light can have a major impact on productivity.

Small changes to office design can improve productivity

It is well documented that employers in the UK are struggling to increase productivity levels.  One place where we can make a difference is the workplace environment.

I am a big believer in collaboration and consultation in the workplace.  If you talk to your employees, then you will find out what works for them and what does not work so well.  No doubt, they will come up with some wildly impossible and expensive solutions.  But they will also tell you the small things which might make the biggest difference.

If you think this article is useful and you would like any strategic HR support or information  on dealing with this  – or any other people-related issue in your business – contact us for a no-obligation chat.

Jill Aburrow runs an HR strategic consultancy business – JMA HR .  She provides strategic HR advice and support to businesses who want to improve loyalty, growth and profit. Why not join the JMA HR mailing list?  Jill has been a professional strategic HR advisor for over two decades. She is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (FCIPD) and has a Post Graduate Certificate in Employment Law.

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