CrushThe latest report from The Leesman Index unearths five ways that workplace performance is crushing your organisation’s competitive advantage. These warnings include startling conclusions that expose the reality that the majority of companies are squandering opportunities to use their workplace to drive improved productivity that leads to improving your organisational performance.

These findings will arm leadership teams with critical insights to reclaim immense lost value and dramatically alter both how they look at their office environments, and how they procure Facilities Management services that support them.

The debate around workplace productivity has been a central and hotly debated topic for some years and remains a stubborn problem to solve. Workplace experts; The Leesman Index, have amassed the worlds biggest database dedicated to answering a single straightforward and transferable question. The question can be answered by any employee in any workplace, “Does my workplace enable me to work productively”.

The Leesman Index celebrated their 250,000th survey respondent earlier this year and to mark the occasion they launched a new global report called ‘The Next 250K’. At the time of this post, Leesman can boast impressive statistics including over 276,000 employees surveyed, in over 2,160 workplaces in 67 countries.

No other dataset on workplace productivity can even come close to these impressive statistics. The Next 250K provides us with an insight into the latest batch of data and from it five clear warning signs emerge.

Some of these trends are not only counterintuitive but go against extensively reported and well-supported misconceptions surrounding the modern day workplace.

workplace productivity remains a stubborn problem to solve Click To Tweet

In December 2016 I wrote a post entitled Stoddart Review-Why the Workplace Environment is Key to Productivity. The Stoddart Review was published to highlight the issue of workplace productivity and its direct effect on organisational performance.

Since that post, I have written two more articles Chief Workplace Officer – a Promotion for Facility Managers? And 10 Workplace Questions All CEO’s Should Have on Their Board Agenda all of which highlight and support the issues of workplace and its effect on organisational competitive advantage.

Despite all the hype and current focus on health and well-being at work, what has remained stubbornly constant over this period is the shocking reality that 43% of employees globally maintain that their workplace does not allow them to work productively.

The stark reality is that 1 in 2 employees commute to work every day in the sure and certain knowledge that they will have to endure a workplace that fails to support even their most basic work needs.

What should concern leaders and HR professionals, even more, is that despite staff having to tolerate a workspace that inhibits their day to day productivity,  the company for whom they work will almost certainly measure their performance and in some way penalise them for failing to perform to the best of their ability.

The CEO and founder of The Leesman Index, Tim Oldman says that “his companies research has uncovered an explicit link between how well a workplace supports the activities that employees undertake in their role and the extent to which they say that their workplaces help them to work productively.”

The reality, however, is that the negative impact of the workplace and the accompanying physical infrastructure on an organisation’s productivity is probably grossly underestimated.

Institutions that go to the expense of hiring Tim Oldman’s company to undertake a workplace survey are likely to be at the upper end of the scale of organisations that understand the effect that workplace has on their staff and their competitive advantage.

This form of confirmation bias means that the average figure of 43% as cited by Leesman belies that in many instances this dissatisfaction with the workplace probably rises to levels of more than 70% in many cases. No wonder the modern workplace experience is such a negative one.

1 in 2 employees, have to endure a workplace that fails to support their most basic work needs Click To Tweet

In my post 2 Practical Ways, Workplace Can Improve Employee Engagement I referred to a worldwide survey, conducted by Gallup in 2103 since this time this has been updated to Gallup in 2015, which still paints a fairly dismal picture of the state of engagement in our workplaces globally.

Wherever you place these statistics on a continuum north of 43%, this represents a huge drain on resources and a massive loss of value to any organisation.

These findings should concentrate attention on how a companies fixed assets, services and workplace strategies can support business competitiveness, but not by what has become the default position of cost savings, mitigation or avoidance but through increasing employee engagement, loyalty and output.

Dr Peggie Rothe, who led the research on The Next 250K, added that the most effective organisations consider how their workplace layout can help staff do their best work. She says “Offices are assets – tools in talent management strategies, gears in product innovation, and instruments in brand development and organisational performance.”

1. Profiling Personal Productivity

The report highlights personal productivity as the most significant determinant of overall productivity. Activities such as ’thinking/creative thinking’, ’reading’ and ‘individual focused work’ are all personal, focused activities. These are the features that are the most important to employees.

One of the essential characteristics of the Leesman Index is that it is not a measurement of personal productivity in the workplace. This would be impossible to measure and transfer between organisations. After all productivity in an advertising agency would look very different from productivity in a lawyers office.

The beauty of the index is that the assessment does not measure actual productivity but does measure the extent to which employees perceive their workplaces supports them to work productively.

Employees state that one in four workplaces fail, to support them in these personal productivity issues with the biggest impact being felt due to issues such as ‘the space between work settings’, ’dividers’ and ‘noise levels’ being the main disruptors.

Employers would be correct to suggest that their employees perception of the workplace and its ability to support personal productivity is of greater importance to the individual than collaborative work.

The conclusion, therefore, it is that personal productivity is the issue most closely linked to an employees individual and concentrative activity and their perception of how the workplace supports them in their day-to-day activities.

This means that any workplace project needs to recognise the need for spaces that promote privacy and bouts of intense concentrative activity.

Many companies are focusing on providing staff with collaborative spaces as a ruse to improve productivity and reduce occupancy costs. This comes at the expense of neglecting individual spaces and how they enable people to work. By ensuring the office supports concentrative and focused work, the perception of personal productivity is likely to be more positive.

Some may jump to the conclusion that this supports the narrative that all open plan offices are productivity killers but this would be far from the truth as we will show #3 the Urban Legend of Open Plan.

Personal productivity is closely linked to individual and concentrative activity Click To Tweet

2. The Millennial Myth

One of the most controversial contemporary subjects is the issue of Millennials in the workplace. Work has changed for everyone regardless of age or generation. However, The Leesman Lmi scores indicate that the youngest employees in the workplace, those below 25, record the highest levels of satisfaction. This runs counter to the proposition that the deluge of ‘millennial myth marketing’ column inches would have us believe.

The youngest group in their survey findings have the least complex portfolio of work activities and are thus more likely to be content with a workspace that is less flexible and not geared towards a highly complex activity-based working regime.

Accepting at face value and redesigning the office to what is written in the press and pandering to what is wrongly described as the most demanding generation would be an expensive mistake.

To design around a group of people based on their date of birth does not make sense and more so because they remain the smallest group globally at just over 4.4% of the workplace population. Doing so, risks implementation of a workplace and practices which provide solutions to problems that don’t exist and risks alienating the other 95% of the workplace population.

Perhaps surprisingly, the age group 35 to 44 are the group that record the lowest scores on the Leesman Index. Also, out of a possible 21 activities, those aged between 45 and 54 indicate the highest degree of work complexity and thus are in the greatest need of a variety of workplace environments.

It is these older groups (sorry Millenials!) that therefore places the highest demand on the current infrastructure and where the most significant opportunity for improvement lays. Additionally, from a risk perspective, it is the underserviced older age groups, with their experience and know-how that represent the greatest threat to the organisation regarding falling productivity and potential flight from an organisation that does not serve their workplace needs.

3. The Urban Legend of Open-Plan

While the older inhabitants of the workplace are those most underserved by our current infrastructure, they are also perhaps the ones to blame for the inaccurate demonisation of open plan.

For those of us that remember dimly lit central corridors off which a plethora of closed doors led to comfortable and quiet cellular offices, the move to inadequately thought out open plan office has been a jarring step into the 21st-century world of work.

A sobering thought and one that flies in the face of popular opinion, however, is that according to Leesman’s data, nine out of ten of the highest performing workplaces are either fully or extensively open plan. With the worst performing offices being largely in private or shared enclosed offices as seen below in figure 1.

Figure 1 –Produced Courtesy of The Leesman Index
Nine out of ten of the highest performing workplaces are either fully or extensively open plan Click To Tweet

Again this may seem counterintuitive, but bad office planning effects both open and cellular office layouts and the cluster of red and green dots on the diagram above indicate that the problem lays on both sides of the equation.

The demonisation therefore of open plan is factually incorrect. When designed, implemented and used correctly, open plan spaces can be very successful and productive.

So where does the fault lay? Predominantly it is in the one-size fits all approach as well as the use and behaviours that are promoted in these spaces. Without reinforcing the practices and behaviours that support the use of open plan and by retaining traditional work habits, employees are working in conflict with the environment around them.

Organisations cannot hope to bring collaborative spaces into office design at the expense of areas for private and concentrated working and expect the best. Change management needs to encourage the change in work behaviour to take full advantage of an open plan layout.

The key takeaway is, therefore, a recognition of the benefits of an open plan layout on key activities such as ’learning from others’, ’in-formal and un-planned meetings’ and ‘informal social interaction’. Appropriate change management is also required around different types of workspace, and the types of behaviour these spaces will support.

4. All Change is not Good

When post-occupancy surveys indicate that only 34 % of workplace reconfiguration projects deliver higher levels of productivity, then one has to question the return on investment that these expensive initiatives were supposed to deliver.

Workplace projects are often as a result of trying to solve an ever-increasing desire to reduced space and cost. These projects are often sold both to the organisation as well as the employees under the guise of ‘optimisation’ but in fact deliver neither reduced cost or improved productivity.

If all that you measure is the cost per square metre then that is all that will be focused on. There is evidence to suggest that very little post-occupancy measurement is done on these ‘optimisation’ initiatives except as far as the income statement, balance sheet and spatial efficiency is concerned.

The findings of the Leesman report are that only one in three workplace projects achieve higher performance levels. This is as a result of clients often outsourcing their responsibilities to professional teams instead of fully engaging in developing a detailed understanding of what’s their employees are doing, what activities are adding to their competitive advantage and how the new space will deliver improved productivity and effectiveness on these criteria.

A tip for the wise is that the highest performing projects put individual needs at the heart of the solution with an infrastructure that is wrapped around and responsive to the employees daily needs.

5. Mobility Starts in the Office

In concert with the findings above regarding workplace projects, organisations are in a ‘gold rush’ to create more agile and flexible teams as a guise to reduce occupancy costs. These initiatives are sold on the promise of an increase in activity based working with the ability of employees to select a series of different spaces according to their particular activity set during any given working day.

The survey questionnaire provided four different mobility profiles for an employee to select. Only 29% of respondents selected a mobility profile that could be described as activity-based.

The outcome of the rush to reduce space and cost is that activity-based working is being promoted as a panacea and foisted upon a workforce whose working practices are largely supported by a single location and do not require Activity Based Working.

The poor success rate is therefore unsurprising and is it any wonder that we are all in search of coffee shops and collaborative co-working space outside the office? 

Such initiatives have been singularly ill-thought-out and are unsupported by an interrogative and data-driven approach. The one size fits all approach is rarely a solution to any complex problem, and merely outsourcing the problem by allowing workers to decant to offsite locations has Pandora’s Box-like repercussions in productivity and in the culture that are difficult to eradicate once entrenched.

An organisation needs to take a less territorial view of the corporate workplace with its embedded empires and fiefdoms. A proper deep dive into understanding, recognising and managing the change is required. Employers need separate their employees work into distinct activities and then deliver appropriate spaces that can support the required activity.

If an organisation fully understands their culture and it’s required behaviours and the tasks that are required to deliver to its customers, then it can adopt a workplace that will maximise the benefits of this approach and workstyle.

Organisations needs to take a less territorial view of the corporate workplace. Click To Tweet

Conclusion

Bookshops and articles online are awash with seminal findings on leadership and its effect on culture and work performance. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a phrase attributed to the late business management guru Peter Drucker. But even he I believe would accept the argument that culture is formed by “nature or nurture”. 

Leadership equates to the nurture side of the equation, with the balancing nature argument being formed by our environment. A workplace culture, therefore, is equally formed as a result of the workplace as it is by leadership.

The workplace, therefore, is a key element in the driver of competitive advantage which unless it supports the productivity efforts of its employees is worthless and counter-productive as an asset, albeit one of an organisation’s most expensive.

Physical infrastructure is intrinsically linked to performance, how you deal with this and how you manage it need to be aligned to what your organisation is trying to achieve.

Please leave your comments below to this week’s question “How can your workplace be improved to deliver on your corporate strategy”?