Static environments are harming our productivity, writes Natalie Slessor – it’s time to realise the benefits of ‘smart’ offices
Environmental psychology in the workplace is a scant area of study and forays into the field are often decontextualised, meaning that the findings are difficult to apply to everyday situations literally. The bridge that links workplace design with employee effectiveness, then, remains inconclusive.
Despite this, understanding how technological advances have changed workers’ expectations has become increasingly important over the last decade. The nature of work is more sedentary now than it has ever been, so finding ways to incorporate accessibility and mobility as a priority in workplace design is undoubtedly the key to greater engagement and performance.
Generation M (for ‘mobile’) is a generation of super-efficient consumers, who are happiest with highly advanced technology in their pockets, and laptops or tablets in their bags. Therefore it’s only logical that technology and agile working is in the DNA of the digital generation, and that it should be integrated into the workplace to cater for new-age, personalised work habits.
Businesses used to be too methodical to consider the possibility that moulding a building around a company’s employees could be the easiest path to achieving engagement. Instead, buildings were constructed to signify the strength and longevity of an organisation, and staff simply slotted in.
Frank Duffy, the founder of pioneering space consultancy and design practice DEGW, and an all-round guru in human-centric design, was one of the first to enter this debate – around the time that open-plan working was being heralded as the initiative that would change work efficiency forever. Studying the opinions of hundreds of employees showed that, instead of a defining moment in integration, creativity and innovation, open-plan workplaces effectively served as a new average: for some it worked, while, for others, effectiveness fell.
The Hawthorne effect – the phenomenon of modifying or improving behaviour owing to awareness of being observed – is key to understanding how developers of office space can and should work. By speaking with employees, observing their needs and their habits, developers have already begun the process of engagement before any building work is actually undertaken. And when the building is complete, the office is finished to the specification of its staff to enable the most productive work.
Some progressive businesses are already alive to methodologies like these. Lendlease has worked on developments in Australia focusing on the priorities of employees and is bringing the concepts to the UK at the International Quarter London. Initiatives such as installing technology into the very framework of the building, designing offices to be ‘smart’, and connecting employees and their mobile devices to the infrastructure of the workplace have already been completed. This infrastructure can automatically alert and divert people to other locations if the building or room is becoming full and interpret data to maximise efficiency, inform on the future evolution of space or help plan future requirements.
HR professionals are also waking up to the idea of incorporating vastly contrasting spaces into the same workplace to maximise effectiveness. Built on the ‘flow theory’, this is about creating workspaces designed to facilitate individual tasks at work – for example, co-working, individual or team work – to encourage workers to get into their ‘zone’ for whatever work they need, making them more effective and efficient.
The progression of output has gone as far as it can go in a static environment. The workplace must match the requirements of its workforce and keep pace with the changing capabilities of technology. Catering to each of these when thinking about the workplace is the key to unlocking heightened performance and ultimately benefits the bottom line. To get the most out of a workforce, business leaders must encourage employees to independently engage with their surroundings – and it’s up to HR to lead this charge.
Natalie Slessor is global head of workplace at property firm Lendlease