With UK productivity lagging, the workplace environment can be a critical factor in driving improvements. Adam Mactavish of Currie & Brown explains how to evaluate and improve workplace productivity 

1. Introduction

In November 2017 the government’s Industrial Strategy firmly placed improved productivity at the heart of its drive to create a Britain “fit for the future”. It certainly seems that there is ground to make up, as the productivity of the UK has largely flatlined since 2007 despite the massive transformations over this period. The difference between current GDP per hour worked and that projected by the previous UK trend line is now nearly 20%, and current UK productivity is more than 5% down on that for the whole of the G7 (see figure 1 below).

Moving the UK back onto a path of rising productivity and income will not be easy. The Industrial Strategy identifies a series of “grand challenges” in fields such as artificial intelligence, clean growth and transport, which will provide platforms for innovation and investment. However, in pursuing these undoubtedly important goals, we must not ignore the lower-hanging fruit that could provide quick economic and social returns.  

One such opportunity is the quality of our offices. The workplace makes a tangible difference to productivity. In fact, research suggests that improvements to this could lead to performance gains 2%–3%. With over two-thirds of the UK workforce based in offices, a 2%–3% gain would eclipse the total productivity growth of the last decade.   

Screen shot 2018 01 25 at 11.43.41

2. Components

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Figure 2: Dimensions of a productive workplace

Currie & Brown, together with Ramidus Consulting, investigated what a productive workplace entails for the British Council for Offices (Defining and Measuring Productivity in Offices, BCO, 2017). The research concluded that there are four fundamental characteristics, if an office is to help people and teams to perform at their best: 

  • Healthy – supporting and improving individual wellbeing at work
  • Efficient – making good use of space, time and information
  • Effective – enabling people to do their work well
  • Engaging – a desirable destination that looks and feels like a great place to work.

As shown in figure 2 (below, left), the foundation of a productive workplace is that it provides a healthy environment supporting wellbeing. While this is a prerequisite, it is insufficient on its own. Further benefits are gained by enabling efficient and effective work within and between teams and, perhaps most importantly, by creating an environment where people want to be and that engages them in their work. The key characteristics within each of the components are shown in table 1 (below).

Table 1: Characteristics of a productive workplace
Healthy – supporting and improving individual wellbeing at work 

A safe and secure environment

Active design features that encourage movement

Ergonomic furniture supporting a range of work styles 

Comfortable light levels with access to natural light

Connection with nature through natural materials, views, green spaces and artwork 

Optimum indoor air quality and temperature range 

A clean and tidy environment 

Access to good nutrition and hydration 

Efficient – making good use of space, time and information  

Efficient access, entry, exit and navigation 

Minimal time spent looking for spaces, people, information or services 

Optimum use of available space through ongoing review of performance and utilisation 

High levels of service with responsive, effective day-to-day and strategic management 

Effective – enabling people to do their work well 

A variety of spaces to match the work styles of the building’s users 

Sufficient quality space for concentration and contemplation 

Spaces for planned and incidental communication and collaboration 

Shared amenity areas/events to support ad-hoc working, recharging and collaborating 

Technology and other resources enabling flexible access to, and sharing of, information 

Appropriate choice in the selection of the right place and conditions in which to work 

Acoustic and visual control enabling effective use of each workspace 

Engaging – a destination that looks and feels like a great place to work  

A high-quality people-centric experience through design, space, technology and services 

Supporting a sense of belonging and community 

Reflecting the corporate brand, culture and values 

Supporting life at work with amenities, services and conveniences 

3. Value

The potential for the workplace to improve corporate performance is something that is frequently discussed but often unvalued. Assuming average salaries and a (conservative) occupancy level of one person per 10m2, staff costs are typically between £3,500 and £4,000 per square metre of workplace, over 14 times the £250/m2 cost of space in most UK regions and nearly seven times the approximately £700/m2 space cost in central London. 

If the value added by each employee, and the costs of employee churn (estimated at £30,000 for an established professional) are included, the importance of maximising workforce engagement and output over workplace costs becomes even more stark. Nonetheless, many corporate real estate professionals still prioritise occupancy costs and pay insufficient attention to the ways in which the workplace can be a genuine asset supporting their organisation’s long-term success.  

A review of 22 studies concluded that a more productive workplace could add just under 3% to the productivity of an organisation. If each employee delivers on average outputs equivalent to twice their direct costs, the potential benefit is between £1,900 and £2,200 per person per year, roughly equivalent to 30% (in central London) or 75% (outside London) of the annual rent of the workplace. In this context, an effective strategy for delivering a productive workplace is likely to be the single most important contribution that property professionals can make to the success of their organisations.

2 sky hq

Source: BCO / Sky

Sky’s London headquarters incorporate a wide range of support facilities and working environments within an open space flooded with daylight and including 24,000 plants

4. Key ingredients

If a productive office can deliver such big benefits, what are the magic ingredients that will get teams working better together? There is a huge array of considerations related to the building’s site, shell and services as well as those linked to the individual work settings and the provided management support. Surprisingly, it is often excellence in relatively basic features that characterise the best-performing offices. 

For example, data from the Leesman Index (a leading international workplace benchmark with data from around 300,000 office workers) suggests that the most important factors in differentiating high-performing offices from average offices are: 

  • Quality of atriums, other communal areas, informal work areas and breakout zones
  • Variety of available working environments 
  • Level of overall decoration and tidiness. 

Another factor routinely cited as an essential component of a productive workplace is the ability of the user to control how they work and their working environment. Interestingly, temperature control is one of the hardest parameters to get right in any office, with less than 40% of workers satisfied with this aspect, even in the best performing workplaces. 

These findings indicate that while the physical space is important, a workplace cannot perform to its potential without the right operational policies and excellent facilities management. 

3 moneypenny

Source: BCO / Moneypenny

Moneypenny’s offices in Wrexham, designed after extensive staff consultation, provide a high-quality environment for a standard spec office budget

5. Practical steps

Achieving and maintaining a productive workplace is an ongoing activity and it is wrong to perceive it as something that should be implemented only as part of a major move or refit. 

Measurement of three key areas is important: 

  • Workplace metrics These should include employee turnover, sickness, perceived ability to concentrate, communicate and collaborate effectively, levels of employee engagement and the quantity and utilisation of the space provided.
  • User experience This can be measured using surveys of occupiers to understand what works and where improvements could be made. It is helpful if the survey results can be benchmarked to calibrate levels of satisfaction and the potential for improvement. 
  • Physical characteristics This includes checking for the presence of key features and assessing levels of performance against relevant benchmarks for daylight, accessibility, noise levels, space allocation and connectivity. These characteristics can be assessed during the design of new buildings or interiors but should also be verified in a space already being occupied. 

By combining information from these three sources, occupiers can assess how their overall working environment is performing, the impact on their business and the key areas they should target for improvement. 

Everyone in the property development and management process has an important role to play, as follows: 

  • Occupiers by understanding how the office can contribute to achieving their corporate goals, and asking staff how their current space works for them and how it can be improved.
  • Architects by prioritising the creation of office space that provides healthy, efficient and effective environments.
  • Developers by providing base buildings and surroundings that enable a productive life at work, and understanding how well their space works for occupiers.
  • Investors by clearly articulating the importance of productive workplaces, assessing the performance and potential of their assets and acquisitions, and working to improve their buildings as part of active asset management.
  • Agents by effectively communicating the benefits of great workplaces.

Our workplaces are as much a part of our critical infrastructure as are broadband and public transport. In too many instances this infrastructure is poorly maintained, with direct impacts on our wellbeing and performance. However, unlike our utilities and transport system, it is possible to get rapid and substantial returns on time spent understanding what is and is not working and in taking the appropriate actions.