Principles of highly productive workspaces

Mar 30, 2014
Blair McKolskey

Blair McKolskey, managing director Finewood, considers how collaboration is critical in designing workspaces and the attributes required to achieve productivity.

Smith, a Scotsman born in 1723, is best known as one of the forefathers of modern economics and the author of “The Wealth of Nations”. The first chapter of Smith’s book argues for the now famous concept of ‘division of labour’, by citing a pin factory whose productivity rose from hundreds of units a day to tens of thousands per day simply by allowing individual employees to specialise in one aspect of the operation. Smith’s now cornerstone theory remains valid today and has advanced considerably in the modern workspace.

The consequence of breaking down large jobs into smaller components is that team members up and downstream of us need to be coordinated to obtain productivity and results. We all know that the world of knowledge, and those who earn a living from it is growing rapidly. In fact depending upon who you ask, the world’s knowledge is doubling every 1.5 to 5 years. Those who manage and derive their income from it are growing proportionately. The implication of these two information strands is that those who generate a living from knowledge are increasingly required to collaborate to complete the job. Of the average ten plus tasks knowledge workers have on their desk at any one time, 90% of them will require the contribution of at least one other colleague before completion can be achieved. Thus it is becoming widely recognised that collaboration is critical in designing highly productive workspaces. These are our 10 attributes required to gain a highly productive workspace:

1. Collaboration is key.

Work activities are becoming increasingly organic. We no longer adopt the large command and control structure of the industrial age. Instead, innovation and decision making is increasingly the domain of the collective wisdom. There are fewer rigid silos and groups are encouraged to solve problems in a multi disciplinary manner. Working together comes very naturally to us. Collaboration not only helps generate ideas faster but fosters culture and aligns an organisation to a common goal. Researchers have extensively documented the growing specialisation of individuals in workplaces1. We have become specialised individuals who share intellectual and emotional resources for the collective benefit of the organisation. Our view on collaboration is that it takes on three common forms: a) Formal: Which are typically prescheduled meetings and are increasingly facilitated by technology; b) Casual: These are spontaneous interactions that randomly occur in person or via technological solutions; c) Diffusion: This lesser described knowledge transfer is that which occurs in the open workspace by overhearing other communications such as phone conversation or casual conversation. Like the diffusion process, those with a shared interest in the conversation will naturally share and absorb a proportion of the knowledge or information being shared. Our opinion is that formal collaboration is most easily and frequently replaced by technology (though with lesser quality results), and diffusion is the least recognised but has the most potential.

2. Proximity – closer is better. 

Distance effects the building of both personal and professional relationships. The further people are apart the less likely they are to connect and the less chance of diffusion style knowledge transfer – thus limiting productivity. Research has shown that separation of more than 30 meters is likely to reduce collaboration2,. Effective workspaces reduce barriers to collaborative efforts and place likely collaborative disciplines in proximity. Use of designated project spaces for multidisciplinary teams has been demonstrated to improve productivity in some cases up to 1003.

3. The power of sound. 

Conversation and collaboration must be encouraged. Whether casual or diffusion style, the collaborative efforts of the teams will produce results as well as sound. However research suggests that between 40% and 60% of the time we will be engaged in focused or concentrated work where the audibility of noise is an impediment to productivity. This kind of noise is to be mitigated not eliminated. The level of mitigation is only to a level where the sounds are not comprehensible. If we can not understand the conversation our subconscious can reject the sound when efforts do not require focus. Noise from collaborative efforts can either be managed at source or managed at a destination (for example, a quiet room). Either way, it must be managed.

4. Let people own their work space. 

Office environments need to be flexible and accommodate the demands of the various users and the business. We like to add something of ourselves to feel at home. It actually empowers us and makes us more productive. Research by Dr Craig Knight, cites participants who were empowered to have an input to their immediate surrounds were approximately 32% more productive than those who were placed in lean environments4.

5. Work: our home away from home. 

Facilitated by technology, we are now working more than 1/3 of our day. During the last two decades our average salaried worker’s work week increased from 43 to 47 hours. And the number of people putting in greater than 50 hours grew from 24% to 37%5. We are just as likely to be answering emails at 10pm as we are to be posting updates on Facebook at 10am. Environments that blur the boundaries between work and home are more likely to foster productivity because we like being in them.

6. Investment in the future.

Often referred to as sustainability, or green growth strategies, we believe that investment in research and development (R&D) to lower our impact on the planet will increase workplace health and wellbeing. The investment in R&D will also lead to more effective processes and materials which can drive productivity.

7. One size does not fit all.

Each industry is unique, each business within an industry is unique. Attempts to define and measure productivity by one or a small number of generic metrics will not succeed. Absolute metrics will also struggle to gain acceptance. Productivity metrics are context dependent and by definition are going to change. Productivity and measurement of productivity will be best measured as an increment of change based on key performance metrics of each industry and firm.

8. Design for our bodies.

Our office environments need to be sensitive to how we move and interact. Designs need to be intuitive to the human body and social environment. Designs that maximise comfort and interaction yet minimise strain will produce proven reductions in absenteeism, injury and sickness. Designs that maximise comfort but not interaction are to be avoided. The opportunity here is for exogenous growth from productivity not internal cost-based risk reduction.

9. Spaces must nurture us emotionally. 

People are emotional beings. We are highly influenced by sight, sound and touch. Harmonious spaces that harness the principles of bio mimicry (design influenced by the colours and shapes of nature) communicate empathy and softness, make us feel calm and can have a measurable effect on mood and performance.

10. Aesthetics matter. 

Beauty is not just subjective; it is a core part of human nature with deep evolutionary origins. We are drawn to beautiful things – inspiring environments are no exception. Highly aesthetic, welcoming workspaces that balance colours and form are pivotal to increased engagement, lowered absenteeism and overall contentment. Please allow us to repeat a point from earlier. The opportunity here is for exogenous growth, not profits driven from an internal cost-based program of risk reduction. The difference is that the opportunities for growth are far more limited when coming from the universe of one company’s expenses. Growing a company’s income from productivity is limited by the much larger universe of potential clients and additional revenue that can be collected. Intuitively we know that positive, nurturing and collaborative spaces will be a valuable investment in any company’s portfolio. The challenge has been to independently substantiate this otherwise subjective intuition. There are a number of opportunities where research is engaged in the measurement of productivity. As at the date of this publication the authors of this article are currently engaged in one such effort with a leading New Zealand University. Knowledge based companies interested in investigating their collective productivity are invited to express an interest in participating in the research.

1. Morello, D., & Burton, B. (2006). Future Worker 2015: Extreme Individualization. Gartner Research Report, Gartner Research.
2. Kiesler, S., & Cummings, J. N. (2002). What Do We Know about Proximity and Distance in Work Groups, A Legacy of Research. In P. Hinds & S. Kiesler (Eds.), Distributed Work. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
3. Teasley, S., Covi, L., Krishnan, M,. & Olson S. (2000). How does radical collocation help a team succeed? CSCW, p. 339-346.
4. Dr Craig Knight
5. Source: American Decades, ©2000 Gale Cengage.

Words: Blair McKolskey
This article was first published by Interior Magazine: Interior
View this article on their website: Architecture now