The Productivity Problem In Office Design

Which aspects of the physical workplace impact employees most, and what can facility planners do about it?

By Tim Oldman
From the June 2018 Issue


According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), global labor productivity per employee has failed to markedly rise since the global downturn, despite the media storm that often hails the workplace experience as being the missing piece of the “productivity puzzle.” A typical measure of productivity can be calculated by the output over a specific period, divided by the total costs or resources expended over that same period. But this calculation, within the modern office environment, rarely offers an accurate picture of actual output. In the knowledge work sector, for instance, people essentially get paid to think — and although we can all agree that productivity is a result of where effort meets value, it’s difficult to measure when there’s no production line. And it’s impossible to gauge how each thought impacts an organization’s bottom-line in the long run.

The closest measure we have, then, is “perceived productivity.” There are numerous factors that influence an individual’s ability to be productive, of course, but Leesman data reveals that the physical workplace itself plays a key part in an employee’s sense of productivity, pride, and overall enjoyment of their work life. Our recent report, “The Next 250K” published in September 2017, offers a crucial lesson for facility managers responsible for designing and managing workplaces. The publication highlights the importance of understanding where to focus the facility management budget and provides a map for navigating design rationales with an aim to achieving higher productivity and better employee experience.

A Deep Data Dive

Figure 1: Leesman has gathered responses on workplace satisfaction
from employees around the world.

Of the 250,000 employees surveyed in the report, just 57% agree that their workplace enables them to work productively. In the United States, that figure is marginally higher at 63% (based on 27,334 respondents). However, in line with the latest figures from Statistica, that still means that for over 47 million American workers, the office is simply not good enough. The findings show that many employees are having to endure workplaces that fail to support their basic working day, obstructing their ability to positively contribute to business success. Segment those workplaces further, to those that have been surveyed shortly after relocation or refurbishment works have been undertaken, and the figures are even more worrying–only 18% of new workplaces surveyed deliver noticeable operational benefit. That’s a pretty sad indictment of the design industry to create value and, considering the investment required, most of these projects appear to be a waste of time, money, and effort. So how do we bridge this gap in knowledge and encourage the realms of facility management, design, and the c-suite to work together when designing and managing the physical, virtual, and social infrastructures necessary to support the end user?

Cost Mitigation Is Not The Answer

The workplace is a tool for competitive advantage for two reasons. The first is that the workplace has a direct impact on the way people work and, therefore, their efficiency. If you create a workplace that actually works for the people you employ, then you’ll naturally see an increase in effort and productivity. The second is talent attraction and retention. People want a reason to get up in the morning and commute to work. The job in question obviously matters, as does the reputation of the company, but the work style and environment also impact whether or not someone wants to work for your organization.

Figure 2: In the Leesman survey, the average number of important
activities across all employees is 10.5. Demographically those aged 45-54
have the highest average activity complexity at 11.1.

Achieving the expected boost in engagement and productivity (for which these often-costly workplace transformation endeavors exist to do) requires an understanding of the workplace facility as an asset, as well as a careful examination of the existing operational hindrances with a strategic approach to overcoming them through design solutions and process improvements.

Productivity Killers

Having so far surveyed over a quarter million employees in 2,200 workplace locations across 67 countries (see Figure 1), Leesman’s research offers insight into which factors most significantly encourage productivity. Across the employees in our research database, 57% agree that their workplace enables them to work productively, with 28% disagreeing and 15% sitting neutrally between. A comparison of the two opposing groups—those who can and those who cannot say that their workplace enables them to work productively—provides clues to understanding whether there are factors that regularly exert greater influence over perceptions of productivity.

The greatest difference in support comes in work activities such as “Thinking/creative thinking”, “Reading”, and ‘“Individual focused work, desk based”—all of which are focused activities. When looking at the physical and service features with the largest satisfaction differences, we find “Space between work settings”, “Dividers”, and “Noise levels”. This suggests that employees’ perception of a workplace that supports personal productivity is impacted more by its ability to support individual work than collaborative work.

It would appear, then, that some organizations may be investing a disproportionate amount of focus on supporting creativity and collaboration, at the expense of the spaces needed to commit these collaborative thoughts in an individual, concentrative way to paper. It could also be that for many employees in more concentrative analytic roles, the impact of key infrastructure elements and planning have been overlooked—like occupant density and noise control.

Clearly, that is not to say that the importance attached to collaboration should be downgraded. Far from it. But it does reaffirm that to create a high performing workplace, all phases and activities that underpin knowledge work need to be deeply understood and well provided for—both individual/concentrative and interactive/ collaborative. But concentrative work activities would appear to be the “hygiene factor” for all employees. Get these wrong and perception of personal productivity falls. Get the balance right and the picture is more positive.

An Employee-centric Workplace

Effective workplace design should consider an employee’s perception of their personal productivity and its close link to their individual and concentrative activities, as well as the different components that create productivity enhancing environments.

Figure 3: Collectively, the 35-44 and 45-54 age groups recorded the
highest activity complexities; they have the greatest need for dynamic
workplace infrastructure. This graphic shows the profile for workers
aged 35-44 in the Leesman survey.

Our 250K report corroborated with prior research and revealed that what impacts workplace effectiveness more than anything is the complexity of an employee’s activity profile. We ask people to select the activities important to them, from a list of 21, before they then tell us whether they are well supported in the workplace (see Figures 2 and 3). The more activities they select, the more complex their profile—and the more flexibility and variety they tend to need from their physical environment.

In the pursuit of innovative workplace design, there is often pressure on design teams to create spaces that appeal to a younger staff. However, the reality is that the under 25 demographic (global) represents just 4.4% of the workforce and have the lowest activity complexity. This group also records the highest workplace satisfaction scores. Collectively, the 35-44 and 45-54 age groups record the highest activity complexities—meaning they have the greatest need for dynamic workplace infrastructure. Greater attention should therefore be paid to their requirements for a variety of work settings.

The Office As A Conduit

The Next 250K’s findings bring focus on the factors which could be the difference between designing a good workspace that offers a brief injection of vitality, or creating a well-oiled, built-for-purpose machine that truly maximizes the potential of its workforce and produces superior returns on investment with a supported staff whose daily environment supports their individual work-based requirements.

A parallel illustrating the importance of purpose-designed space can be drawn to how we exist within our own homes. While home-based tasks are often basic, the environments in which they occur are geared specifically in support of them. Kitchens feature all the tools for food preparation and storage; bedrooms are perfectly adapted to resting and dressing. In too many cases, workplaces are designed as shells, within which work will happen, but often without the specific design solutions to facilitate it.

Facility management is no longer just about ensuring the facility is running; it’s about evaluating whether the space is really working at its fullest potential and questioning whether it could be better. It’s often said, “the only constant is change”. If business and the way we work is evolving, so too should our environments adapt to accommodate these changes. To keep this evolution on track, catalyst workplaces that foster productivity should be the focus of corporate leadership, design teams, and increasingly, the facility management team.

productivityAs the founder of Leesman, Oldman sought to offer the property market an independent, unified, and standardized pre and post occupancy evaluation tool. The Leesman Index is an initiative to offer clients an occupier satisfaction-benchmarking tool, where consistency of data collection provides a resource of comparative data. As CEO, Oldman is responsible for the creative and strategic development of the Leesman brand, and for exploring the opportunities to develop parallel focused products for the higher education and healthcare markets. The firm has offices in Stockholm, Amsterdam, New York City, and London.

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