The Office - A Space Odyssey

Productivity is a conundrum.  We ponder ruefully about it because despite recent increases, we still languish below pre-crisis levels.

But the challenge never diminishes - how do you measure ‘productivity’ in an increasing array of diverse and emerging sectors?

Perhaps, in a services-led economy we need a more sophisticated way of quantifying what we ‘produce’, rather than the historic ‘economic output per hour of work.’

I mention this because two recent news items caused me to ponder:

  • “… a meaningful space is where people can do the best work of their life…”

                                     Ciaran Chaney, Slack, an enterprise collaboration app developer

  • we could adapt the building to us, rather than us having to adapt to it…”                     

                                     Georgina Philippou, COO, FCA on moving nearly 4,000 employees to Stratford, London

 Why? Because of the inextricable links that exist between:

  • Businesses
  • The space they occupy
  • The growing importance of space in their war for talent and
  • The financial success, or failure, of their enterprise.

Improving workplace productivity

For almost 100 years, people have been analysing the workplace – first to try to figure out how you could ‘tweak’ it to enhance productivity, but more recently how you could ‘sweat’ it to attract and retain the best talent … and talent means (performance) prizes.

For those who might not be familiar with Elton Mayo, he was a sociologist who, in 1924, was appointed by Western Electric Company (manufacturer and supplier of ‘telephone hardware’ to AT&T), to improve productivity. 

He noted that when the lighting in the work area was increased, productivity increased. When working hours and rest breaks were altered, productivity increased. Offering workers food during breaks resulted in further improvements in productivity. Surprisingly, when these changes were reversed, there was no fall in productivity levels.

Mayo concluded that it wasn’t the change in physical environment that increased productivity, but the belief of workers that they were valued and that someone was concerned about them and their workplace – I would like to think that we are at our best when we know others care about our welfare.

Around 70 years after Mayo, we saw the disappearance of private offices, the emergence of open plan offices and the inception of ‘flexible workplaces’.

This was followed by the Chic Office syndrome -  climbing walls in reception; treadmills with desktops; indoor Go-Karting (GoDaddy’s HQ), chocolate fountains in receptions, haute cuisine in the ‘canteen’ and gyms on the premises – you probably need the latter after indulging in the former.

I wonder if the workplace is at risk of morphing into the automobile equivalent of the souped-up custom cars – all spoilers, flared wheel arches, fat exhausts and fluffy dice…. modifications which might look ‘cool’ and sound great, but in reality, deliver no performance improvements.

The Age of Flexible Workspace

Today the focus is on flexibility (whether to accommodate meteoric growth, or rapid contraction) and there is much talk of co-working and shared work spaces.

How we use our business spaces has changed as well. Agile working for many has become a necessity - as opposed to an ambition - and technology has broken the link between where we work, when we work and how we work.

Leases have also changed. 25-year leases are now a rare commodity for an office occupier - many now insist on shorter terms with early tenant break options.

But despite the ever-changing requirements of the work space, one fact continues to hold true. Business space is an organisation’s second largest cost – behind payroll.

Today, the two are however inextricably linked.

Your office is your brand statement, an insidious persuader, a key ally in the war for talent. Anyone entering the workplace for the first time has probably been brought up in world of new schools, colleges and universities buildings therefore their expectation is that the workplace must compete and better what they have been used to.

The next variable in this quasi esoteric mix is location.

The gold standard location is one with a rich local ‘community’ comprising a range of restaurants, bars, fun things to do and great places to hang out with friends and colleagues. Just think how Kings Cross has replaced Soho in London, or the evolution of Spinningfields, First Street and St Peter’s Square in Manchester. One thing we all demand is good transport links to and from the office. Therein lies part of the solution to productivity. Just reflect on the recent ‘new’ train schedule omni-shambles. Accessibility to a functioning and efficient transport infrastructure, which minimises time spent in traffic jams, or stood on station platforms, lies at the heart of our productivity conundrum.  The knock-on effects of stress, cancelled meetings, playing catch up, etc. are just too great to be quantified.

So what’s the next big thing in office space?

Perhaps the emergence of a ‘my office’ concept - your own personal space within a larger business space of ‘personal offices’.

A space tailored to your specific requirements and idiosyncrasies. Where digital interactive walls provide an ever-changing array of tailored landscapes and motivational images.

Given the rapid strides we are making in AI and IoT (Internet of Things), perhaps what we should expect is a cross between territorial free space (i.e. no offices, desks, etc) and tailored spaces.

So, if your space is your brand and your brand is your best salesman (when it comes to attracting and retaining talent), then imagine what the future holds – more cybertronics and HAL (the 2001 Space Odyssey Computer) than just smart buildings which monitor and manage themselves.


David Laws
David Laws 05 July 2018

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