Treasury Today Country Profiles in association with Citi

Thinking about the box

Modern desk with Apple computer

Few people really consider how the physical environment in which they work affects interaction with colleagues and levels of concentration and motivation. But a new survey shows that company creativity is being stifled by lacklustre workplaces, so perhaps a rethink of the office environment should be higher up the agenda?

The workplace can have a significant impact on employee creativity and engagement. This is the finding of a recent survey of over 2,000 office-based employees from across the UK carried out by fit-out and refurbishment specialist, Overbury.

The survey results (shown below) highlight the fact that in many cases the layout of the workplace has not been considered from a psychological and behavioural perspective, says Overbury Director, Anthony Brown. Typically, offices are seen as workspaces that need to contain a certain number of desks and the angle is often how this can be achieved in the most efficient and practical way. This logistical approach has given rise to trends such as ‘hot-desking’ but, notes Brown, “not enough thought is given to some of the other things that people need to do in the workplace and providing the space to do those things”. Dull work spaces can stifle interaction and limit creativity which in turn can reduce staff engagement.

“Employee morale for me is about motivation and a lot of this is about autonomy in the work place where people feel they have the freedom to do their job in the most innovative way possible,” Brown adds. Although it is common for employees to remain in silos within their respective departmental functions or structures, to be able to work with a different community of people according to their current activities is “empowering”, he notes. Acknowledging that every function will have specific limitations on mobility, he insists this generally need not hinder creativity.

Flexible working

The Overbury model is to create “vertical communities”, favouring the informal communities that transcend the normal rigid departmental structures that, for example, place all finance or all marketing people together. “Work places are far more functional if you give people freedom to encourage those vertical communities,” states Brown. Exit interviews frequently reveal that employees are not given the support or the right tools to master their role. If the answer means allowing freedom to work in different places and with different people then it should be part of the business agenda, he says.

When it comes to workplace analysis, Brown says there is no replacement for observing the movement of people, what they are doing, how they do it and just talking to staff. “We are great believers in activity-based workplaces,” he states. Rather than worrying about employees’ functional roles, the activities that take place in the work place are analysed and employees are then given the workplace that supports those activities.

This model has been used successfully in the Netherlands for the past 20 years where, for example, Microsoft analyses the flow of internal email traffic to bring people physically closer together if necessary. The Australian financial community (including offices of ANZ, CBA and NBA) has also embraced it wholeheartedly, re-orienting their offices so everyone can move around enabling them to work in a series of teams.

It’s the little things that count

It’s not just the major overhaul of space that gets results; the cumulative effect of many small elements can build or detract from employee morale, Brown says. “It’s very rarely the big things that get in the way of peoples’ creativity. You can change many seemingly insignificant things to alter the way people use a building. Even just putting coat hooks in the lavatory make a huge difference.” He adds that it is “remarkable” how often the state of the workplace is cited in exit interviews as a negative, simply because not enough thought has been put into how that space facilitates human interaction.

The latter point is important but too often glossed over by the use of email and other technologies. “An office is ultimately a place where people come together to collaborate towards a set of goals. The technological ways of enabling people to collaborate should be way down the list,” states Brown. “We’re trying to build workplaces where people can talk to each other, preferably face-to-face.”

The challenge of forging the ‘right environment’ is on-going and thus the consideration must be for space for now and for the future. “We try to get companies to think about how the space they use might transform their organisation; to try to get them to think about the workplace as an important component of strategy,” Brown says. The place of work is often one of a company’s largest investments. Thinking of it strategically, as it would any other element on the balance sheet, will deliver a more effective workplace.

Our survey says…

Success of such a project tends to be measured subjectively through employee satisfaction rather than through explicit productivity metrics. In the survey carried out by Overbury earlier this year, more than a third of respondents (36%) said that their workspace was demotivating, while almost one in ten (8%) went so far as to call it a “creative and cultural desert”. Some 33% claimed a lack of opportunity to collaborate, 29% said they felt unable to generate new ideas at work and 35% preferred to work from home whenever possible because of their uninspiring workplace.

The most uninspiring environments are found in financial services with 50% of respondents in this sector unhappy about where they work. Professional services were next with 46% followed by retail/FMCG (34%), the creative industries such as media and advertising (34%) and technology (34%). Thirty percent of the healthcare and pharmaceuticals sector expressed workspace dissatisfaction with their workspace with the public and not-for-profit (30%) and manufacturing sectors (24%) rounding off the list. Exactly one quarter said more social space would boost creativity in their office and 24% asked for better heating/cooling (24%).

Commenting on the results, Brown believes that people can find it difficult to get away from the concept of the functional department. “The culture of ‘presenteeism’ holds back development; if managers can’t see their staff they assume they are not working. The idea of having people choose to work anywhere in the building feels a bit too anarchic for many.” This sounds rather like Brown is throwing down the gauntlet for management, but the benefit to employees – and ultimately the company – of a well-structured place of work should not go unheeded.