How To Create The Productive Office

Last month, the first article in this series looked at the relationship between staff work/life balance and productivity and considered how managers’ attitudes might support or impede their staff to achieve better balance for themselves. In this second article, Phil Kerslake again draws on his 2001 research into Australasian employee attitudes to consider five maxims that can help company leaders create office environments that encourage productivity and help company leaders create environments that encourage productivity and help improve the work/life balance of staff.

In the ‘bad old days’, long before employees were described as company’s ‘most valuable asset,’ the term ‘staff motivation’ was something of misnomer since coercion and compliance were routinely expected and loyalty was demanded as part of the employment contract.

Of course, work/life balance was non-issue and productivity was mechanised outcome from production-line process, designed by Frederick Taylor, in which our forebears were simply cogs in slow, joyless and very squeaky wheels. Today business and society have evolved, and with them the needs of the office workplace have changed significantly.

Maxim 1: view the office as one of your principal management tools
The office environment is something of an ecological system in its own right. It can have significant impact on the performance of employees and the organisations they work in. It can support or impede communication, innovation, creativity and teamwork. It may have the advantage of being able to accommodate the latest technology and space-efficient interior design concepts – or the disadvantage of not being able to. Poor office environments rob employees of the ability to work to their potential, leading to inefficiency, low morale and poor productivity.

As such, the office is management asset or liability that encourages or shackles productivity. To treat the office as management tool means making decisions about physical settings and work practices in relation to, and in tandem with, each other, and in strategic fashion so that the right office culture is encouraged.

Maxim 2: establish the office ‘to suit the circumstances of the individuals’
Without doubt, one of the most important and difficult tasks for company leader is the structuring and accommodating of staff to best operational effect. common mistake is to simply replicate previous company or industry decisions without considering the unique characteristics of an organisation, its staff and customers. In any company there are myriad of functional roles, unique individual personalities and general employee and customer needs that must be understood and carefully managed to achieve the best result.
John Judge, chief executive of Ernst Young New Zealand, believes that leaders need to run companies to suit the circumstances of the individuals working in them. In other words, employees need to be seen and treated as individuals and, as much as possible, their particular needs considered when decisions are made.

The same principle holds true for offices. If staff members are treated as identical production units in the office design, some will respond positively to their assigned environment, while others will not. If the needs of the staff as individuals are understood before establishing their office environment, they are much more likely to perform.

Notably, in recent years, many Fortune 500 companies in the United States have moved in an ‘anti-Dilbert’, anti-standardisation direction towards unique office layouts that reflect company cultures or, in some cases, the culture wanted by company. Private offices have often been replaced with gathering spaces, cafeterias, lounges, break-out rooms and even games rooms – all to assist with internal communications and productivity.

A common feature has been the variety of locations within each office where people can meet, interact with one another and develop solutions to problems. This allows different personalities to find the communication locations and modes that work best for them.

Maxim 3: be flexible about where and when the work will be done
Globalisation, increasing competition in domestic markets and e-commerc have transformed the business landscape in ways that make flexible approach to office property procurement and planning essential. Aside from the obvious need to avoid the unwanted costs and constraints of an inflexible approach to office space, integrated office strategies need to consider the potential for relocating some staff via telecommuting and home working options.

In few cases satellite offices may be established in suburban locations to supplement the central office, though there is greater incentive to do this in countries more densely populated than New Zealand.

Needless to say, with more consideration being given to the needs of employees and customers, the advantages of suburban satellite offices will be greater when principal office’s location is compromised by significant traffic congestion and commuting delays.

Employees are now seeking more workplace flexibility to help balance work and family commitments. There is more interest in the option of working at home part of the time and, in some instances, avoiding commutes with satellite offices. My research of Auckland and Perth-based companies in 2001 showed in terms of work/life balance, that employees valued the flexibility about where and when they worked.

In assessing flexible work options it is important to consider possible problems. While working at home part of the time has distinct appeal for many, and sometimes real merit as business practice, it can also result in domestic difficulties.

Glenn Harris, HR manager, North Shore City Council and immediate past president of the Human Resources Institute of New Zealand says: “Classic studies suggesting that everyone would end up working at home haven’t eventuated in any culture yet. I suppose it’s because we’re social animals and also, if you’re in relationship, your partner doesn’t want to see you 24 hours day.”

There are also distinct benefits in having people together to solve problems, optimise creativity, and generate the best ideas. Peter O’Brien, managing director of O’Brien Property Consultancy, in Wellington, says: “The key reason for workplace is to share ideas. You can’t do that looking at computer screen. You need people to add value to the other employees’ endeavours, not just to clients.”

Most business leaders will be well aware of staff calls for more flexibility about when work is carried out. In juggling family commitments with work, being able, for example, to leave work early and return later, is distinct work/life balance advantage from the perspective of some staff. The office ‘environment’ can cater to this need, with flexible attitude on the part of the company and senior managers. This, of course, requires an element of trust. But by adopting employees’ outputs rather than inputs as the measure of productivity, this is reduced dilemma for less trusting managers who are accustomed to keeping ‘an eye’ on staff.

The key requirement for company leaders is to keep an open mind over the potential for flexible working options, rather than simply insisting on the traditional all-staff-in-one-office and one location models.

Maxim 4: with every office decision, recognise that your people have grown
Employee values have shifted gradually over the years, with the progressive ‘maturing’ of the workforce. Most people now wish to grow, learn, develop and advance in an organisation rather than perform the same functions at the same level year after year. job that was once simply the means to making ends meet – the provision of security, safety and nourishment – is now often viewed as the means of achieving personal and professional growth. I tested this premise in my 2001 survey

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