Productive in Place

 Each day in the workplace we hear the sound of the fluorescent lights around us and the fans in the computers under our desks. We smell pop corn cooking down the hallway. We might be too cold, or too hot. We subconsciously filter most of these stimuli; others may be more difficult to filter, some directly affect our productivity.

We often assume that technology is our primary source of productivity. Workplace design, or what architects sometimes call the built environment, can also be a source of productivity. Light, color, sound and comfort have been shown to enhance productivity. Vivian Loftness, University Professor and Head, School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, in her presentation on Sustainable Design for Health and Productivity describes how factors such as health, reading comprehension and task execution can all be improved through ventilation, natural light and temperature control. Professor Loftness and her team of researchers have identified more than 100 studies that scientifically link physical infrastructure to organizational performance. Better surroundings result in less use of sick leave, lower expenses on health claims, and productivity increases. The salary and benefit costs of people in an office building are typically 10 to 12 times greater than the cost of the building’s real estate and utility costs, so the potential return for smart design choices upfront is significant. (see GSA’s WorkPlace Matters, p.8)

GSA’s Public Buildings Service has a lot of fabulous research on productive workplaces. The PBS Workspace Delivery Program has published interior basics, a framework for designing functional, flexible, healthful and sustainable places for federal employees to work. I’ve written before about the need for innovation in management practices, to move beyond the industrial-era approach and maximize the productivity of today’s knowledge workers (a term coined by Peter Drucker in 1959). We need innovative design for our offices as well. The old model, where more space and better furniture is given to more senior employees, holds little appeal to modern workers and does not address the complex and fluid nature of work today. The Workspace Delivery Program has adopted a structured, balanced scorecard-based approach to designing spaces for GSA’s federal clients. You can read a few of their success stories with clients such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, US Coast Guard, and the Department of Energy.

So what are the implications for us? The link between physical infrastructure and a high-performance organization is real. A well-designed workplace offers great potential to improve organizational performance and realize financial return far greater than the initial investment. Thoughtful design that integrates with our work rather than impedes it, makes it possible for all of us to be productive in place.