Leeson Medhurst, Director of 360 Workplace – Fourfront Group says good leadership is the key to enhancing our productivity
What’s happening to our productivity? Not much. Since the financial crash of 2008/10 productivity in the UK has dragged and instead has spawned its very own minor industry: workplace productivity analysis. Or rather, many old arguments and design debates have been resurrected and triumphantly announced to the world as the solutions to our productivity malaise. Added to that the rapid growth of tech and the perceived changes in how we work there are a lot of answers out there. So, why isn’t there a big upsurge in productivity if we have all the answers?Maybe it is because we are approaching the question the wrong way around.
It is not so much what the answer is to improving productivity. It is what is stropping us being productive.
The Puzzle of Productivity, the report we backed and delivered with Worktech Academy alongside Jeremy Myerson doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. But it does deliver the answer to the productivity block: leadership. Overwhelmingly respondents to our survey said that leadership is the most important factor influencing productivity. Not technology, not design, not the environment they worked in – but the management taking decisions each day.
The idea of the report is to drive debate. It is meant to be provocative. So, let’s do that. Let’s think laterally. Let’s assume our leaders in offices and factories are taking poor decisions and so limiting productivity. Not enhancing it. Take the average office – as that’s easier to define as a workplace than say a foundry or shop floor. What’s going on?
There’s a trend for open plan, collaborative work spaces. They look good. Foster the development of ideas and done right, need not be noisy or intrusive, but sharing and inclusive. But they encourage a flatter operating structure. One that removes any sense of hierarchy and so takes ‘leaders’ out of the process. Does that mean we create a more democratic work place so that we encourage wellness, boost mental health and develop an intrinsically happier place to work? In a word, yes. But is it conducive to improved productivity?
It depends on the organisation. Sometimes these changes in ways of working succeed. Others do not. As workplace designers we must accept that even the best designed spaces might not always be the most productive. Likewise, the poorly designed space may be brilliantly productive for reasons linked to culture and attitude – not aesthetics.
Which takes us back to leadership – because those attitudes, the culture of an organisation stems from the leaders. It is their vision that creates the atmosphere people work within. In some organisations you can in effect sense it when you visit their offices. It is something you become very quickly acutely aware of. Design alone can’t shape it, but it can most definitely enhance it, channel the energy and add an x-plus factor to the organisational culture.
So, when we create that ideal space, we have to allow the flow of the organisation to continue, which means connecting with its leaders. This does not mean pursing the idealistic notion of placing the CEO smack in the middle of the open plan space. This can work, but think about it, will it work every time? No. It just makes things complicated. Is it sending the message that we are a team, or is it making everyone within ear shot of the CEO feel intimidated, hence limiting productivity?
We must think far more holistically about how our various workplaces function and therefore, what they each require. There is no one size fits all. Yes, we need to respect the need for specific key facilities and the demand from employees for other less obvious things that enable them to do their jobs, but there is a balance. IT, HR and FM are the three pillars of everyone’s workplace and we have to do everything we can to encourage them to work together to create the right balance. Too often we become wrapped up in one idea from one of the departments to the detriment of the bigger whole. For example, the advent of new technology should be allowing us to work smarter – not just faster. But are we becoming too carried away with the idea of what technology offers?
Let’s look at the idea of remote working. In theory, we can work anywhere: in the office, on the bus, at home or in a third space, i.e. the café. But is it effective? Yes, people need variety and that choice can also be a part of an organisations culture, but the more we separate ourselves from the mothership are we also not distancing ourselves from the very cultural identity that enhances productivity? Empty desks mean less people. Less atmosphere. How can we foster a leadership culture without the false bonhomie of bringing groups together for team meetings?
For me the most worrying this is how our leaders are coping. According to Professor James Woudhuysen of London South Bank University, writing in the Puzzle of Productivity, “There is currently a crisis of leadership in terms of legitimacy, trust and credibility”, and worse, some of those leaders and managers are getting their wires crossed about presenteeism nowadays and turning the concept of flexible working upside down. We need our leaders to make better decisions. We need them to understand that what they do really does have a massive impact on productivity.
That’s where good design comes in. Workplace design should be the glue, or the oil that smooths the moving parts of a workplace. If leaders understand what we can do, how we can help and if we as designers do our jobs properly then that holistic thinking will begin to flow. Leaders will lead and make better decisions, informed by the respective heads of IT, FM and HR.