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Something in the air

The UK’s dismal productivity performance could be improved by a fresh approach to creating stimulating and appealing work environments, argues Keith Chanter, CEO of EMCOR UK

From governments responsible for the health of national economies to CEOs looking to boost business performance, finding ways to increase productivity is one of the major challenges facing organisations across the public and private sectors. Numerous strategies are employed to address this, with varying degrees of success, but one of the most effective is often overlooked – improving the chronic conditions found in most offices.

Around the world, productivity took a significant dip following the economic crash of 2008. While many countries have now turned this around, the UK is the only large advanced economy projected to see further decline in productivity this year.

According to the latest Office for National Statistics report, productivity in Q4 2018 decreased by 0.1 per cent compared with the same quarter a year before. This is the second successive quarterly fall following a 0.2 per cent drop in Q3. Meanwhile, new figures from independent think tank The Conference Board forecast annual growth in output for every hour worked of just 0.2 per cent in 2019 – a fall from 0.5 per cent in 2018.

Organisations have been known to employ all manner of approaches to arrest the slump. Large tech companies in particular are famous for innovation here, with some brands providing employees with free lunches, ping pong tables and (in Google’s case) even an office slide.

While fashionable solutions like these have been widely discussed and implemented, the impact that environmental factors have on productivity has received less attention. Indeed, it was just two years ago that a consortium of partners, including EMCOR UK, Oxford Brookes University, LCMB Building Performance and government agency Innovate UK, kicked off the first-ever practical study into the UK’s office conditions.

Tested over two years, workplaces taking part in the study were fitted out with sensors to monitor a range of variables, including CO2 levels and air temperature. Meanwhile, employees were set regular numerical, proofreading and Stroop tasks to complete. Throughout the study period, test results were analysed alongside the sensor data to determine the effect environmental factors have on productivity.

Results suggest that taking steps to regulate the concentration of CO2 in offices would have a significant impact. Lower CO2 levels saw test scores improve by as much as 12 per cent. At one test site, reduced CO2 saw employees working 38 per cent faster, completing tests in a mean time of 8.2 minutes as opposed to 13.3 minutes when higher concentrations were present.

Unfortunately, managing CO2 can be a tricky proposition. Modern office design depends on airconditioning systems to manage the indoor atmosphere. To ensure the effectiveness of these systems, the ability to open windows is typically restricted. Consequently, even if buildings meet ventilation standards, it’s not uncommon to find high levels of CO2, leading to an unpleasant stuffy feeling and decline in cognitive function.

This is particularly common in meeting rooms, which are usually sealed and occupied for extended periods. With meeting room CO2 levels reaching as high as 3000ppm as a result, performance is inevitably impacted, with reduced concentration and productivity levels.

The stuffiness relating to high CO2 levels is commonly mistaken for high temperatures, with airconditioning employed to cool the environment and make it feel fresher. While failing to address the root problem, this approach can also lead to additional issues relating to consistently maintaining optimal conditions.

Anyone who’s worked in a UK office will be familiar with seemingly never-ending debates between colleagues over whether it’s too hot or too cold. Unlike CO2 levels, employees are highly attuned to fluctuations in temperature, with performance noticeably declining when conditions are too warm or cool. However, failure to manage CO2 messes with perception of temperature, with similarly negative effects.

Workplace design is another important factor to consider. Too often office layout is approached in an illogical fashion. Take, for instance, the way employee desks are commonly aligned alongside windows, where space tends to be cooler, while printers and photocopiers have pride of place in the middle of the office. Hot-desking and flexible working can help here, allowing employees to choose where they work to feel more comfortable, improving their overall effectiveness and minimising complaints.

There are a number of additional steps organisations can take to counter unproductive office environments. First and foremost, they need the ability to measure conditions as it’s impossible to find effective solutions without knowing the full scale of the problem. This may mean deploying internet of things (IoT) enabled sensors throughout the office environment, including meeting rooms, desks and social spaces like kitchens. Further, real-time monitoring tools are necessary to collate sensor data and build a true picture of working conditions.

Seeking out expert consultancy may be helpful. Modern facilities management professionals are increasingly stretched as they expand their scope to embrace the overall health and wellbeing of the people using their buildings. Similarly, there are specialists who can advise on the relationship between workplace culture and employee performance. This could mean helping to create an environment where people feel comfortable leaving the office to take breaks and get some fresh air – hugely beneficial for workplace productivity – instead of eating at their desks, which is very common and counter-productive.

Whatever way employers choose to approach this issue, success depends on effective workforce engagement. Strategy needs to be informed by employee perceptions of the work environment, as well as the workplace variables that help or hinder them in their day-to-day roles. Online survey tools can be useful for gathering these kinds of insights. Alternatively, employers could look to build this into employees’ line manager catch-ups or performance appraisals.

When it comes to boosting productivity, it’s time to make a change and improve the chronic conditions found in UK offices. Getting this right has the potential to drive competitive advantage across individual organisations as well as the country at large.

About Sarah OBeirne

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