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The truth about happy workers

The monthly blog from Martyn Freeman, Mitie’s Facilities Management MD

Martyn_FreemanAs I travel around the country visiting different workplaces, I often meet very productive companies, but I can’t honestly say I’ve ever sat in a reception area watching smiling, happy people hurrying to their daily chores. As a result, I’m becoming less and less convinced that ‘happiness’ is the best measure for defining productivity.

One of the most quoted reports I’ve found, suggesting that employers should invest in keeping their staff happy, came from a study carried out jointly by the University of Warwick and IZA Bonn, in February 2014. In this exercise, a group of 700 students were asked to do a series of piece-work tasks, following three different experiences: one involved a few minutes watching a funny cartoon, the second group spent twice as long watching cartoons and the third group was engaged in discussions about losing loved ones.

I doubt if any of you will be surprised to learn that those left in a good mood were around 12 per cent more productive in the hour or so afterwards. But they were being asked to do simple piece-work, not deal with the kind of complex knowledge-based work that drives the information economy.

Contrast these findings with those of the British Council for Offices (BCO) who canvassed nearly 2,000 office workers around the same time as the Warwick study was taking place. This identified that by far the biggest factor affecting productivity was colleague relationships, with 89 per cent of respondents giving this top priority. Not a long way behind that, at 75 per cent, came the environment, and particularly the ambience of the place.

Factors affecting productivity included poor noise control, outdated technology, poor lighting, air quality, lack of social space, not enough privacy, poor ergonomics, and, for many people, the inability to tailor their environment to their work.

We’ve certainly seen plenty of research reports that highlight the benefits of employee wellness, but the interesting aspect of this and other studies into the working environment, shows that lower quality environments have a distinctly negative effect on the productivity of those who work there.

The problem is that providing high-quality environments with good employee facilities costs money. Of course, these are the places in which people prefer to work, and we are all well aware of how important the first impression of the office is when it comes to attracting potential candidates. However, property professionals face a challenge when it comes to quantifying these benefits as part of proving a business case for investment in a major upgrade or improvement in service quality.

One of our clients recently told me how frustrating it is for him to see his children using better technologies at home, which he has paid for, than those his company provides for him to manage a multi-billion property budget. Finally in desperation, he ended up bringing his own iPad to work, only to find the corporate firewall wouldn’t let him use it.

Imagine if your people have the same frustrations on top of those mentioned by the BCO. Perhaps they work in offices with temperatures that go from arctic to equatorial, or are made to sit in chairs that give you backache. Imagine struggling with the inability to sit quietly somewhere and get on with a job that has an urgent deadline. And that’s before we even start to get into the frustration of not being able to brew a cuppa in the office, rather than having to pay £3.00 for a full fat, decaff latté, with chocolate, syrup and sprinkles.

I know the science of using employee happiness metrics to justify business investment is still a bit thin on the ground, but even without a research programme to tell me, I also know if I faced those kinds of problem, then I for one would (a) be a lot less productive, and (b) would be turning my eyes towards a new career opportunity.

Perhaps rather than trying to quantify the costs of providing a great workplace, businesses should look at the costs of not doing so?

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