Why the workplace doesn’t work

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In November, the BBC ran a story about Pivotal Software who start their day with a team huddle at 09:06. In it, Rob Mee their Chief Executive Officer discusses some of the thinking behind their precise timings and in doing so highlights an obvious truth: modern workplaces and work culture aren’t really working for employees or businesses.

In the 1810s, the Luddites protested against new workplace technologies believing they would put thousands out of work and in every industrial revolution since, we have seen technology make significant changes to the nature of work, the culture of work and the physical workplace. But is it really working for us?

Physical office architecture

At Intranetizen, we rarely talk about the physical workplace but recent research and other evidence demonstrate that architectural fashions, such as open plan offices and break-out areas, don’t always help people get the job done. In short, while we have long championed tools to improve enterprise productivity, the greatest gains may be in re-working the physical, not technological, architecture.

The workplace may not help work

Productive minutes lost according to DEGW study. Asterix highlights reasons connected to physical architecture

DEGW consulting (now Aecom) studied the work behaviours of over 44000 workers to identify ‘lost productive minutes’. Their study, replicated here, shows where minutes were lost and our annotation shows those related to the physical architecture.

So are open plan offices to blame?

No, it’s too simplistic to say that the drive towards open plan designs are exclusively to blame. The same study suggested that there were very few differences in such distractions across office designs of varying degrees of ‘openness’ with the exception of mobile (or home) offices which incurred the fewest lost productive minutes. Working from home wins on that count it seems.

Joel Spolsky, CEO Stack Overflow noted that the open plan simply didn’t work for all professions, coders included. He said “[Open plan] is ideal for a trading floor but developers need to concentrate. The more things you can keep in your brain at once, the faster you can code, by orders of magnitude.”

It is more likely that regardless of the workspace, it is the employees ability to block distractions that assist in maximising productivity. This excellent Stanford University paper on cognitive control highlighted four traits:

  1. The more an employee can block out distractions, the better they are at productive working in an open plan office
  2. The more they multi-task, the worse you become at blocking distractions. It’s like the juggler being thrown more and more balls: they manage all the distractions with increasing difficulty until it all becomes too much.
  3. When habitual multi-taskers are interrupted by a colleague, it takes them longer to settle back into what they were doing
  4. When our senses become overloaded, it requires more work to achieve a given result

So where does the work really happen?

People will seek to work ‘anywhere but the office’ when they want to get things done. Home, travel, coffee shops, somewhere quiet. Maybe get up early or stay up late, productivity does not fit to a 9-5 office. Indeed, it’s debatable whether the office based 9-5 is a model of work that will exist in the future, replaced by other technology-led models such as Hollywood, Holocracy, Microwork and Telecommuting working.

Conversely, people thrive on human contact. Work relationships work — and productivity thrives — when people are co-located and ideas are better & faster when evaluated face to face.

People, places and platforms

Technology is the enabler but it’s still people who lead the work in most offices. To make a workplace really work, there needs to be a holistic appreciation of people, places and platforms and the interchange between them. We need to be more ambitious for digital workplace technologies and help employees be more productive wherever they choose their workplace to be — bed, coffee shop or office.

We should not solely focus on maximising productivity within a task, but we should look at ways in which digital workplaces could assist employees across their full working day – whenever they might choose that to be. That’s about intelligent thinking and flexibility: quiet spaces when needed; technology that blocks distractions; the opportunity (without productivity downside) to work anywhere; checking diaries and booking rooms when you need specific work conditions; and via wearable technologies, looking for signs of stress or fatigue and managing workloads or workspaces accordingly.

A great digital workplace should understand the people that use it and support their individual working preferences in order for them to be happy and more productive.



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