System management: sort, straighten, shine, standardise and sustain.
For a lot of companies this formula equates to tidiness, efficiency and uniformity. In many institutions, this system is extremely beneficial. However, it has increasingly spilled over from operating theaters and assembly lines where it makes sense, into the office, where it doesn’t.
This system management does not belong in the office because it does not recognise what makes a space comfortable, inviting or pleasant, nor does it inspire or stimulate productivity.
How does the office environment affect productivity?
Psychologists Alex Haslam and Craig Knight from the University of Exeter, UK, conducted an experiment in order to discover how the office environment affected the volume of work that people were able to complete and how they felt about the work they were doing.
They set up four simple office spaces and in each office the study group were asked to carry out basic administrative tasks such as checking documents. Each office was set up slightly differently.
The first office was referred to as the “spartan office” and consisted of a clear desk, a basic swivel chair, a pencil and a piece of paper. The tidiness of the space quickly affected the study group with people stating that it felt oppressive and that they couldn’t relax.
The second office was slightly more enriched than the spartan office. It featured large, decorative prints on the walls and potted plants were dotted around. Participants in the study said they felt that they could relax more in the space and weren’t afraid to carry out their tasks more efficiently in this office.
The final two office layouts were visually laid out the same as the second, enriched office. The distinction in the case of these two offices was that the study group were allowed to decide on the appearance of the space. In the first of the final two offices, participants were invited to move the plants and the prints on the wall to areas where they liked them best; they even had the opportunity to remove them from the room should they wish. This was the most successful office in terms of productivity and satisfaction and was dubbed the “empowered office”.
In the last office, the group was again invited to rearrange the room and contents as they wished. However, what they didn’t know was that once they had finished rearranging to their tastes, an experimenter would come and and put everything back to the way it was. This was the most hated office and named the “disempowered office”. Participants were also found to be the least productive and most resentful in this office.
What were the results?
The empowered office saw a 30% rise in productivity compared to the spartan office and a 15% rise in productivity compared to the enriched office. Three participants in the empowered office were able to complete the same amount of work as 4 people in the spartan office.
The feelings that participants had about their working environment were found to be all encompassing. If the disliked the office environment, they disliked the tasks they were asked to carry out and also the company that was hosting the office.
Office or prison?
Robert Sommer, a psychologist from the University of California, spent years studying and comparing “hard” and “soft” architectural spaces. Hard spaces included areas where windows would not open, lighting and air conditioning could not be adjusted or chairs were bolted to the floor. Essentially, these areas were representatives of prisons. However, these types of factors are now frequently seen in schools, public places and offices. Repeatedly, Sommer found that having scope for autonomy in choices affecting your environment, such as adding pictures to the wall, increased happiness, satisfaction and productivity.
There’s still a way to go
Despite these studies, control over working environments by employees is still seen globally. In late 2006, HMRC staff were instructed to remove items such as photographs or momentos from their desks. At BHP Billiton in Australia, staff were trained in keeping a tidy desk by way of an 11-page manual. Examples of policies in the clear desk manual included: nothing other than computer equipment and ergonomic aids on the desk, with the addition of a single A5 photo frame. No plants. An award is allowed, but only if swapped for the photo frame.
Raising awareness about both the quality of the office environment and the autonomy that staff have over their personal and shared work space is important for two reasons. One, it benefits employers in a multitude of ways – staff satisfaction increases and thus, so does staff retention and productivity. Two, it benefits the health and well being of staff which can only be a good thing for individuals and businesses alike.