Can your Workspace Affect Productivity?

I led a workshop a few weeks ago about Leadership Agility.  It was all about servant leadership and dismantling hierarchy.  The problem was that I was standing in a boardroom right out of a Hollywood set, with participants sitting miles across from each other at a table the size of a hockey rink.  A friend made the astute observation “the room was undermining everything you were saying.” Did the space impact the productivity of the learning? You betcha.

What’s your office workplace like?  Companies are doing away with cubicles in favor or more communal seating, hoping that will get people to collaborate better.  The distraction is driving people nuts, and the musical chairs are giving people anxiety attacks. Studies are showing that productivity in these spaces is dropping by 70%.  

What about remote workers?  Working from home is the new perk.  And most people say they work harder when they are remote, less distraction.  But is that harder working more productive? Remote work is based on the idea that work is a) reductive and b) transactive.  

Reductive, means that you can break big things into smaller tasks and send people off to go do them.  When they’re done they’ll get reassembled into a big finished product. Anyone who has worked like this knows that doesn’t work, particularly in creative-knowledge work.  

Transactive we mean that tasks are either done or not done.  We can check off the boxes, and when all the boxes are checked we are done.  Again, we know it doesn’t work this way. Stuff comes up that we didn’t know about.  Work is much more fluid. Take the example where you are in the cafeteria and find out that someone in another department is doing the same work you are.  Remote workers would never find this out. So companies try to solve it through knowledge systems, adding overhead to everyone’s work.

Inspiring Spaces.  Some people, especially Marie Kondo, feel that a clean workspace allows them to be inspired and think clearly.  Some people find that clutter sparks creativity. I personally like having a variety of things in my view, to use as fodder.  Everyone is different. One thing that is universally true seems to be that when people have no control over their space, it saps their energy and creativity.  If you’ve ever worked in a space where you are not allowed to put anything on the walls and you must have a clear desk, you know what I mean. It feels confining as if you are carefully stepping around someone else’s space.

Serendipitous Communication.  Office designers will tell you that it’s important to have space set up so people can have accidental hallway chats.  Conversations at the water cooler or coffee machine can be the most productive meetings you have all day. Then why are most offices set up so that we never have to see each other?  Make people walk through the break room on their way to the elevator, and on their way to the meeting rooms. Open up those staircases so that instead of a hidden stairwell, people can stop and chat on the stairs.  

Brain Twist.  Identify something in your workspace today that is hurting your productivity.  What can you do about it? If you can’t change it, such as moving the break room, what can you do to make it 1% better than it is now?