How Your Workspace Impacts Performance
Two-thirds of workers now work remotely, up from 7% just prior to the pandemic. Offices are designed for people to work in. The lighting, the interior decor, the furniture, the arrangement of individual offices, among other things, are designed to keep workers undistracted and focused on their work. The shift of production from offices to the home has changed the environmental conditions workers work under. Many home offices are not offices at all, they are improvised spaces such as kitchens, bedrooms and lounges. The evolving nature of workspaces has an impact on performance, often, in ways that are quite surprising.
In the new normal, managers have been stretched and asked to do things which they never had to think about before. They have had to pay even greater attention to the need to balance the needs of the team with those of the individual, all the while creating a safe environment for their workers to work under.
Remote work has become so pervasive that the Wall Street Journal refers to it as the new signing bonus. The success of the shift shows the adaptability and agility of businesses, something which is often thought of as the preserve of the most successful companies. Remote work was thought of as something that would harm productivity, but research has shown that not only has productivity not been hurt by remote work, in some instances, it has actually increased. The real challenge in terms of remote work, is what Microsoft chief executive, Satya Nadella refers to as the hybrid work paradox: the fact that remote work increases productivity while decreasing the possibilities for communication and innovation. Nadella’s thinking is based on a massive study conducted by Microsoft which showed that collaborative networks became more siloed and static, with a decline in information sharing between disparate parts. Synchronous communication declined while asynchronous communication rose. The effect of this was a decline in the ability of knowledge workers to gain new information across the network, which had the knock-on effect of reducing innovation. For knowledge workers with defined day-to-day tasks, remote work does not pose any questions. For remote workers whose work demands collaboration, remote work comes with massive risks.
Although some cvohort of remote workers need to collaborate and drive innovation, managers feel confident that enough of their workers have defined, daily tasks, that they have embraced remote work. Firms such as Shopify and Twitter have embraced remote work, allowing their workers to work remotely indefinitely.
Some companies have embraced a hybrid work model, in which remote workers split their time according to some ratio, between work and home. According to PwC, 39% of businesses allowed their workers to enjoy hybrid work, compared to an estimated 55% who will enjoy the benefits of hybrid work after the Covid-19 pandemic. The hybrid work model is the best balance of the needs for the company and those of its remote workers. Global Workplace Analytics found that 83% of workers want to work remotely at least once a week.
Prior to the pandemic, businesses had generally been opposed to remote work. They felt that it eroded the ability of managers to build corporate culture, worried that productivity would decline, and feared its effects on communication and innovation. The Microsoft study suggests that while their fears regarding productivity were misplaced, in the long-run, there could be an impact on collaboration and innovation.
At an even more granular level, workplace design has an impact on productivity, innovation and collaboration. In order for companies to ensure that productivity, innovation and collaboration do not suffer during this era of remote work, workspaces have to be designed in such a way that workers enjoy spending time in them, freed from stressful thoughts and inspired to work productively.
Designers have to think about things like temperature, ventilation and lighting, as they create enjoyable, healthy workspaces. As the Microsoft study shows, in-person communication is fundamental for collaboration and innovation. Workspaces must be designed with the end of maximizing in-person communication, and collaboration. Workspaces have to be designed with the awareness that increases in productivity will not necessarily increase collaboration and innovation. Designs must be created based on the typical tasks that people within a team are likely to have to fulfill. Teams that rely on collaboration and innovation have to be in spaces that encourage communication and creativity, whereas teams whose members have well-defined daily tasks can isolate each worker to enable that worker to work tranquility, fully focused on their work, because productivity is achievable by restricting rather than increasing communication.
Productivity is impacted by workspaces thanks to the cues that the environment sends to a person;s brain. For instance, through environmental conditioning, it is hard to work productively in your bedroom because the bedroom signals to the brain that it is a place of sleep. Environmental conditions that promote productivity differ from person to person. The data suggest that though the majority of workers did not experience a decline in productivity as a result of remote work, 28% felt they were less productive at home, while 29% were more productive at home. On the other side of the equation, managers felt that 44% of their employees were more productive working remotely.
Working remotely may introduce a set of distractions a person does not have while working in the office: children, visitors, the brain’s conditioning that the home is not a place of work, among other things. For those workers who struggle to get into the zone while working from home, removing distractions and creating signals and cues that motivate you to work, are vital.
According to research, the brain uses the same neural circuits to plan a mental act as it uses to plan a physical one. In other words, movement and thinking are inseparable. Integrating this insight into design can lead to workspaces that promote collaboration and innovation. This can mean creating areas for workers to walk tranquilly, inspired by visual cues to come up with insightful ideas. As we have emphasised on this site, keeping the lines of communication open is important for innovation. Walking can be encouraged through design, not just for the lone thinker, but for teams, sparking the conditions for innovation.