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The End of Efficiency?

In a hyper-connected and social media oriented workplace, we may soon bear witness to a profound shift of emphasis away from the industry’s touchstone metrics of occupancy/vacancy/density and area per person to new metrics that chart effectiveness, satisfaction and wellbeing in the workplace. Image © Ryan Gobuty

The global “War for Talent” rages on.

In spite of the enormous ramifications in other areas of corporate life, the global financial crisis did not diminish the competition for talent. It actually had the opposite effect, spurring employers to boost their recruitment of the best and the brightest. Now, as the competition for top employees continues, organisations are exploring new ways to attract and retain talent, and there is growing recognition that the physical workplace can be a key tool on this front. A well-designed workplace not only helps retain employees; it enhances productivity and engagement (the latter being the key to unlocking the former). Research shows that disengaged employees are less productive, less satisfied employees (and therefore more likely to seek employment elsewhere). And many unsatisfied employees cite poor working environments as one contributor to their disengagement.

For most of their existence office buildings had one prime business objective: to run as economically and efficiently as possible. That objective is changing. We are slowly, but steadily witnessing a shift of focus away from efficiency and more towards effectiveness as the key business benefit of office buildings. And the new raison d'être of office building providers will be to ensure that the workplace promotes both efficiencies and productive working environments capable of delivering appropriate spaces for the 21st Century’s demands. This requires a rethink of not only the physical space but the management philosophies which govern employee behaviour.

Recent articles charting the evils of open plan office spaces make a solid case for why we should reconsider the last two decades’ push towards opening up the workplace. Such pieces make for compelling reading but tend to rely on binary argumentation and fail to appreciate the lineage of good modern office design. The decline of cubicles and status symbolizing cellular offices has generally been a good thing—these spaces stifled creativity, collaboration and innovation in many leading organisations. When polled, many people felt constrained and disconnected from colleagues in environments replete with private offices and mazes of cubicles. Yet many of the open plan offices which resulted from a shift away from the cubicle-office model have not kept pace with the rapid and profound shifts taking place in the world of work.

The most obvious example of where current office design falls short is a failure to recognize that work has left the building. Thanks to mobile technologies and 24/7 connectivity, we can work anytime, anyplace, anywhere. And real estate operators and businesses need to better understand the implications of technologically enabled mobile/dynamic working. The rapid deployment of new technology tools in the workplace has created new dynamics and challenges for the workforce—particularly for leaders who are learning to cope with the rising demands of a more autonomous, independent workforce exercising their choice of when, how and where to work. It has always been counterintuitive for managers and executives to exercise “leadership by letting go.” Now, the preponderance of new tech are forcing management to give employees more freedom.

The good news is that enabling choice with the right alignment of tools, policies, and variety of spaces is an opportunity for companies to create climates in which autonomous, engaged employees can make meaningful decisions and maximize their individual job performance. Our own research illustrates that the availability of workspaces to choose from is an important determinant of user satisfaction and engagement. Employees who are satisfied with the physical and performance factors of their workplace also report higher energy levels when at work and take fewer sick days than peers in underperforming environments.

The new generation of mobile technologies and the inexorable rise of virtual collaborative tools and social media is changing the way we work and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The days when being present in the office, sitting at your desk, was a measure of your productivity are fast becoming irrelevant. With the majority of computers sold today being mobile devices (laptops and tablets) we are likely to see the trusty old desktop PC consigned to the history books within the next decade. Perhaps it follows then, that with no more desktop PC’s, we may also witness the death of the desk.

This means the corporate real estate and property world may well need to refocus on different metrics. If the true measure of a “high-performing” workplace will be its positive impact on people’s productivity, then the conventional efficiency metrics such as density of occupation/ sqm per person will need to give way to new measures—e.g. productivity ratios and feelings of wellbeing. These may not be as easy to quantify or measure, but in the near future they will become the most important measure for organisations.

The formality and mono-nature of many existing office buildings will eventually become less prevalent, and mixed use will be seen as an invitation to experiment and rethink the working environment as a place curated by the users. I hope that the real estate industry will reconsider a one-size-fits-all approach and to embrace mobility and sharing before city workplaces are viewed as too analogue in a digital world.

Philip Tidd is one of the global leaders of Gensler's consulting practice and has spent the last 20 years working across Europe at the sharp end of where business and buildings/spaces meet. He regularly works across the city and office scale and is a passionate believer in harnessing the power of creative insights to solve clients’ complex problems. Contact him at philip_tidd@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (5)

Excellent post, and your last sentence is especially profound. With workplace performance viewed almost solely through the lens of cost saving, the future of the office is far from assured. If area per person trends continue on their steep downward turn, in ten years the workplace may well look like the interior of an airplane (economy class). In that light, the biggest threat to the office isn't new technologies or the changing nature of work, but rather myopic pursuit of "efficient" real estate metrics. Death by density.
10.31.2014 | Unregistered CommenterErik Lucken
and i love your last sentence Erik - 'death by density' is a great term


11.9.2014 | Unregistered CommenterGail Napell
Eric- many thanks for the comments. The proof of the pudding will, of course, be in the eating and whilst we are (I believe) accurately foretelling the importance of new metrics to quantify the High Performing Workplace, we must not overlook the fact that 'less real estate better used' (Efficiency) is still an important factor for the Real Estate Indusstry, However, there is a growing body of evidence about the critcality of new productivity measures and 'socio-metrics' as articulated brilliantly by the likes of Ben Waber.

We are entering a fascinating time in the 'World of Work' for sure!

11.11.2014 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip; Tidd
I applaud Gensler for implementing the use of sound masking technology in (at least some of) it's office designs. You are spot-on regarding employee engagement, turn-over, and workplace satisfaction. Julian Treasure (frequent TED presenter) has some excellent material in regards to workplace acoustics and the open-office environment. Thank goodness recent technological advances have made sound masking systems viable for both small and mid-sized companies - and not just the big boys anymore.
12.29.2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark Gehman
Amazing post, Thanks.

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