How does the workplace impact productivity?

The Government’s real estate portfolio is in the midst of a dramatic change, spurred primarily by the workplace revolution of the last few years. Earlier this year, Estates Gazette noted that the Government made more than £1bn from property sales in a 12-month period.

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In April, the Government Property Agency (GPA) hosted numerous civil servants to share ideas and insights as it looks to advance its workplace change programme. As the GPA puts it, the goal is to deliver “a smaller, better connected, better quality and greener property estate to support the work of Civil Service teams and bring them closer to the communities they serve”.

The role of the workplace is fiercely debated; some argue that office has become outdated and lifeless, but others claim that the office boosts productivity. In among its efforts to streamline its real estate, I’m sure that the GPA will consider the impact on employees and ensure that it creates space that support productivity.

Comprehensive research into the impact of the workplace environment on employee productivity is still relatively new, with the first extensive report published in 2016. 

The Stoddart Review was ground-breaking at the time, but the pandemic has fundamentally shifted the function of the workplace. Consequently, these recent changes have forever transformed the identity of the workplace.

Are employees productive in the workplace?

Disengagement in the workplace is on the rise. In 2015, Gallup’s engagement survey indicated that 70 per cent of employees felt disengaged and uninspired in the workplace. In 2023, this statistic increased to nearly 90 per cent.

Similarly, a Leesman Index stat cited in the Stoddart Review found that only 15% of employees said their workplace hindered their ability to work productively. By 2021, this number had increased to 37 per cent. This increase suggests a growing disconnect between workplace teams and the employees that use these spaces.

How do we occupy the workplace today?

In 2015, Nicholas Bloom found that working from home increased some employees’ productivity by 13 per cent. This study was when working from home was uncommon and as a result, the site of work might not have been the most influential factor impacting productivity. Rather, this research implies that the freedom of choice creates more engaging and productive work.

The Stoddart Review stated that 9 per cent of UK employees worked exclusively from the office. However, since then the view of the office has evolved which has led to significant a rise in the UK employees working remotely. 

Recent data from the Office for National Statistics showed that less than 50 per cent of employed individuals participated in remote work during the first initial lockdown. However, between 2022 and 2023, the ONS reported that 35 per cent of employees in the public sector engaged in hybrid working compared to 26 per cent of employees in the private sector. This suggests that flexible work is more prevalent in the public sector.

Public vs private sectors approaches to the workplace

In 2022, the Government dropped its instruction to work from home. MP Jacob Rees-Mogg emphasised his belief of the importance of being in the office by providing a league table showcasing the daily average of employees present in the workplace across various departments.

This message indicates the complexities surrounding remote work in the public sector. As the public sector continues to navigate these challenges, maintaining productivity and efficiency remains the paramount goals.

In 2023, GALLUP reported that eight out of ten workers are either hybrid or fully remote, with most expecting this to remain the standard. Even recent workplace mandates from Meta and Zoom included hybrid working, suggesting a long-term shift in how workspaces are occupied. 

Office redesign

Several businesses are currently undergoing or planning significant workplace transformations to lure workers back into the office. Across the Civil Service, low-level to senior employees are now required to spend at least 60 per cent of their working hours in an office. This highlights the importance of creating office environments that are effective for collaboration and productivity.

Office transformation could involve the complete reimagination of the office layout. It is important to note the significance of involving employees at every stage of the process. After a redesign, employees may be unsure on how to use the revamped space. This shows that without clear communication about office redesigns, productivity can further suffer.

The investment in aesthetics and furnishings can be rendered trivial if the workplace fails to meet the needs of the workforce.

Should the Stoddart Review be updated?

The Stoddart Review was the first comprehensive review of the impact of the workplace on productivity. However, the workplace has evolved majorly since 2016 and an update into the contemporary workplace is needed.

This new review could explore the dynamics of working from home, flexible working arrangements and the impact that it has on productivity. It is important to understand the motivations behind an employee’s decision to work in an office setting. 

It is impossible to tailor a workplace to every employee’s preference as productivity measures are subjective to each employee, but prioritising the input of employees can create a more engaged and happier workforce.

For the public sector, it’s all very well mandating a requirement to work from the office but without proper thought given to how those spaces will support employees they run the risk of an inefficient workforce, or losing employees to the private sector.

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