Fostering Productivity Growth In the Workplace

As previously stated, it’s the implicit – if not explicit – goal of every company to increase its rate of productivity. Employees are judged on how productive they are at work and may find their continued job status depends on maintaining or exceeding both what they’ve done in the past and whatever current expectations from owners and management might be.

Creating a productivity-friendly workplace involves evaluating four key areas of the employee experience:

  1. The workplace environment, the physical space where people work
  2. The employee’s personal environment, the entire rest of their lives
  3. Effective management, or how those up the food chain encourage and motivate their staffs
  4. Employee engagement, or how connected and interested staff are to their jobs and company

Watch enough home improvement and renovation shows and you’ll inevitably see someone attempting to change the look and feel of their bedroom to take on the vibe and feel of a spa or luxury hotel. The homeowners want somewhere that will help them relax and feel at peace, a room that will act as an escape from the stresses and pressures and immediately put them in a more serene state of mind. What that looks like varies from one individual or couple to the next, though, with one preferring lots of ornate pillows and sitting areas while another will want more severe colors that inspire them in some way, standing in stark contrast to the muted tones of the rest of the house. One may want as much open floor space as possible because too much clutter causes stress while another simply can’t stop adding chairs and tables.

At home we assume and expect that different people will have differing aesthetics for their own reasons and purposes. But when it comes to work, the thinking holds that putting everyone in exactly the same environment – many of which are just variations on two or three larger themes – is what will lead to the highest levels of productivity.

The idea of the corporate or business office, a central location where workers from around the area gather in order to do their job, is an old-fashioned notion. It’s based on a number of assumptions:

  1. That the best, most qualified workers all live within the same geographic area as the office. So a company with an office in Chicago will hire people from the greater Chicago area, those with the means to travel to and from the office.
  2. That a single office is the best way to provide the resources workers need to do their job, including access to information, technology and more.
  3. That an office environment fosters productivity, both because of the previous point regarding access to information and resources and because it’s designed in some manner to keep people focused and on-task, shutting them off from the rest of the world.
  4. That bringing everyone together at a single location offers supervisors and managers the opportunity to supervise and manage effectively.

Some valid thinking substantiates each one of those points, but there are also strong cases to be made for each one being, in the 21st century, outdated or at least no longer exclusively true, at least not for many industries.

Workplace Proximity

Geography is perhaps the most easily dismissed reason for attendance in a central office to be a requirement for employment, or even a factor in determining who is promoted, retained or given plum assignments. It presumes that the people best able to contribute to the company’s productivity all live in the same metropolitan area as the office. Such thinking overlooks anyone outside of that area, no matter their qualifications. Anyone who doesn’t fit that criteria, even if they would otherwise be the best qualified candidate for a position, need not apply unless they are willing to bear the brunt of moving expenses, not to mention upending the rest of their lives from their current home.

The situation is, of course, different when it comes to retail, manufacturing, healthcare, construction and other industries where a single location is necessary. A home building company in Illinois wouldn’t do well to hire someone in Colorado because the job of building homes in suburban Chicago can’t be done there. The same would apply to a Target store in Nashville. These employers are necessarily limited by the pool of qualified applicants in that area.

For white collar work, though, the concept of requiring everyone to come into the office on a regular basis is no longer 100 percent applicable even if someone does have easy access to that office. There are likely vast swaths of people who are perfectly capable who, as discussed earlier, simply lack access to either mass transportation or a car to get them to and from the job.

Creating an environment where remote work – whether it’s from elsewhere in the same city or halfway across the country – opens up the potential for the *best* people, not just the best people who live within 50 miles of the office, a change with the potential to increase productivity substantially.

Access to Common Resources

In the movie “Fail Safe”, a professor played by Walter Matthau is asked who might survive a theoretical nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. He replies “convicts and file clerks”; the former because they are housed behind thick concrete walls, the latter because they work around rows and rows of steel filing cabinets filled with paper.

Those filing cabinets were stocked with documents and records essential to a business’ operations and history. Anyone who needed to view a relevant contract or other document needed to be in the office to place a request with one of the clerks for that document or visit the records room to access it themselves.

As files were digitized, access began to come via dummy terminals connected to a central mainframe, connections that were usually only available in the office. Now, though, most of that access happens via internet connections and so is location- and device-agnostic given a good Wi-fi signal.