If your modern office’s future-forward makeover has not been accompanied by a noticeable rise in productivity the precise reasons may yet to be found: creating cutting edge workplaces that maximise employee satisfaction, creativity and ultimately output is still very much an evolving science, drilling into exactly what produces top performance.

While recent studies show simple factors like fresh air, natural light and indoor plants are a greater priority for workers than previously recognised, noise distractions consistently rank the number one productivity vampire that the majority of businesses are still tackling.

Perils of progress

Now, even advances made to improve our health and performance are creating problems of their own. Most recently, leading Australian design firm Unispace has seen the list of most annoying office distractions extend from loud colleagues and mobile phones to the whirring of sit to stand desks.

The office furniture invention hailed as the next best thing for our posture and health has suddenly become a potential drain on productivity said Unispace’s Global Design Director Simon Pole.

“They have only been with us for a few years and are now the newest disturbance in modern offices,” Mr. Pole said. “Research is telling people they shouldn’t sit or stand for about 45 minutes but have you ever had the desks beside you go into stand mode while you are sitting? It is quite off-putting – so you do it too whether you need or want to, like a standing ovation you feel compelled to follow.”

This largely unforeseen consequence of the sit to stand desk revolution is a prime example of why businesses must closely examine the suitability of any office design trend. Corporations need not only keep an eye on the latest thinking in office design but also if it will work best with their profession, said Mr. Pole.  One Unispace research paper concluded that the stock standard one-size-fits-all approach – as evidenced by the feedback from open plan offices filled with sit to stand desks – could turn out to be as inappropriate as installing the napping pods and zen lounges found in places like tech start-ups or advertising companies at the headquarters of a conservative management consulting or law firm.

Not so common grounds

Different professions aside, there is one universal rule that applies to virtually every office Mr. Pole said: providing sufficient quiet space for people to focus without distraction.

Workplaces are moving in this direction by adding booths and pods for meetings and phone calls, yet surveys and anecdotal evidence show that after noise, lack of privacy, limited quiet areas as well as poor air quality and uncomfortable temperatures remain leading causes of dissatisfaction and low productivity. Little seems to have changed since a widely reported 2017 study by Leesman, the world’s largest global workplace assessor, found just under a third of those working in open plan offices were happy with noise levels and felt productive.

“About 60% of what we do in an office is what we do alone, such as important emails, letters, reading testimonies, phone calls and setting up meetings,” Mr. Pole said. “Increased noise remains a distraction for the majority of people along with lack of privacy – a must for confidential discussions - plus lack of quiet spaces for focussing.”

Other areas identified as major drains on employee output are:

  • Lack of greenery: Plants can reduce absenteeism by up to 60% studies have shown. Indoor air is always more polluted than outdoor air thanks to outside air mixing with toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from plastics and synthetic materials in office furniture, furnishings, paints, solvents, computers, printers and the like. As worrying as this sounds, placing just three to six plants in an office keeps VOCs to negligible health risk levels researchers at the University of Technology in Sydney found, contributing to less sick leave, as well as reducing sore eyes and coughs. Another UTS study found plants boosted creative tasking, attention span, and speed on computer tasks by more than 10%. Furthermore, the Journal of Environmental Psychology reported that of 34 students assigned a reading test to recall the last word in a sentence, those with four indoor plants nearby did noticeably better than those without any greenery to gaze on.
  • Uncomfortable temperatures: If your office is too cold, chances are over 50% of workers will be less productive according to a survey by international online employment website CareerBuilder of over 3300 employees. But go easy on the thermostat – 71% of workers said they were less productive if too warm.
  • Lack of light: A 2018 poll by US firm Future Workplace saw employees vote natural lighting more important than in-house gyms, company cafeterias and even on-site child care.

Unispace - www.unispace.com

Leesman - www.leesmanindex.com

University of Technology paper, “How Plants Improve Your Bottom Line” - www.uts.edu.au/sites/default/files/indoor_plant_brochure_2014.pdf