Productivity is at the heart of all businesses and despite a torrent of new ‘innovations’ over the past 10 years, the evidence shows that UK productivity has slumped. Last month a Smartworking Summit looked at what is working and what is not. Adrian JG Marsh reports.

During the last decade workforces have endured many ‘new’ concepts: open plan, hot desking and even ‘spatial adjacency’. Technology has been a key driver and employees have had to cope with moving from floppies to clouds, and from the simple internet to ‘i’ everything.

Research from smartworking specialists Quora Consulting found that productivity of the developed economies over the last decade is down by 3.9 per cent, with UK productivity  crashing by 17 per cent. Quora’s study also showed that the result of changes in working practice, and office design and layout, has left workforces permanently distracted and increasingly interrupted. This is taking a heavy toll on productivity.

Businesses are now moving away from a siloed support function culture to one that is focused on retaining and attracting talented people.

John Blackwell, Quora’s managing director and veteran of the corporate boardroom, said:  “The upshot is that some enlightened businesses are no longer willing to have their employees shoehorned into unsuitable space, in  inappropriate locations, that stifle their ability to attract, recruit and retain talent.

“Only half the workforce think the way that their workplaces are designed and laid out  optimises their productivity, something that drops to 1-in-3 for those under 30.

“Last year a senior real estate director told us that of some 40,000 properties, not one was fit-for-purpose. This sends a clear message to architects and designers of workspaces that,  irrespective of the flourishes, flounces and debates over open plan vs fixed offices, they are completely missing the point.”

Last month a Smartworking Summit debated the changing nature of work and its far-reaching economic impact on organisational performance. At the heart of this was how businesses harness their culture and values so that they can plan their property portfolio to maximise performance.

Mr Blackwell said: “These Summits are our riposte to the mass of industry-siloed events that fail to reflect the real world. Having groups of property professionals attending events for property professionals and paying to listen to property professionals hardly seems to add any value. Instead, our Summits only feature  industry leaders and property directors talking openly about how they’re addressing the  changing nature of work.”

Simon Hay, chief executive at customer data specialists Dunnhumby, saw creating and  maintaining the right culture as vital to  ensuring an efficient and productive work space. He said: “Be clear on your values and culture will come alive. Different people have different skills, we are all a social animal, so having the right work environment is directly linked to better productivity.”

Johnny Dunford, property director at financial services company BNP Paribas, said: “There’s going to be more measurement. We’ve tended to  measure what we can see but occupiers are looking at the productivity of space, not just the cost per square metre. We must put the individuals who use the space at the very centre of the  property experience. We do this in retail and  hospitality but not so much in corporate space.”

Offices are also getting smarter, according to Mr Dunford. “We’re able to control our work environment in more detail. Smart lighting, heating and even sensors that measure how many people are in an office are becoming commonplace,” he added.

This technology plays a vital role in making buildings work more efficiently. Buildings are healthier, there’s more daylight, systems help to maintain temperature and remove airborne dust, and therefore create a cleaner environment that can reduce illness spreading among employees.

Business software giant Citrix forecasts that by 2017, about half of businesses would have a mobile working policy, and by 2020, nearly three quarters of people would work away from the office as often as they worked at a desk. This is not necessarily ‘home working’ but working from where ever they actually are.

Offices have also become more fun places for eclectic client groups. Google’s headquarters in Zurich has a massage room, aquarium and a slide to deliver engineers smoothly and quickly to the canteen.

Josefin Holmberg, from Thomson Reuters, believed that while some of the gimmicks have grabbed the news, they actually lose value after a short period. “After two months the pool table lost its attraction and we ended up storing boxes on it! Fundamentally it’s the culture of the organisation that creates an efficient working environment,” she commented.

Mr Blackwell saw the design and location of work spaces as pivotal. “Looking at creating the physical bricks and mortar of the work  environment is actually one of the toughest things to do,” he explained. “For any  organisation to balance what jobs people will be doing and where they’ll be doing it in the future, with what their property assets will need to look like and where they will be, is one of the biggest challenges to get it right.”

Employees are also taking more responsibility for their own work space. Deloitte’s Amsterdam office was designed with one empty room on each floor for employees to put what they wanted in it; most went for games such as table football.

At Jaguar Land Rover, where office space is at a premium, the property team has even given employees the responsibility for managing the design and fit-out of their own work places.

Attracting and retaining talented people is business critical. In today’s competitive  environment, employers of all sizes need to make sure that their office environment allows their culture to grow and harness the power of people who work together and enjoy working together, in a stimulating work space.  Transforming concept into reality is at the heart of smartworking.


Quora’s final Summit of 2016  is on 5 October.