The New Productivity: How the Office Environment Affects Output

Many new analytic tools promise to improve productivity, but productivity in today’s office environment is persistently difficult to measure and manage, as it has been for decades. As the global economy becomes increasingly complex, many regional and local economies are still transitioning from industrial production where productivity (output) is easily measured in units per input (energy, labor, and materials) to an information economy where useful metrics are much harder to define and employ. As it does in almost everything these days, technology plays a pivotal role in this process, and even though it’s creating a lot of the problems, it’s also offering new solutions, including sensor and analytic systems, better adaptive design techniques, and new metrics.

One of the bright spots in using data to make better office environments is our improved ability to measure and correlate behavior with results. Behavioral research in the built environment is not a particularly large or robust field, and so far has relied heavily upon survey methodology to gather useful data. So almost all our learning is based on post-occupancy studies that are conducted by people with questionnaires asking questions, or even less effectively, online forms with multiple-choice buttons to click. People self-report about their behavior, and this has repeatedly been demonstrated to be a rather inaccurate method, to say the least. For instance, in one Enlighted installation, building occupants who were surveyed reported a very different level of conference room use than the measured data eventually showed. Embedded analytic systems enable companies to, in a sense, conduct persistent research, eliminating the need for expensive after-the-fact studies and surveys that often produce no actionable results, or worse – inaccurate data and conclusions.   

This new capability has enormous potential to transform how we build office space, because it solves one basic behavioral problem with metrics: we focus on things like quantity of output and self-reported occupant “satisfaction” simply because the metrics are relatively easy to use and not because they’re particularly relevant as evidence. For instance, organizations who even take the initiative to do post-occupancy evaluations of building projects often do them just to get a LEED point, and the data is rarely shared or used to inform new design. Fortunately, new metrics that focus on actual, persistently measured and analyzed behavior are emerging that will prove to be far more useful in designing and managing work spaces that are much better adapted to how people work today. I’ve written about some of these here and here, and more will develop as we explore the new capabilities of measuring behavior and using what we learn to make better buildings.

Even simply measuring how people move in spaces throughout the day can uncover valuable pattern recognition data, previously hidden in plain sight, as we can now see a visual realtime map of interpersonal interaction, which by most accounts is one of the key indicators of workplace satisfaction. As online communication becomes so ubiquitous as to begin to seriously impair concentration (one of the previously mentioned problems exacerbated by technology- I’ll get back to this a bit later) we begin to focus on how important face-to-face interaction is, especially casual or accidental encounters like those we experience in good walkable city neighborhoods. It almost seems to be the entire reason for having offices in the first place. I don’t know about you, but those pictures of people with laptops working on their lounge chairs on the beach with a cold one in hand don’t make any sense to me. I’ve tried it, and I can’t really work in settings like that, I just want to get out on the water. Despite the pervasive techno fantasies of omni-locational work, there are real limits to where we can actually get anything constructive done that resembles actual work in some tangible way.

Leading architecture firms like Gensler and Perkins + Will have been researching the impacts of office design on productivity for many years. Gensler in this 2013 report summarizes some the driving design ideas nicely: Provide effective focus space; collaborate without sacrificing focus; and drive innovation through choice. Providing choice – ability to control one’s environment – has been a pervasive theme in post-occupancy surveys and points to important user centric design features like operable windows, granular zone control of lighting and HVAC, tunable, dimmable mobile desk lamps and even smart chairs like the HyperChair. Of course, even the illusion of control can have the same effect in occupant satisfaction, and is evidenced by things like dummy thermostats and elevator buttons. It’s like adjustable shelves in furniture – everyone wants them but no one ever changes them once they’re set up.

But, as reported by Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi, Greg Lindsay in this excellent article in Harvard Business Review, the challenges for office design today are manifold. The factors impacting the process are overwhelmingly complex: globalization; an increasingly mobile workforce; vastly different upgrade cycles of buildings versus systems; overcommunication; rapid boom and bust cycles for tech companies; the increasing cost of prime urban real estate; telecommuting; and a long list of others. In their article, Waber, Magnolfi, and Lindsay show fascinating examples of how different companies got widely varying results by following similar strategies – essentially tweaking the balance between collaboration and focus. Again, choice emerges here as an overriding factor in successful design strategies. But perhaps the biggest design challenge of all today is determining the appropriate level of choice. As culture and technology become increasingly complex at an increasing rate, choice overload is inevitable and often leads to cognitive shutdown, as shown by Barry Schwatrz in The Paradox of Choice. This applies especially to UI design for building systems, as I touched on in this recent blog.

On the theme of human interaction, a compelling finding by Waber, Magnolfi, and Lindsay is that the Allen Curve holds for online communication. According to the authors, the Allen Curve, postulated in 1977 “estimates that we are four times as likely to communicate regularly with someone sitting six feet away from us as with someone 60 feet away, and that we almost never communicate with colleagues on separate floors or in separate buildings.” It turns out that people in close proximity in office spaces are significantly more likely to communicate and collaborate online as well as face-to-face.

There are two unanticipated consequence of the rapid proliferation of online communications that seem to be particularly disruptive (not in a good way): overcommunication and the apparent decline of personal interaction. We all are familiar with the insufferable barrage of emails and texts at work that follow us home and to the beach and to dinner and to our daughter’s birthday party. Most of us feel that we devote way too much time to managing information rather than doing focused work. And because a lot of less critical information can (and should) be communicated online, we find that meeting in person and talking on the phone to be increasingly disruptive and unnecessary. But then we’re kind of starved for human contact in a sense, and we seem to have endless meetings about nothing and don’t feel like we’re getting anything accomplished. How the design of offices can change these feelings of uselessness and impact the changing nature of work varies greatly according to the company and its individual goals and workforce, as shown by Waber, Magnolfi, and Lindsay’s examples.

Building science in the past has focused largely on physics: R values, structure, materials, energy, behavior of water and air. Only recently have we made strides in understanding analytically how humans and buildings interact, not just the humans who occupy buildings, but the ones who plan, build and manage them. The emerging analytic tools that are now becoming available will help us greatly in learning to make offices and other building types more adaptive, efficient, sustainable and smarter.