The Workplace and its Impact on Productivity

Type Report
Author(s) Mawson,A.
Publication year 2002
URL (web address)
Notes ID: MAWSON2002; Advanced Workplace Associates is publishing a series of reports this year to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their foundation addressing a series of topics they believe impact upon work, the workplace and workplace management. The papers are provocative and designed to stimulate the growing debate about developments in work, workplace and workplace management. The series will be made available on 1 and 2, on the history of work and the new models of organisation were excellent summaries of the proposition that firstly 'knowledge' work is taking over, and secondly that post industrial management models (and thinking) are needed in new organisations. Sadly, and the sadness is personal, this third paper seems to fall back into some of the patterns of 'old' management. Agreeing that the demonstration of productivity impacted by workplace has been difficult the author tries instead to calculate the loss due to distractions assuming: 1. That constant work is the only productive kind 2. That the influence of chance interactions is over rated - what about all the ones that don't apparently lead to the big new idea 3. That everyone needs to be working at full stretch all the time if maximum throughput is to be maintained. The first assumption is challengable both by type of work and by personality. In a distraction free environment, and faced with some information processing task, how long does your attention stay focussed without a break? The second would be challenged by those working with knowledge creation who point to the need for a certain amount of requisite variety if any systemis to be adaptible. See for example Price and Shaw (1998) for other references. The third, though popularily shared, is challengeable. Throughput is determined by bottlenecks and the critical bottleneck varies. Having every agent inany system working flat out all the time ultimate generates inventory, or its white collar equivalent complexity. The treadmill system, where everyone is working flat out because they have so much to do, leads to unwritten rules that make work. Again there is a description in my book and some examples. The credit for pointing out bottlenecks goes however to Eli Goldratt and Cox's The Goal (1985). Mawson seems influenced in making his claim, by Di Marco and Lister's (1993) work flow, itself unfortunately a product of the translation of fordist production line ideas, to the white collar environment. Yes everyone needs some freedom from interuption, some of the time. How much and when is part of the holy grail that we are all chasing. Yes many open plans did not enable the correct mix of connection and privacy, but no freeing people from all distraction and going back to a battery hen approach to productivity cannot be the answer. Since I am being provocative here, and because is designed for debate, the author of what is an important series was given a chance to respond. His comments follow: Firstly I am not clear where you get your assumptions from. Let me respond to each individuallyFirstly I am not clear where you get your assumptions from. Let me respond to each individually $1. That constant work is the only productive kind$ Disagree, I don't think work is constant at all, indeed I said as much later in the paper). The degree to which there is a need for distraction free environments to aid concentration and focus is dependent upon the nature of the job. $2. That the influence of chance interactions is over rated - what about all the ones that don't apparently lead to the big new idea. $ I accept that chance ideas are important, but I would question the role of the workplace in facilitating them. In my experience great ideas don't come to order and are the result of collisions of ideas often outside the formality of the workplace. Is place important in that respect? However if you think that creativity can onlybe stimulated when everyone is in a building, then it's a bit like wearing a rain coat all the time just in case there is going to be a shower. In other words lets have everyone in one place cos someone might come up with a good idea. The argument that somehow unwanted distraction leads to creative thought is nonsense. Creativity is a state of mind, it can be generated by conscious deployment of tools (De Bono etc), often great thoughts happen well outside the workplace, over dinner, in the bath, when people are in a child like state. Add to this the fact that the vast majority of people in work are not entirely hired for their creativity and more for their focus on a task. Translators, computer programmers, traders, dealers, operations folk, managers and so on. For them the issue is how do I get through this ever increasing workload so that I can spend some time with the family. $3.That everyone needs to be working at full stretch all the time if maximum throughput is to be maintained. $ I am afraid for many in business this is often the reality given current approaches to work. People have to do it to keep up with the ever increasing demands placed upon them. And I am not talking about processing activities. The burden on managers continues to increase as the haphazard loading of tasks comes from a variety of uncontrollable sources. I would accept that it may be different in research or academic environments, but for many this is reality. $In terms of your other comments$..$(I have responded to direct questions in italics). $Are you saying that distraction does not matter or that it does not have an effect on the performance of workplace users? Are you saying don't worry about it because there are bigger things to worry about? $No i am not. Recent studies both here and in the USA have identified interaction as the factor generally perceived by office workers as having the most positive impact on their productivity and interruption the most negative. The struggle is to quantify the balance, which I believe takes offices to the edge of chaos. Distraction free environments can be provided elsewhere, noteably for many, out of the office entirely. $I have personally explored almost all the academic research into the effect of the workplace on productivity. Almost all I have seen from academics is confusing, inconclusive and lacks a linkage with what really happens in the workplace. It also does not help facilities people to articulate the way in which a poorly designed and stacked workplace can effect business performance. A problem that dogs most. Incidentally, the issue of distraction rarely appears on the agenda of the architect or interior designer. $We have currently explored 361 references listed here in the database. I have not counted the academic / non academic split (Bob Heavisides does in his working paper) but my impression is that the latter dominate. There is far to little evidence coming from either school but business performance is a holistic issue not addressed in many typical facilities approaches which focus solely on costs or other 'easy measurables. See for example Bradley 2001 also available here as a downloadable publication. $ I am not saying that distraction is the only issue in the workplace that impacts upon professional performance, but I am saying it is the one that I think has the most obvious effect for most people and in fact one that we can at least measure and do something about. It is also the one that most real people can relate to and we can do something about it. If you can see it, then why not do something about it? Or perhaps you are suggesting we shouldn' me? $Obviously there are organisations where supposed new workplaces have generated excess distraction. I have also seen many where organisations would benefit from introducing more, not less distraction and simultaneously providing the necessary distraction free time elsewhere. Typically the need for 'privacy' is used as an excuse for old-fashioned, status based allocation of space for the fortunate few while the rest are expected to sit, apparently working but above all visible in their 'Dilbert' pens. Prevailing attitudes seem still to be that 'interaction' is what we schedule when we book a meeting and the rest should be private task time. I believe there are many companies where that attitude is stifling business. There are, I was recently told, anecodotes of venture capitalists agreeing. $ I don't disagree that people and organisations need to be re-taught to learn how to work, but really the argument that we should somehow not worry about distraction because of all these other issues in work is a bit odd? Bottlenecks in workload are often about the haphazard way in which work is loaded upon individuals performing managerial and knowledge based tasks, not attributable directly to issues to do with the workplace, which I tried to concern myself with. $Haphazard bottlenecks have many causes one of which is still a frequent unwritten rule that states 'look busy and be seen in the office being busy', which leads to everybody generating the white collar equivalent of excess inventory, lots of self-generating activity not all of which is productive. Trying to address workplace issues as somehow isolatable from managing, knowledge, and organisational culture has been part of the problem for too long. Physical working environments are part of the process by which a successful firm can enable its workforce to generate profits (to paraphrase Microsoft UK's Director of People, Profit and Loyalty)$
Volume 4
Start page 1
End page 12
Relevance to practice High
Ease of application Not stated
Stage of application Evaluation
Evidence base Not stated
Readability High
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