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Monday, January 13, 2014

Workspace and Productivity

In my book "The Manager's Guide for Effective Leadership" I stress the importance of giving people control over the processes they are responsible for in order to increase productivity. Of course it’s necessary to train people in the management of processes and to establish boundaries for what they can control before they are set free to control their own processes. There is another parameter that management controls that can increase or stifle productivity. That is the work space of the workers. The December 2013/January 2014 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek has an excellent article by Joshua Brustein on the modern workplace that is worth reading. This post borrows from that article and from my own personal experience as a worker. Brustein’s article is questions posed by Burstein and answered by several experts on work place issues. I will quote some of the material in the answers without reference to the questions that stimulated the answers.

Jim Harter, Chief Scientist of Workplace Management and Well-being at Gallup provides data cited in the article that establishes the importance of paying attention to the work space of workers. Harter says that data his organization has collected shows that only 30% of people are engaged at work, 52% do only the minimum required and 18% are actually working against the objectives of their organization. Harter cites a number of things managers must do to increase the percentage of workers that are engaged; most of which I covered in my book. One that I did not cover is the importance of personal workspace and the feelings of ownership in the tools associated with people’s work and workspace. Reviewing how I felt about workplace tools and space during my career may help guide aspiring managers in addressing this important issue that is often neglected.

In my earliest jobs as a lab technician I was assigned a set of tools and a tool box to contain them. They were “mine” as long as I had the job but I was responsible for returning every tool and the tool box when I left the job. These tools were used every day in doing the work I was assigned and it’s easy to see why I considered these tools “mine” even though they belong to the organization. If I loaned one of my tools to a co-worker I made sure I got it back. If other workers had felt free to use my tools without my permission I would have become upset and less engaged due to the perceived outrage against me.

Later in my career as an executive I had a private office with desk, chairs, phone, my personal secretary and the freedom to decorate the office as I saw fit within the bounds of decency. Sometimes I did add things to my office to make it more personal and sometimes I did not. However, in all cases I felt that the office was “mine”, to be used only by me or with my permission. If these implied rules had been violated I would have diverted my energies from my work to correcting the violation of my implied rules just as I would have hunted down anyone who borrowed one of my tools without permission when I was a lab technician.

After retirement I worked part time as a consultant for a number of years. In many of these jobs I would be given a workplace and a computer or access to a shared computer. In some jobs I would have a workspace with a computer that was “mine” and access to shared computers for email that could not be accessed with my workspace computer due to security concerns. I mention this arrangement because of the comments by Tom Eich, Partner at IDEO. Eich says private offices are no longer economically viable so that either open-plan offices or shared workspaces are the new norm. Also the growing practice of working much of the time at home makes it desirable to have shared workspace and tools such as computers and phones for use when workers are in the organization’s facility. He says people accept these arrangements as long as they have personal storage and have access to a dedicated desk or workspace when they need it.

The message for managers is that attention must be paid to the relationship of workers to their workspace in order to maximize the engagement and thereby the productivity of the workers.  It is important to assign each worker personal storage space at the least and to allow workers to treat desk space and other associated work tools as their own even if these are only assigned temporarily to the worker. In principle workers like to have control of their workspace and tools as well as their processes. The more the workers feel in control of their processes, workspace and tools the more likely they are to be fully engaged in their work. If they feel management or co-workers are not respecting their “ownership” of their processes, workspace and tools then energies are diverted from the objectives of the organization toward fixing the perceived ownership issues.

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