How the Physical Workspace Environment Impacts on Productivity

An often over-used expression and one favoured by politicians in particular, the phrase ‘fit for purpose’ is especially relevant when it comes to discussing workplace design. Having a beautifully stylish and contemporary office space is wonderful after all, but if it impinges on your staffs’ productivity levels, then the privacy booths with the glass doors, that ‘exposed’ central water cooler space and the incredibly ‘now’ (and noisy) concrete floor are pretty pointless really – certainly as far as your profits are concerned.

Referring to her Usability Triangle (see below image) in which the individual user, particular context and the workplace itself are given equal billing, Dr Peggie Rothe, Development Director at workplace benchmarking company Leesman insists too much emphasis is often put on one particular point of ‘the triangle’ to the expense of the others.

“To understand and achieve high usability [of a workspace], you need to take all three dimensions into consideration, at the same time,” she says. 

“Looking only at the workplace in isolation, we might find that it has all the functionalities in the world, but unless they’re paired with the right activities and specific user, it might not be fit for purpose, making it a complete waste of space.”


In a global study of 250,000 employees, carried out by the company –under the auspices of the recognised Leesman Index – by far the majority of participants said they rated being able to focus on work-related activities while desk-bound, as the most important task at work. Other highly-rated functions cited by those same employees included being able to arrange planned and ad hoc meetings, concentrate on telephone conversations, collaborate with colleagues and having the ability to relax.

Individuals and organisational differences are crucial in workspace design

However, as Dr Rothe points out, tackling the first point isn’t quite as simple as making sure every employee has a desk. That’s because some employees will prefer a quiet space to think while others prefer a background ‘buzz.’ She herself says she can’t concentrate in a silent space.

“Different users doing the exact same activity might have very different experiences of the same environment. You might discover that while one person finds a certain setting suitable for a particular activity, their colleague might not – because they’re different people,” she explained, adding that this difference should also be considered in an entire organisational context too.

She said: “While one workplace solution might work very well for, say, a particular bank, it might not work at all for their competitor, even though the context and goals initially appear the same. The user – here meaning the entire organisation – is different.

“The two banks might have opposing cultures and structures and use a unique mix of products or tactics to compete for identical segments, which will lead to different requirements.”

Case study 1: Turning to ABW design meant PwC attracted best talent

Global accountancy firm PwC found that changing the work environment in their Rotterdam office along ABW principles, led to more ‘collaboration, communication and cohesion between staff’ That’s because it allowed teams and individuals from different areas of the building to cross-over and meet more regularly.

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Another bonus was the fact that making better use of space led to money-saving, which was spent on hospitality, providing visitors and clients with a better user-experience. The latter was regarded more highly than money-saving since the aim was a ‘cultural transformation’ than a ‘budgeting exercise.’

Perhaps the biggest advantage though was in providing an inspiring working location which gave the company an edge in attracting and retaining the best talent in what is notoriously an extremely competitive industry (especially since their average employee was a mere 32 years old).

So successful was the transition that the company now plan to roll-out ABW design in all their offices in Europe (which admitting cultural differences may make it more difficult in some countries than others.

“Some of the staff in the German office are a little more reluctant about the move to ABW,” admitted PwC Facility Management & Business Support Director Maurice Verwer. “That’s mainly because it means there will be more open and less private space. Try and tell a German partner that he will lose his office!”

Case study 2: Adecco

Global recruitment firm Adecco were keen to change its Amsterdam office along ABW principles in order to create a ‘branch of the future.’

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One of the key principles was task-based working and hot-desking. The latter allowed staff to move to particular parts of the building based on their task for that day. Because of this it resulted in staff developing relationships with staff members from other departments and teams. And, since, other companies within the Adecco Group used the same space, it also meant more inter-firm working.

Colour-wise the design scheme was neutral throughout, with an accent of Adecco’s main brand colour; avoiding a clash with the other company’s logos and brand colours.

As well as helping retain and recruit staff for its own workspace, the ABW model also meant Adecco saved on their carbon footprint through ‘sharing,’ increased productivity and introduced more innovative thinking amongst staff.

The rise of Human Resources in the physical workplace

Meanwhile, it’s not only our actual physical workplace environments that are undergoing a transformation. In their white paper People. Place. And what really matters...Global Industry Insights published earlier this month, Unispace stress that Human Resources will have a far bigger say in the physical environments of our medium to large-size companies and corporations than at present.

“This is reflective of a change in perspective from ‘human resources’ to the employee life cycle and experience, and a growing sentiment that employees are internal ‘customers'.

And now that Millennials make up the majority of the workforce in many companies, the white paper highlighted how a number of companies they interviewed (67 per cent) had noted a generational shift compared to 22 per cent who hadn’t and 11 per cent who were unsure.

One HR leader reported: Seniors still prefer an enclosed space for confidentiality reasons and for management style. Having to book a meeting room for this purpose is not seen as an improvement yet.”

It prompted the idea of cross-generational collaboration and ‘reverse mentoring’ where Millenials could share their IT knowledge and seniors pass on valuable industry knowledge and experience acquired over several decades.


» Leesman Review 23


» White paper: People. Place. And what really matters...Global Industry Insights