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Study Finds Paradigm Shifts Are Lowering Workplace Productivity

Adobe, San Jose. Photographer: Emily Hagopian

By Meghan Hall

As companies grow, they are often evaluating what types of real estate, and how that real estate is used, in an effort to maximize employee productivity. In the past several years, the “optimal” work environment has come to be defined by open workspaces, a collapsing of company hierarchy and offices defined by their ability to be flexible. However, not all of these trends are proving to be beneficial, according to global design firm Gensler, who states in its 2020 U.S. Workplace Survey that the experimentation that we have seen within the workplace has altered not just where we work, but how we work. In many cases, those shifts have often come at the cost of employee productivity.

“Workplace effectiveness and experience have declined, a consequence of continued dramatic shifts in the way people work. Data from the 2020 survey registers the lowest effectiveness numbers we’ve measured since beginning our Workplace Surveys in 2005,” explained Gervais Tompkin, Principal at Gensler. 

According to Gensler, there was a 25 percent increase in Class A office rents in the United States, and 24 percent of U.S. workers do some or all of their work from home. Companies have continued to position themselves to succeed, which often means granting workers the ability to work elsewhere while also decreasing the allotted amount of space for employees within the office to save on the cost of real estate. 

Gensler, San Francisco, Seattle
Image Courtesy of Gensler

As a result, Gensler found that there the number of companies who have implemented unassigned seating to maintain flexible workflows has increased three times over in the past four years. To date, one in ten U.S. workers do not have an assigned seat at work, compared with five percent in 2019. This is despite, Gensler notes, the propensity for workers to prefer more private environments to get their work done. The report also states that 65 percent of workers found unassigned seating, for example, both stressful and confusing, and only 24 percent found unassigned seating efficient. 

“The Gensler Workplace Survey shows that unassigned seating doubled last year. Co-working, mobility programs, the gig economy, etc. are all manifestations of the market drivers that encouraged workers to work away from the desk,” said Tompkin. “Our survey has shown a decline in workplace effectiveness/satisfaction, which is likely because companies are implementing seat sharing programs as a solo solution to support the physical issues in the office, but in doing so, were being short-sighted.”

The result is that both workplace effectiveness and experience has declined, with 2020 receiving the lowest numbers Gensler has measured since it started its Workplace Survey in 2008. Using several variables, Gensler measured the effectiveness of the workplace on a five-point scale, where a score of one is designated as the least effective, and five is most effective.

In 2008, when the study began, workplaces were more effective, receiving a score of 4.2 for promoting focus, 4.0 for in-person collaboration and 3.9 for learning. In 2020, those scores lowered to 3.9, 3.9 and 3.4, respectively.

“The combination of these elements has led to a broad adoption of technology enabled work for more companies, across all job levels,” said Tompkin. “At Gensler, we have seen an uptick in mobility, distance collaboration, distributed teams, globalization, and always-on culture. The not so subtle effect of this shift has meant that the physical workplace has become less of a driver for workplace effectiveness and culture.”

Tompkin continued, stating, “In order to keep employees happy and engaged, workplace culture needs to go beyond where people work and actually address why people work (ie. their personal missions), and the quality of relationships they have while working (vibrant communities with a shared purpose).”

The types of workplaces that are most conducive to employee happiness and productivity are open environments with on-demand private spaces, which simultaneously supports workers’ desire for collaboration and need for privacy to get work done.

For workplaces with unassigned seating, having ample private spaces—both reservable and on-demand—as well as designated spaces for collaboration, personal storage and ergonomics, is key. Noise management efforts, as well as ones that promote cleanliness and order are also needed, states Gensler. If executed correctly, however, there can be upsides for growing companies.

“One very significant benefit to developing a successful unassigned seating program is that it drives attention to the technologies, management practices, policies and virtual collaboration tools that are important to enable a mobile workforce,” said Tompkin. “The companies that already had successful mobility programs were able to quickly adapt to this massive virus-driven “work from home experiment”. Mobility programs have traditionally been underappreciated in the important role they can play in operational continuity and resilience. I imagine that this crisis will trigger a major adoption of these programs in the near future.”