Can design improve productivity?

August 11, 2010

Would giving office workers better working environments yield greater productivity? According to a survey of business executives in the United Kingdom, it would indeed, by a remarkable 19%—enough to boost the British economy by £135 billion.

The study was conducted in 2005 by an independent research firm on behalf of Gensler. Two hundred mid-level and senior managers from legal, media, and financial services firms in the U.K. were interviewed.

The £135 billion figure was arrived at by multiplying the projected 19% gain in productivity by the UK Service Sector Gross Value Added of £709.9 billion.

In my opinion, a 19% productivity gain from any physical intervention seems an order of magnitude over the top. On this side of the pond, "green" advocates talk about how great it would be to get a 1–2% worker productivity boost from sustainably designed buildings. Either our British cousins are dogging it on the job, so that any improvement would be commensurately larger than what might be expected in the typical American office (doubtful), or the respondents to this survey are inveterate optimists.

Curiously enough, the executives said their own productivity would increase only 17% (vs. 19% for their employees) as a result of a better working environment—even less (a piddling 11%) for senior managers. Does this mean that senior managers in Britannia believe they are already so productive that it would be hard to squeeze another ounce of work out of them?

Maybe it means that they've already got pretty nice digs to work in. More than half (52%) of all respondents rated their current office environment as good or very good, which is probably testament to the ability of humans to adapt to adverse conditions. There also seemed to be dissatisfaction across sectors, with 31% of respondents from media/publishing companies rating their offices "poor or very poor," compared to 21% at financial services firms and a mere 3% at law firms. What does that tell you about where to look for work?

Among other findings, nearly four out of five (79%) respondents said the quality of their working environment was very important to their sense of job satisfaction, and one-third (33%) said that it had been a contributing factor in their decision to accept or reject a job. Both of those results seem reasonable.

More disturbing is the finding that 58% of respondents don't believe that their office had been designed to support their firm's business and their own job function, while more than one-third (35%) believe their company does not consider the quality of their office environment to be a high business priority. In fact, nearly one-fifth (19%) said they'd be embarrassed to show customers their working environments.

For a copy of "These Four Walls: The Real British Office," contact Alessandra Almeida (


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