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Make the Workplace Work For You

“Make the Workplace Work For You”

Instead of writing off physical space as a cost center, use it as a tool to boost productivity, retention and morale.

Is your physical space sparking growth — or stunting it? Business owners typically view the workplace as a cost center rather than a tool to leverage growth. Yet your physical surroundings play an important role in productivity, recruiting and retention.

According to a recent study by BOSTI Associates (see chart), when compared with all other factors — such as technology, pay or opportunity for advancement — the physical workplace alone accounted for:

  • 5% of individual performance.
  • 11% of team performance.
  • 24% of job satisfaction.

Environmental Influence chart

Beyond carpal tunnel

Ergonomics — a broad science that draws upon many disciplines, such as anatomy, sociology, physics and engineering — is about adapting work to people’s physical and psychological capabilities. When tools, processes or surroundings frustrate workers, there is fallout: greater stress, lower production and lower quality. Conversely, a well-designed workplace reduces injuries and absenteeism while boosting productivity and morale.

"I’ve always been aware of the impact that the physical environment has on people," says Stephen Halasnik, founder of Atlas Human Capital Services, an executive-recruiting company in Boonton, N.J., that generated $11 million in revenues last year. He attributes that partly to working for Xerox Corp. before launching Atlas. "At Xerox, I both worked in and visited a lot of beautiful offices, which gave me the chance to see how space really affects morale and people’s attitudes," says Halasnik. "People at Xerox felt like they were part of something special."

In 1999 Halasnik moved his company to a renovated 150-year-old bank building, complete with new office furniture. "There was an immediate difference in employees’ behavior," he says. "People acted more professionally when they were in nicer surroundings, which rubbed off on how they dealt with customers."

Let there be light

Your workplace doesn’t have to be the Taj Mahal, but it shouldn’t raise stress levels or cause employees to become depressed when they cross your threshold. Some key environmental factors to consider:

Lighting. The No. 1 mistake employers usually make is not providing enough natural light. Fluorescent lighting may be inexpensive, but it casts a blue color and creates glare on computer screens, resulting in eyestrain and headaches. One solution is to replace the standard fluorescent tubes with ones that mimic natural light and give off a full spectrum of color.

Air quality. Mold can build up in buildings and ventilation systems, causing sniffling, sneezing and other allergic reactions from employees. Regular maintenance of facilities is important.

Air temperature. Most office thermostats are set to one general temperature; poor air balancing results in hot and cool spots, which means some employees shiver while others sweat. One remedy is to replace the fabric panels at the bottom of workstations with perforated metal ones that allow air to flow.

There are also furniture systems that give employees control over their immediate environment. (When people can adjust their workspace temperature, group performance improves by 2.7% to 8.6%, according to one researcher.)

Noise. Noise has become a major irritant for today’s employees. The trend to open workstations with more occupants, larger computer monitors that reflect noise, and greater use of speakerphones and conferencing equipment has exacerbated the noise issue, and experts predict it will only grow worse as voice-activated computer technology moves into the workplace.

Two products that can reduce noise: acoustical ceiling tile and white-noise systems. For employees who work independently or with one other person, another solution is the "cockpit office" — a small (52-64 square feet), acoustically sound office. People in distraction-free workspaces — even small ones — have higher job satisfaction, are more productive and communicate better with colleagues, reports BOSTI.

Stimulating spaces

You might be surprised at how many bottlenecks result from ergonomic issues. There are a couple of seemingly innocuous problems to keep in mind:

Insufficient or inconveniently located equipment. For instance, several people may share a printer that’s positioned some distance from their desks. Having to walk to that area to retrieve a document or wait in line for other documents to print may only take a few minutes, but when compounded, those wasted minutes quickly add up to lost hours.

The pack-rat problem. Your workplace may be so cluttered that employees can’t find the supplies or tools they need. This not only slows them down, but also can lead to injuries if supplies are in awkward places, forcing workers to repeatedly reach or bend.

When it comes to workspace design, experts cite two common mistakes:

  • One-size-fits-all workstations.
  • Designating space according to employees’ ranking on the organizational chart, rather than the kind of work they do.

For example, a graphic artist is going to have different spatial needs than a salesperson who is in and out of the office.

Space that is well thought out will support your company’s mission and goals. Case in point: When Insight Product Development moved into a new facility two years ago, it wanted to increase team collaboration. "To further this, we interspersed our functional groups across the entire office. We didn’t want the engineering group clumped in one area and the research group in another," says Doug Brewer, co-founder of the Chicago-based product development consulting firm, which has 70 employees and generated $10 million in revenues last year.

"By mixing everyone, we created a cross-functional environment," continues Brewer. "We feel it makes everyone a better team member in that they can understand better and respect what others do. Even if two people sitting next to each other are not working on the same project, at least they can get a feel for what the other person does and what they have to deal with on a daily basis."

Real Branding takes a different, more segregated approach to space planning. "About six of our employees are Web-site and rich-media designers. They need to be creative, feel creative, so we’ve set up a special area for them to work from," explains Steve Raizes, CEO of Real Branding, a San Francisco Website design and online advertising company with more than $4 million in revenues.

Nicknamed "Creative Central," this workspace is an open area nearest the windows, and every designer has two 17- or 21-inch monitors. "We also gave them their own nontraditional conference table for impromptu meetings," says Raizes. "Having their own area gives the designers a greater sense of ownership, and they spend less time worrying about bureaucracy. Not only does it boost creativity, but job satisfaction also is higher. It makes them feel special. And after all, they’re our breadwinners — they make the clients happy."

Do not disturb

Although many companies need environments that support teamwork, open workspaces are a double-edged sword. Privacy needs vary, depending on employees’ responsibilities and temperaments, but even employees with highly collaborative jobs and outgoing personalities need some quiet time by themselves.

  • Vary the height of workstation panels so there’s an area providing a higher degree of visual privacy.
  • Establish "study carrels" — private alcoves equipped with a phone — where employees can go when they need to concentrate on a project or make a private call.
  • Create break rooms that are real retreats, not just four walls and some hard chairs. Provide a sofa where employees can lie down if they feel ill; play some soothing music. It’s also a good idea to break up your break room into social areas and quiet corners — that way, someone can sit and read a book without feeling antisocial when other people are in the room.

Workspace solutions will also vary depending on your company’s values.

At Insight Product Development, the environment reinforces the culture. Employees are encouraged to dress however they wish, and the company provides a game room with pool, foosball, arcade games, ping pong — and free beer. "These things are more than a ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality," says Brewer. "Besides providing employees with an outlet to take a break and get a new perspective, we’re also signaling that we know they’re adults and trust them to get the work done."

Bolstering the bottom line

It’s probably no surprise that everyone at Headsets.com wears headsets, but CEO Mike Faith’s ergonomic attitude extends below the neck as well. Employees select their own chairs — and if available models don’t suit them, they can go out and buy a chair on the company. Faith is also considering flat-screen computer monitors to give people more room.

"Spending money to make employees more comfortable or productive only makes sense," says Faith. "I don’t even see it as a cost, I see it as an investment."

Marking Faith’s third entrepreneurial venture, Headsets.com sells telephone headsets and accessories. Founded in 1998, the San Francisco-based company generates more than $4 million in revenues.

"Generally management gets the best office space, and customer-service reps are stuck in the back somewhere," says Faith. "But we reversed that; we give our customer-service reps the best space in the office with the most natural light and windows. After all, they’re the ones making money for the company." (Faith’s own office is in the rear of the building and has no windows.)

Faith believes that investing in the workplace pays off in higher productivity and lower turnover. Only one employee has quit Headsets.com in the past 18 months — impressive statistics for a call-center environment.

There’s also a psychological payback, adds Faith: "Employees feel taken care of when you spend money on them. And if your employees feel and sound good when they talk to customers, the customer is going to feel good."

Writer: TJ Becker.