Greater expectations: Building value in the workplace

In times gone by, business strategies used to solely concern revenue generation and cost-saving initiatives. Expenditure was reserved for purchasing stock that would yield a financial return. Labourers were paid the bare minimum – and yet, the masters of the mills would expect workers to stand at their end of the production line for hours on end.

If Gaskell, Dickens and Hardy novels portraying working class conditions in the 1800s are anything to go by, the workers of yesteryear would be subject to abysmal treatment, forced to breathe in dirty, stale air. None of the bosses cared if their workers were engaged, happy or healthy. Back then, there was no productivity puzzle to solve – if employees were not productive, they were out. At that point in our history, then, the idea of the ‘employee experience’ was totally alien.

In the decades following the end of the Industrial Revolution, workers began to expect more from their bosses. Orwell’s memoirs do not exactly paint a pretty picture of working class conditions in the first half of the 20th century, though, so let’s skip on over to Drucker’s coinage of the term ‘knowledge work’ in 1954. His seminal work, The Practice of Management, responded to the fact that the workplace had to support mental processes as well as physical labour. As time sped steadily towards the turn of the millennium, the miners, steelworkers, and men and women on assembly lines were outnumbered by ‘knowledge workers’, the people paid to produce ideas as opposed to goods.

Perhaps that’s why the focus is slowly shifting from cost to value. While it is difficult to put a price on ideas, nobody engaged in the knowledge economy would doubt their value. Today, the dial continues to turn from viewing humans as ‘resources’ to treating employees as ‘consumers’, especially when it comes to luring in the next generation of talent. To that end, more business leaders care about the workplace experience and how it can be designed and managed to support engagement, performance and productivity, but also health, wellbeing and morale.

“The workplace experience is increasingly being identified as a key ingredient of employee engagement and satisfaction,” suggests Rory Murphy FRICS, commercial director at Vinci Facilities and board director of the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) UK Chapter. “Not every workplace needs to be cutting edge or funky but workplaces that aid and support the delivery of people’s roles are key to driving productivity and business objectives.”

But how can the physical workplace create value for organisations?

Angela Love, director of workplace services firm Active, suggests organisations need to consider the user and the work they do from the outset of any design process or change project. “A happy worker is a productive worker,” she says. “Create a great place to work and people will be more engaged, more productive and come to work happier each day.”

Regardless of the role we do or the company we work for, we all crave a sense of belonging. The physical workplace can foster community spirit and encourage social cohesion in and across teams, which can in turn improve trust and information sharing – factors of which have been proven to improve knowledge worker productivity, according to research by Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), the global workplace consultancy behind Workplace Week London.

“Workplace management is about designing and delivering multi-faceted, minute-by-minute multi-sensory experiences that create an emotional response,” says Andrew Mawson, founder of AWA and creator of Workplace Week. “It is about designing workplace experiences in much the same way a retailer would, considering every second to deliver a specific ‘mission’. It encompasses thinking about journeys and destinations, the fusion of space, information, services, and how these reflect organisational personality, support human effectiveness, and are attractive to your target employee.”

AWA’s annual event, Workplace Week, was specifically formed to explore these learnings and will do so again this November, when 20 organisations from the banking, travel, technology, media, creative and professional services sectors take part in the week-long showcase of workplace innovation in aid of BBC Children in Need. The programme will explore how business leaders can boost productivity, improve the workplace experience and use the workplace as a talent attraction and retention tool.

The two most costly things to a business are its people and its property. Where the square footage required to house a workforce was once considered a burdensome cost, savvy business leaders now see it as a vehicle to drive competitive advantage. The workplace plays a role in attracting, engaging and unleashing the potential of employees. With the right level of investment, assets can increase in value over time. As such, more effort and energy is going into ensuring work environments are not just fit for purpose but also enjoyable, healthy places to be. The goal to make money cannot be ignored, of course (you cannot produce good ideas if you’re unhappy or unwell), but there seems to be a newfound recognition that focusing on the people experience can often generate this rather pleasant side-effect.

Jo Sutherland, associate director of Magenta Associates, an award-winning B2B PR agency, and communications director of the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) UK Chapter – IFMA supports facility professionals and organisations looking to gain strategic advantage via their workplace strategies.