Don’t ignore the p-word: productivity

BIFM’s annual ThinkFM event is looking at productivity and effectiveness. It is a good topical choice as a theme and will help to challenge FM decision makers once and for all about their role in influencing the workplace.

Productivity is a very important subject in mainstream economic and political debate and commentary right now. Unfortunately, it is a confusing subject made more complicated because there are some distinctly unscientific measures of productivity in use right now. However, despite arguments about the data and measurement, pundits in workplace strategy and facilities management agree it is not improving yet.

There are many reasons why as a country and in individual work spaces productivity is not improving at a rate economic commentators desire. Some factors are cultural and others relate to how we adapt to new ways of working. There’s an argument that says new workplace technologies haven’t made people any more productive. They’ve just put more stuff in the way of the actual work – i.e. we are not really working any smarter, not in real terms. There is a blurring of the lines between the process of work and the actual place it occurs. But, workplaces are no different.

Workplaces that create an environment to allow actual work to get done quickly and efficiently are a no brainer. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) lists job design as one of its main levers of productivity. Workplace (and therefore workplace design and strategy) is therefore a critical enabler.

So, by definition then, if creating physical space and an atmosphere in a working environment to allow work to be done quickly and efficiently is so desirable, then a workplace where users are happier is equally as important because more contented people are more productive. But, how do you measure that happiness?

You can talk to staff and gauge their feelings via online interactive surveys, but this is often very subjective. Also, its actual impact on productivity is questionable. Online questionnaires risk confusing effectiveness with productivity. Indeed, just because someone feels good, doesn’t always mean there is a direct link to productivity and therefore to someone actually being more effective.

We said earlier there are some poor measures of productivity. In fact, there is a lot of controversy over what productivity actually is and how to measure it. Many commentators argue that the benchmark needs to be more specific.

Take the example of a call centre. In this scenario the clients might seek a measure on improvement to call waiting times and processing more calls. Hence if staff are fielding more calls it implies productivity has risen. However, what if they are simply picking the phone up and hanging up without saying anything? These actions might well make staff feel better, it might well mean more calls are processed but it is not affecting productivity positively and nor is it being effective.

Online surveys are subjective. Fixed measures can be misleading. Hence the best way is a combination of surveys, fixed tests and actually talking to the staff themselves. So, probably the best way to truly get close to an accurate measure of productivity is to use collective or group intelligence and simply ask questions on how staff feel before and then post any project or change with regards to their own personal productivity.

Productivity is not easy to measure. It is not always easy to understand. But we cannot duck the issue. What’s more, if you work in FM, design workspaces or manage estates and properties you have a real opportunity to positively affect productivity. It is a significant part of GDP and overall economic health as viewed by the markets and investors. Improve productivity and it’s easier to attract investment and that goes in the feedback loop so businesses can in turn invest in things like health and wellbeing. It’s a virtuous circle.

We need better designed workplaces, but we also need better measures of productivity. We can’t ignore the P-word just because it is hard to measure. Watch this space for more ideas about its measurement soon.