Oh, for the old desk tops

I’VE just had a great idea for raising the productivity of Australia’s knowledge workers: Try treating them with greater consideration so as to improve their concentration.

Simple hard-headed economics tells us that the scarcer the skills of workers, the more you have to pay them and the better you have to make their working conditions.

It’s only those workers with few skills and who can be easily and cheaply replaced that you can get away with treating badly.

Many modern managers seem to regard these simple truths as no longer applicable and skimp on their working conditions.

Open-plan offices have been becoming more prevalent for decades.

These days it’s not just a matter of replacing a warren of private offices with a cubicle farm.

Why not get rid of the dividers and the modicum of privacy they provide — purely to encourage collaboration and break down silos, you understand.

You move “hot-desking”, providing fewer desks than the number of people you employ.

Even more progressive is the move to the “virtual office”.

Workers each get their own mobile phone, a laptop and a locker, but are denied a particular desk.

You want them moving from desk to desk each day, even morning to afternoon.

To ensure they don’t break the rules and bag a particular desk, cleaners are ordered to toss away anything they find on desks overnight.

They may be knowledge workers but they’re not likely to need books or papers for reference, are they?

That’s what Google is for.

I’m sure the reduced office space required has yielded savings, but I suspect it’s a false economy when you take account of the effect on workers’ productivity.

Diane Hoskins, of Gensler, a big US office design firm, has surveyed more than 90,000 people from 155 companies across 10 industries, finding “knowledge work” consists of four modes.

They are: focus (individual work involving concentration and attention to a particular task), collaboration (working with another person or group to achieve a goal), learning and socialising.

Researchers found the most significant factor in workplace effectiveness is not collaboration but individual focus work.

So office arrangements that sacrifice individual focus in pursuit of collaboration result in decreased effectiveness for both.

Justine Humphry, of the University of Sydney, says clean-desk policies are used as a way to prevent employees from “nesting”.

She means settling in one place for too long and giving it their personal stamp.

This is intended to yield cost savings and productivity gains by reducing overall floor space and facilitating collaboration among staff, thereby breaking down the silos and barriers of the standard cubicle office.

Dr Humphry’s research finds that workers continue to go about personalising and nesting in their work environments.

But in doing so, they undermine the design of a mobile and flexible office.

“Studies have highlighted identity expression and professional status as key reasons for personalisation at work,” she says.

“But in my ... research conducted on professional knowledge workers, it was found that personalising or nesting is also performed for practical reasons ... to enhance well- being, to create opportunities for privacy or collaboration, to facilitate social interaction and to save time.”

It couldn’t be that penny-pinching and office design fads are part of the explanation for our less-than-sterling productivity performance since the 1990s, could it?

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