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Trust the evidence

16 July 2013


What do we want? Evidence-based change! When do we want it? After peer review.”


So read a banner at the American ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’ a couple of years back. And you have to ask, is that ever any less than a reasonable request? Change brought about based on the results of professionally conducted research? Difficult to argue the alternative, surely.

Chartered occupational psychologist Dr Craig Knight used a picture of that banner as part of a recent presentation. He’s done plenty of work measuring workplace well-being and productivity, and in an entertaining session, made great play of how little the typical office has really changed in the century or so since FW Taylor’s pioneering work, ‘Principles of Scientific Management’.

Knight detailed an experiment that he and colleagues had conducted in which office workers were allowed varying levels of freedom to control their own workplace.

They monitored individuals placed in four office environments: ‘lean’ (rows of workstations, in which you have no power to change how things are), ‘enriched’ (a more natural workspace with flowers and art), ‘compromised’ (someone else dictating the personal nature of the space, not you) and finally ‘empowered’ (in which you get to decide on how your workspace looks). After observing how people worked in these environments, they then tested their mental faculties.

The results? Essentially, the more empowered an individual is, the better their quality of work and productivity levels. People in an ‘enriched’ workplace are typically 15 per cent more productive than those in a ‘lean’ one. In fact, after a decade of Knight’s experiments and research, the ‘lean’ workplace has always come out worst.

People empowered to develop their own workspace are 32 per cent more productive and make fewer errors. I mean, Hell’s teeth! How is that not important? Empowering people and enriching their working lives increases their productivity. That’s not some woolly claim – it’s been scientifically proven.

Incidentally, this is not just an office worker issue. Knight detailed another experiment in which residents of care homes dramatically improved their problem-solving skills, memory and general state of wellbeing simply by being involved on an ongoing basis in the control over their own environment (making decisions on decor and other day-to-day choices rather than being constantly waited on).

Knight bemoans the fact that typical productivity projects are often instigated with the aim of headline-grabbing instant cost-savings. Take the government, which recently boasted of saving £34,000 per year by removing plants from government buildings.  A prudent saving in a cash-strapped economy? Not against evidence which shows how minimal spending on office greenery can boost productivity.

Knight says there’s an unbroken link between well-being and productivity. Shouldn’t we in FM be doing more with that fact? If we’re to get a grip on FM’s Holy Grail of defining the value we bring, let it be through something like this.

We’d surely do well to more frequently talk up the science behind the facilities services solutions we propose. Because while our opponents in such arguments are certainly entitled to their opinions, they can’t be entitled to their own facts.

Martin Read is managing editor for FM World