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WW2014: a healthy debate

Workplace Week 2014
Credit: Akin Falope

The Workplace Week convention in London earlier this month drew experts from across the UK to discuss topics surrounding worker wellbeing and the groundbreaking research into measuring performance in the workplace. 


24 November 2014 


Not every workplace can offer the quirky environment of a Google or Innocent Drinks, but the debate about what constitutes optimal office design is one followed keenly. 


The Workplace Week convention, organised by the consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates, proved the variety of this debate by covering such topics as cognitive performance in the workplace and the measurement of knowledge worker productivity.


Facilitator Karen Plum and AWA managing director Andrew Mawson introduced the day as one that would concentrate on “the revolution of knowledge work”. Owen Sharp, chief executive of Prostate Cancer UK, then explained how the charity’s move from the outskirts of Hammersmith to smaller open-plan premises near London Bridge improved relationships, trust, and cross-disciplinary working, created more visibility for the charity and improved recruitment and retention.


Now, says Sharp, no one has their own desk; everyone sits with different people every day, thus helping to break down silos and revitalise team interactions. 


Now, the variety of different types of space allow people to choose the environment to suit their task. Half of the staff say they are more productive as a result of the new environment. The move has also helped in establishing a ‘new identity’ for the charity. 


Keiron Sparrowhawk, chairman of research business MyCognition, spoke next about the trials his firm has set up to measure the impact a workplace’s layout, space, furniture, noise and light have on employees’ cognitive health. MyCognition, which seeks to understand and improve cognitive health, is working with a multinational financial firm and a professional services company (not named on the day) to devise trials for employees using a specialised scientific assessment to measure cognitive health in different environments.


AWA’s Andrew Mawson, who is sponsoring the work, later told FM World the research would also “explore the impact on cognition of lying down, standing, sitting and other positions”.


MyCognition is working with a bank that has 5,000 employees across the UK. Said Sparrowhawk: “We spend at least 50 per cent of our waking time in the work environment – it has a big impact on our cognitive health. A noisy, open-plan office can reduce your productivity by 66 per cent because of its impact on your cognitive health. If it has that effect on productivity, what effect is it having on our health?”


Causes of poor cognition were listed as poor physical health, nutrition and hydration, genetic predispositions, home and work environments, and life events such as a death in the family.


“If deficits build up they can affect your wellbeing and may trigger serious conditions such as neuropsychiatric disorders. Detecting early signs using regular cognitive health assessments can help,” said Sparrowhawk. “Poor cognitive health is bad for you, bad for your company – it reduces your ability to perform well and your happiness – and leads to absenteeism and early retirement.”


Workplace Week 2014
Credit: Akin Falope


Six of the best 

Eric Barends of the Centre for Evidence Based Management and professor Rob Briner of Bath University then presented the results of research into the productivity of knowledge workers. The pair based their findings on the distillation of 59 studies and meta-analyses chosen from an original selection of 772 scientific research studies. The six factors thus identified as having the most impact were: social cohesion, perceived supervisory support, information sharing, vision goal clarity, external communication, and trust. 


Here’s how that breaks down: Social cohesion is “a shared linking of team attraction that includes bonds of caring, closeness, and enjoyment of each other’s company”. 


Perceived support is “how workers feel their supervisor helps them in time of need, praises them for a job well done or recognises them for extra effort”. Information sharing is “how teams pool and access their knowledge and expertise, goal clarity “the extent to which team members have a common understanding of their objectives and display high commitment to team goals”, and finally, external communication is “the ability of teams to span boundaries in team and organisation to seek information and resources from others”.


International Workplace’s managing director David Sharp invited the audience to suggest how these six factors could be optimised in knowledge work organisations. Flatter management, the role of HR and board-level involvement in disseminating an organisation’s strategic plan all emerged as areas to focus on, as did the need to consider the perhaps differing needs of the millennial generation.


Future shock

Misha Gopaul, technical director of consultancy and software developer Workplace Fabric, told delegates that “there are 13 billion devices connected to the internet - and that figure will be 50 billion by 2020.”


Among a torrent of statistics about our digital future, Gopaul discussed the impending impact of proximity sensors, iBeacons, data feeds, card systems, indoor geo-location, wearable thermal sensors, people counters and temperature sensors. “Our desks will soon become connected,” he said. “They will know when they’re being used.”


Discussion post-presentation focused on privacy issues involved in the increasing use of low-level data transmissions within buildings.


In the frame

In the final presentation, Andrew Mawson introduced a new framework document, one co-authored with his AWA colleague Dr Graham Jervis, and developed with the help of a variety of key figures in the workplace management world.


To be launched in early 2015, the ‘workplace management framework’ (WMF) provides a structure for the development and subsequently the assessment of best practice in the management of the workplace”. It aims to bring together FM with corporate real estate, security, risk information management, and HR – acknowledging that buildings of the future will run more efficiently if all these areas are more integrated.


Dr Jervis told FM World: “[The framework outlines] a standard in which other standards can find a home… health and safety, for example, would come under risk management.”


AWA is working with the BIFM, the Building Futures Group and others to develop the WMF. The framework will be run by a charitable foundation that will help license the WMF as a tool.