Seventy-five per cent of America’s corporate workers don’t work in an innovative work environment, and are struggling to work effectively.

This finding was part of the recently released Gensler 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey. I am confident that were we to conduct this survey on our own sunny shores, South Africa’s workforce would be found to be equally – if not more – dissatisfied with their own work environment.

The survey looks at how the design of the work environment impacts performance, employee engagement and innovation. The researchers, unsurprisingly, state that there are numerous forces that are changing the way we work. One excerpt states, “Today’s knowledge work happens not just at the scale of people and offices, but at the scale of buildings, cities and ultimately the globe. It is in this context that we continue to explore questions of focus, balance and choice in today’s and tomorrow’s, high performance work environments.”

It supports this with a graph showing that laptop ownership in the U.S. has increased by 22% in the last four years and tablet ownership by 31% in the last three years. Shock.

So, if it is all so bleeding obvious, why pay attention?

Firstly, it provides evidence to support the obvious, and secondly, it highlights just how many companies see the obvious, yet do nothing about it. Seventy five per cent of American companies know that globalisation and technology are rapidly changing the workplace, yet are doing little, or nothing with this knowledge.

In addition to identifying America’s struggling workforce, the survey offers two other key findings about workplace innovation. These are firstly that, “effective workplaces balance focus and collaboration”, and secondly that, “choice of work environments drives performance and innovation”.

The first finding again is nothing remarkably new. Collaboration has been extensively researched as an important work activity for the past 20 years and we know an awful lot about it. However, Gensler now offers us evidence to support the theory that a balanced work environment that emphasises both focus and collaboration is more creative and innovative. For example, 78% of balanced workplaces have creative thinkers, while only 52% of unbalanced workplaces have creative thinkers.

The second key finding of the survey – that choice drives performance and workplace innovation – is potentially more interesting. Here Gensler finds that, “Employers who provide a spectrum of choices for when and where to work are seen as more innovative and have higher-performing employees.” According to the research employers who offer choice in when and where to work have workers who are 12% more satisfied with their job and report higher effectiveness scores with innovation, job performance, job satisfaction and workplace satisfaction. Employees without this choice, however, “are less likely to have the tools that support mobility and working anywhere”.

In South Africa, the idea of a mobile workforce seems to be met with resistance, despite its proven benefits. South African employees, it seems, are generally traditionalists when it comes to the work environment, and want to see bums on seats between 8am and 5pm. Working from home is akin to taking leave. After all, if you can’t see your staff, how are you supposed to manage them? Hopefully research such as this will change this trend.

However, perhaps the best finding from Gensler’s research is how we need to look at workplace innovation with a far more critical eye. Companies who take cognisance of workplace theory are far more likely to succeed than companies who don’t. We need to take the traditional catchphrases of “collaboration”, “culture”, “gender”, “generation” “ergonomics”, “sustainability” and others and start doing research that offers companies data that promotes real change on levels they have previously not understood.

Companies also need to use global research as a tool to mould their physical work environment so that it ensures increased staff satisfaction and productivity. But research should also be used in conjunction with data garnered from the organization itself: information not on global trends, but on exactly what its own workforce desires, and how effective their workspace is at ensuring satisfaction and productivity.

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