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Buddhism, booths and the balance sheet

How do you answer that tricky question regarding workplace productivity?

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  • Author Chris Carr
  • Date 19 March 2020
  • Read Time 3.5 minutes
Sunset over a Buddhist temple

What’s the connection between Buddhism, booths and an organisation’s balance sheet?

Disengaged staff and a good working environment.

One of the basic tenets of Buddhist philosophy is that happiness can come from leading a meaningful life. And for some people, they are driven and self-motivated enough to not require subtle (or not so subtle) encouragement to develop. For them, there is an in-built desire to be useful, to be productive and to take on challenges. For them, experience trumps hedonistic pleasure with values more important than material rewards (albeit usually above a certain threshold). For them, there is no joy to be gained in doing the same thing over and over again.

That’s not everyone however. The cost of disengagement in the workplace is estimated to cost the US up to $600 billion a year in lost productivity. Say that figure again. $600 billion. That’s in the US alone. Think of scaling that up globally and it’s clear that this is a major issue for the global economy. In the UK there is the oft-repeated productivity slump, leaving us trailing behind our G7 competitors. What is at the heart of this? Is workplace disengagement due to these staff naturally being disengaged or has something contributed to their ‘get up and go’ having gone?

That’s maybe a topic for others far more knowledgeable and is not going to be solved in a 700-word thought piece on a Glasgow consultancy practice’s website. However, it’s probably fair to say that a (small but significant) contributing factor to this disengagement is the condition of many workplaces in the UK and the effect this has on those spending longer and longer hours within them. The combination of environment and hours is, in some cases, bordering on the inhumane (to paraphrase a speaker at the recent Workplace Trends conference in Copenhagen). If people are the cornerstone of any organisation (and they are by far the most expensive cost to any organisation), is it not axiomatic that by treating your staff well that you will get the best out of them in terms of creativity, innovation and ultimately, in terms of productivity?

So, what is our response when the client asks, “will our new workplace increase staff productivity?” and is it indeed a question we can answer with a degree of confidence, or indeed a degree of academic rigour? As consultants and designers, we are duty-bound to try to answer this question, in fact, we should be pre-empting the question by stating in simple terms that a modern office can help (note the use of the word ‘can’) your organisation. It is not the panacea for all ills (and it will be nigh on impossible to quantify what the benefits will be) but it is clear from a body of research that is being reported that it is indeed a vehicle for organisational transformation but has to work in tandem with enlightened ‘people policies’ and flexible technology solutions.

Investing in a ‘modern workplace’, and by that we mean an environment* where there is a range of worksettings to support the different daily tasks, is clean and well-maintained, has a plentiful supply of fresh air and (if possible, natural) light, has enough space, shows that you care about your staff and their wellbeing. It is also increasingly apparent, especially for those entering the job market, that salary alone is not a determining factor when choosing an employer. The workplace can give you that advantage.

With a considered, well-designed modern workplace good staff will want to stay, and new people will want to work for you. Generally speaking, it will be a happier environment (and who doesn’t want a workplace where people are more positive). A happier workplace environment is more likely to be a more productive environment, with a reported 22% swing in productivity between happy and unhappy staff.

You’ll certainly notice that in the balance sheet at the end of the year.

*there are a number of different elements that contribute towards a high-performing workplace, see for instance Neil Usher: The Elemental Workplace, LID Publishing (2018).

Chris Carr, Associate Workplace Consultant

Chris arrived in workplace consultancy following stints as a scientist in the USA and a tour guide in Greece. He is passionate about the interaction between people and the workspaces they inhabit. Over the past six years, he has worked with numerous clients to help them envisage more effective and engaging spaces.