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Workplaces which work

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Many managers in businesses see their working environment as a necessary evil. It often does not do what is expected and is merely a drain on the bottom line. For this reason the workplace environment often does not get the management attention that it deserves. However, as the book Creating the Productive Workplace points out, the workspace is crucial to successful business performance. This is quantifiable both in terms of the cost of the floor space and also by less easy measures, such as the cultural values that the environment can engender in an organisation.

As patterns of work change, both the amount of space and the way that it is used are important in enabling a business to carry out its function. Information technology is driving this change, impacting on the way that work is organised. With faster communication, work can be undertaken anyplace and anytime. In its wake it is creating new cultures within offices - flatter structures and the disintegration of departmental boundaries. Often though, organisations try to make changes to their work patterns in an environment that expresses the opposite values. The redesign of the office environment is a powerful tool in creating the productive workplace in today's world.

There is no doubt that there is a link between productivity and the work environment. However, it is hard to quantify the relationship exactly and it is this that makes it difficult to argue the case with business managers. With more than 70 per cent of the cost of running a business consisting of salaries, even small worker productivity gains are worth it. Currently a widely held view is that gains or losses of up to 15 per cent of turnover in a typical business might be attributable to the design, management and use of the indoor environment.

Productivity in the workplace is affected by the complex interconnections between a variety of human and physical systems. It is impossible to pin down just one thing that is solely responsible for a loss or gain in productivity.

Creating the Productive Workplace is a collection of individual papers from quite different disciplines - occupational psychologists and social scientists as well as building professionals - based on a conference held in 1997. The book is arranged in six parts. The first looks at creativity, environment and people, and it explores the changing nature of work, creativity in the workplace, comfort, emotion and stress. Part 2 looks at the economic case for productivity and points out that although organisations want buildings with improved indoor environmental quality, the market seems unable to supply them. Part 3 examines the nature of productivity, while 4 looks at concentration and thinking. Part 5 provides a set of case studies and 6 considers the future.

One key message that seems to come out of the book is the importance of interconnected thinking at different levels in creating and managing the workplace. This goes as much for communication between building owners and users, with those responsible for managing space achieving a greater understanding of what the users need. There needs to be integrated thinking between designers, building owners and users, perhaps bringing occupational psychologists into the mix. There also needs to be closer integration between building users and developers, providing the office space with a wider recognition that there is a demand. Better, more-productive working environments can only be created if there is a recognition of the complex interactions between users, how they do their work and where they do it.

The book provides a valuable background to the issues surrounding the workplace and gives some useful reflections on this complex subject.

Creating the Productive Workplace, Edited by Derek Clements-Croome, E&FN Spon, 360pp, £29.95

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