Parameters of productivity: what’s the best way to improve performance?

Raising office productivity in the new era of hybrid working will be a challenge for many companies. Interviews with six global experts for a podcast series presented by Nestlé Coffee Partners suggest how business performance can be enhanced

Take six international experts on the future of work, each handpicked from WORKTECH Academy’s global network for their insight into a different aspect of company performance. Interview them for a podcast series. Study the ideas and opinions that flow from six conversations with pioneers in the field – and analyse the lessons learnt about raising individual, team and organisational productivity in the new era of hybrid working.

That’s the plan we formulated when WORKTECH Academy and Nestlé Coffee Partners teamed up to explore the relationship between the science of workplace design and coffee culture in Smart Coffee Break, a podcast series on the theme of office productivity.

What we discovered from the podcast series is that there are clear links between the social dimension of work and improving performance – taking a break with colleagues and enjoying informal interactions can be far more productive than being glued to a desk all day.

However, the story of reviving productivity after the global pandemic is not simply a social one – it is based on a complex amalgam of inter-related factors in which design, technology, leadership, culture and neuroscience all have a part to play.

Autonomy and interaction

In the first podcast in the Smart Coffee Break series, we interviewed Despina Katsikakis, Global Lead for Total Workplace at Cushman & Wakefield, about the origins and evolution of office productivity. Her research, stretching back to the 1980s, has explored the relationship between a worker’s level of face-to-face interaction and level of personal autonomy as a way to raise productivity.

What employers experienced during the coronavirus crisis was an increase in personal autonomy while working from home, but a dramatic decrease in social interaction with colleagues. Despina Katsikakis believes that improved company performance will depend on a return to the office as a place of social connection, and on giving employees more opportunities for face-to-face interaction as well as more autonomy.

That means more coffee points, more water-cooler moments and more serendipitous encounters. As she told us: ‘Organisations need to focus on creating dynamic ways to reinforce those elements of serendipity, of occasion, of memorable and delightful experiences.’

Getting into flow

In our second podcast, we talked to neuroscientist Fiona Kerr, founder and CEO of the NeuroTech Institute and an adjunct senior fellow at the University of Adelaide, who argued that supporting individuals to get into a state of concentration and flow will be as important to the future of productivity as enabling collaborative activity in the workplace.

Kerr believes we should pay more attention to how our brains work in determining the contours of the new office. The psychological concept of ‘flow’ as a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity and creativity was first recognised and popularised by the veteran psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – but getting into flow doesn’t necessarily mean shutting yourself away. Fiona Kerr is emphatic that we can take a break in the office without losing focus: ‘Not only do you not lose focus when you get up and take a break, you actually increase focus… because of the way that we store information.’

Innovating at speed

In our third podcast, we interviewed Simon French, Workplace and Design Director at GSK, who told us that supporting dynamic interactions within teams will be essential to improving productivity. This is especially the case in the fast-moving pharmaceutical sector where large life science firms are required to innovate at speed.

French took us behind the scenes at GSK where, he explained, ‘we are now moving away from the office as this central production with rows and rows of desks. We are now accepting that work happens anywhere…we have to build a complete ecosystem.’ One of the difficulties that GSK’s teams encountered during the pandemic was how to innovate remotely. Online brainstorming worked to a point, but French explained that a key lesson was that ‘being with people makes ideas much easier’.

At GSK, Simon French is now advancing a ‘consumerised’ model of workplace amenities to enable people to relax and interact with colleagues: ‘It’s important to get that mental release from the workplace…Just because you’re sitting in a coffee bar and having a good quality coffee and talking with a colleague, doesn’t mean you’re not talking about work.’

Allowing ideas to percolate

In our fourth podcast, we extended our study of the future of teams to look at team-to-team collaboration in the company of Primo Orpilla, co-founder and principal of San Francisco design firm Studio O+A, who has designed a series of high-profile projects for technology firms in Silicon Valley.

Orpilla told us that workplace productivity in the post-pandemic era will increasingly depend on companies letting go of the past and allowing more fluid forms of team-to-team interaction to flourish. He described the transformation of Silicon Valley from making military hardware to creating software and computers for the new digital age – and how its command-and-control structures gradually gave way to new team structures that allowed ideas to percolate more freely.

Primo Orpilla attributed this transformation to the rise of start-up culture, which enabled ‘a more fluid workplace where a lot less was transactional and a more collaborative environment started to emerge’. Like Fiona Kerr, Orpilla also recognised that going off to get a refreshment in the workplace can ‘unjam the brain’ and unleash creativity: ‘So we’re thinking of little areas that might introduce circadian-rhythm light or sounds or moments of distraction, but in a positive way like when you go to an art installation or see something unique.’

Connection and affiliation

In our fifth podcast, we asked American architect, behavioural scientist and associate director of Boston Consulting Group, Kristi Woolsey, to share her ideas on planned and unplanned social interaction. She believes these social exchanges will not only be central to company productivity but also one of the main reasons why we’ll still need physical offices in a hybrid future of work.

Woolsey’s view is that ‘people will come to the office for connection, collaboration and affiliation’ in the post Covid-19 era. She accepts that ‘engineering serendipity has been part of the workplace for quite a bit, where we deliberately put two departments next to each other by having them share a coffee pot so that they will need to interact’. But she also argues that planning serendipity will be more deliberate in the future as more companies recognise that social interaction is important and not ‘the frosting on the cake’.

Woolsey told us that ‘there was actually a study done that looked at more than 800 research papers and projects about productivity, and found that the number one correlating factor for team productivity was social cohesion’. This explains why Boston Consulting Group takes serendipitous encounters so seriously that the company even created a special metric – a ‘collision coefficient’ –  for its New York office.

Changing the power dynamic

In our final podcast, we asked Bruce Daisley, the British writer and workplace culture expert, to give an overview of trends in workplace performance. He was adamant that giving people more personal control in small, semi-autonomous units inside the organisation will be critical to raising levels of productivity in the firms of the future.

Daisley explained that ‘meetings normally go up with organisation size…the more we can enable workers to get their jobs done, and not feel like they’ve got to tell everyone and keep everyone in the loop, that’s where we liberate workers to get their most productive, energised, inspired work done.’ He’s firmly of the view that informal social connection between different teams can be far more productive than a formal meeting: ‘There’s no power dynamic… innovations often live in the lines between the train tracks, and they are often when a marketing team goes over to the product team and the conversation happens in a way that hadn’t been mandated by anyone.’

Daisley accepts a general view that ‘the office of the future will be half the size but twice the experience’. He told us that a sense of belonging is important: ‘The best organisations will say – we want you to feel productive, able to get things done with a sense of autonomy, but also you feel part of something bigger than you.’

Learning from the series

A number of key lessons about the future of work and improving company productivity can be identified from the Smart Coffee Break podcast series:

Hybrid is hard to get right: Our experts were unanimous in the view that making the new hybrid model successful will require a lot of attention, hard work and experiment. As Fiona Kerr explained: ‘Hybrid workplaces are the hardest of the lot. They are harder than virtual, and harder than face-to-face. They can be the worst of both worlds, or the best of both worlds.’ Primo Orpilla agreed that companies currently have big concerns over how the hybrid workplace will unfold, but describes ‘the next chapter of workplace’ as being ‘super agile’.

Important to test new ideas:  The interviews revealed that raising the game on productivity will require a willingness to experiment with design formats, flexible policies and new technologies. Ideas should be piloted and evaluated. Simon French of GSK, for example, described as unique experiment at GSK’s London HQ to measure and monitor team and individual productivity in a Workplace Performance Hub – this tested the effects of different design variables (light, sound, imagery, air quality, layout and so on) on employee performance. As French remarked: ‘Large portions of the business have now returned to the office, but in different ways. We’re still experimenting, we’re still piloting.’

‘New design and technology ideas should be piloted and evaluated…’

Leadership is critical: How senior managers respond to the challenges of the hybrid world will be key to determining how their organisations perform. Despina Katsikakis of Cushman & Wakefield explained that while office design and policy can solve some of the factors around productivity, much will depend on ‘management behaviour – the ability to motivate and inspire people at work’.

Simon French of GSK pointed out that trust is essential to enabling teams to do their best work: ‘There’s a high level of trust in the individual to do what you think is right. We really just set a few guardrails to make sure that you’re not coming in to sit at a desk for eight hours, that’s not the right approach anymore.’

Technology should not be a stressor: The interviews highlighted the importance of using technology to give people more control and not stress them out through the use of technology for digital surveillance. As neurologist Fiona Kerr explained: ‘Stress wipes out the capacity for concentration and  flow because it does all sorts of things to our brains and our bodies.’

Give people more personal control:  Giving people at work a sense of personal autonomy and control emerged from our podcast series as the biggest influence on wellbeing and therefore productivity.  This finding about control reflects the main findings in the research literature. As Bruce Daisley remarked: ‘If people are experiencing burnout, it’s quite often because they feel no control over their personal situation. They might open their calendar on a Monday morning and immediately feel breathless, they feel like they can’t cope with the week.’

Understand your workforce: When everyone was attending the office on a daily basis, the task of addressing employee requirements was more straightforward than it is now with the emerging hybrid model. Our experts emphasised the need for workforce planning to understand precisely the type of work that people do to determine if the role can be fully remote or fully office-based or hybrid. The demographic makeup of the workforce is also important because, as Kristi Woolsey explained, different age cohorts react to social interaction in the office in different ways.

‘There should be new types of space offering points of connection, enjoyment and delight…’

Provide a sense of delight: The future productive workplace will not just be about work. It will be about social exchange and belonging. Employees will come to the office for an experience, and will require new types of space offering points of connection, enjoyment and delight – what Despina Katsikakis described as ‘amenities and services that make us feel inspired and connected to others.’ Bruce Daisley remarked that the office of the future might be‘ half the size but twice the experience’. This is a design challenge that will require a change in thinking by companies from utilitarian to unorthodox.

Clearly, as outlined in the Smart Coffee Break series, we are on the brink of a new approach to the workplace as ‘destination’ which encourages social connection, employee wellbeing and team performance. As Simon Baggaley, Coffee Category Manager at Nestlé Coffee Partners UK, comments: ‘The six interviews collectively present a picture of change. Raising office productivity is no longer a mechanistic process but rather a human one – companies today need to take into account the more complex behavioural patterns and social dynamics of the new workplace.’

Find exclusive content in the


Premium content for Global Partners, Corporate and Community Members.
The latest analysis and commentary on the future of work and workplace in five distinct themes: Research & Insights, Case Studies, Expert Interviews, Trend Publications, and Technology Guides.