Powering up the grid to measure productivity gains

Finding reliable ways to measure the impact of workplace design change on staff productivity is the Holy Grail. Can results from a UK study for National Grid finally point the way?

The changing nature of work has had huge implications for how we measure productivity, with traditional metrics used to assess productivity now inadequate in today’s knowledge-based economy where productivity is about value, quality and innovation.

The ever-increasing digitalisation and mobilisation of the workplace has driven the need to develop more sophisticated methods to measure productivity. It’s important to remember that the choice of measure is dictated by who is asking the question – different stakeholders bring a different business focus.

The Chief Financial Officer might want hard financial measures, while HR is more interested in employee health and wellbeing. The measures must be tailored to the required output and will only be valuable if they reflect the objectives of the organisation.

With this volatility and fast pace of change, it remains notoriously difficult to link employee productivity to the work environment – finding a reliable way to do it is something of a ‘holy grail’. So I was excited when we got the opportunity to try a new approach with National Grid, as part of a wider project.

There is a complex network of physical, social and psychological factors influencing employee productivity, of which the work environment is just one. The big challenges lie in identifying the sources of data and information that make up these factors and in teasing apart this network, in order to isolate the information that can be directly attributed to the work environment.

There is definitely no magic formula, but through the aggregation of results from a number of different methods it is possible to measure these attributes that are related to productivity, and offer indications of improved organisational outcomes. The use of both subjective and objective measures of productivity is vital.


National Grid, Warwick, UK. Photo credit: Hufton + Crow

Impact of change studied

At National Grid, fundamental changes had been made to the layout and design of the offices, including the introduction of shared workspaces and a variety of support spaces; everyone moved to agile working. In collaboration with a leading UK university, a study was conducted to objectively determine whether the changes made had positively impacted on the productivity of the employees who occupy these redesigned offices.

In order to do this, comparisons were drawn between the perceived (subjective) and actual (objective) productivity levels of employees in the set of redesigned offices and those of employees in a set of National Grid offices that had not yet been redesigned.

Subjective measures included a work performance survey, focus groups, interviews and observational studies. These produced in-depth data, but for clients who want scientific proof, this is not enough, and this is where cognitive performance tests come in, as an objective measure of performance.

We used three computer-based tasks, capturing data on creativity, grammatical reasoning and cognitive flexibility, chosen because they are representative of activities and skills needed in an employee’s work and have been used in academic research to assess the impact of the work environment on productivity. As each test only measures a facet of overall performance, three tests were used to gain a broader picture of performance.

Boosting cognitive performance

So what did the results demonstrate?

Cognitive performance was eight per cent better in the redesigned offices – according to National Grid, this extra productivity could generate £20 million per annum.

In addition, staff reported an eight per cent rise in comfort and satisfaction ratings in the redesigned offices – and a five per cent boost in collaborative activity per person and productive time gained due to easy access to meeting rooms.

Further analyses revealed that the less positively someone perceived their workplace culture, the less positively they rated their individual performance. Workplace culture was rated much less positively in the redesigned offices, opening up a discussion about the fit of the workplace culture to the environment, and the crucial role of change management.

It is vital that any workplace change is accompanied by positive change management in order to establish an appropriate culture for that workplace.

So – while there is no magic formula or equation with which to calculate exact revenue increases as a result of changes to an employees work environment, and a single indicator of productivity can never provide a complete picture of an organisation’s productivity, an integrated approach using many measures offers a more panoramic and valid insight into the impact of changes to the work environment on productivity in the workplace.

I’m excited about the next steps in this research – establishing a broader baseline of evidence, to be able to benchmark and to ultimately even predict results, and measuring productivity over time, to see how employees adapt to changes in the work environment.

Nicola Gillen is Global Practice Lead for Strategy Plus at AECOM. She has authored and co-authored publications including, most recently: Working Well, Technology, Media and Communications (written for the British Council for Offices) and Productivity: A Homemade Recipe? (AECOM white paper)