Why the return to the office matters to raising productivity

The pandemic gave workers more autonomy – now they need more face-to-face interaction if productivity at work is to improve, says leading expert Despina Katsikakis in an exclusive interview with the Smart Coffee Break, presented by Nestle Coffee Partners

The future of productivity 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’s the verdict of international productivity expert Despina Katsikakis, architect, consultant and Global Lead for Total Workplace at Cushman & Wakefield, who has been closely studying the changing parameters of business performance in the workplace for more than 30 years.

In an exclusive interview with WORKTECH Academy director Jeremy Myerson as part of the Smart Coffee Break podcast series on productivity at work, presented by Nestle Coffee Partners, Katsikakis explains how the current shift by company leaders to consider new ways of working has its roots in developments shaped long before the arrival of the global pandemic.

Autonomy and interaction

In the 1980s and 1990s, says Katsikakis, researchers were already exploring the relationship between the level of face-to-face interaction and the level of personal autonomy that a worker may have in order to find a formula to raise productivity. As mobile technology began to emerge, ‘there was a focus on connection, community, culture and knowledge as the office went from a single location to a network of locations, with adaptable spaces, virtual spaces, and so on.’

There are, she believes, clear parallels between then and now in terms of the challenge to productivity. ‘Over the past 18 months, company leaders have experienced at first hand the ability to maintain productivity while working remotely, at the same time as having a greater awareness of the underlying risks.’

Chief among these risks is a loss of face-to-face interaction experienced during the pandemic. Drawing on Cushman & Wakefield survey data, Katsikakis explains: ‘Connection to colleagues and culture, knowledge sharing and mentoring, and wellbeing have suffered significantly – with younger generations suffering the most.’ These ‘productivity underliers’, she suggests, constitute the main risks for employers in attracting and retaining talent.

Importance of place

A key message of the Covid-19 crisis, according to Despina Katsikakis, is ‘the importance of place… the pandemic has led us to look at public health through the lens of buildings.’ Now she says, we’ve all become experts on air quality and also want to see natural light, colours and patterns, sensory and acoustic controls, and other environment factors shaping our future workplace: ‘All are critical to our performance, as are operational policies that provide flexibility and choice of work settings, and amenities and services that make us feel inspired and connected to others.’

Despina Katsikakis was a leading member of the research team that produced the landmark 2006 British Council for Offices report, ‘The Impact of Office Design on Business Performance’, which advocated a people-centric shift from efficiency to effectiveness and expression in the workplace. Fifteen years on, she believes the report remains highly relevant. Autonomy held up well in the pandemic but, as interaction suffered, ‘offices need to be places of social interaction going forward.’

‘Organisations need to adapt to how people will work differently, to align the space to those new behaviours…

That means more coffee points, more water-cooler moments and more serendipitous encounters: ‘Organisations need to adapt to how people will work differently, to align the space to those new behaviours, and to focus on creating dynamic ways to reinforce those elements of serendipity, of occasion, of memorable and delightful experiences.’

She warns, however, that just adding social amenities and services will not automatically boost performance by themselves. ‘We measure over 40 attributes that impact experience and productivity…You’ve got to find the right ones for your organisation, four or five that really matter to invest in…If the key attributes are not performing, adding in some soft, curated activities are not going to solve the productivity issue.’

Embracing complexity

Despina Katsikakis accepts 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’.

However she rejects a binary view of the workplace in which the future of productivity will be all about teams rather than individuals. ‘It’s about both, more focus on individuals and more focus on teams. The ability to embrace that greater complexity will ensure successful outcomes. The future workplace for us is about inspiring and engaging people. The more you do that, the more you need to embrace that complexity.’

You can listen to the full interview with Despina Katsikakis of Cushman & Wakefield here.

It is the opening programme in the Smart Coffee Break podcast series on productivity at work, presented by Nestle Coffee Partners in partnership with WORKTECH Academy, the global knowledge platform and member network exploring how we’ll work tomorrow.    

Subsequent podcasts in the Smart Coffee Break series will focus on such subjects as concentration and flow, optimising teamwork, team-to-team collaboration and unplanned interactions, featuring interviews with experts from around the world.

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