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Office Clutter’s Surprising Impact on Your Employees’ Output

Written by: on  October 2, 2014

As more organisations embrace technology and new ways of working in a bid to become more agile and innovative they may be unwittingly decreasing productivity and eroding employee engagement.  Kursty Groves discusses why a bit of clutter matters.

A recent survey by Gallup (2013), which looked at the “State of the American Workplace” found that only 30% of employees are engaged and inspired by their workplace.  In addition to this, it is clear that different types of worker require different things to engage and keep them engaged.

Add to this evidence some global findings from the Leesman Index (2014):

  • the design of the workplace is important to 84% of office workers
  • yet of those who say creativity is important to their work, only 23% feel that it’s supported


So when it comes to creating working environments that not only support the fundamental tasks that people need to perform, why is it that the physical space is so often overlooked as an opportunity to inspire, engage and boost employee performance?  Many organisations agree that innovation is an important component of their culture and business strategy.  Some go so far as to understand that creativity is the lifeblood of innovation.

However, creative environments can be a bit ‘hit and miss’.  Cynics say that it’s all lava lamps and bean bags and they do nothing more than look good in a designer’s portfolio.  And besides, if you have a creative disposition, you could make an old garage work for you.  Other camps say that creative environments are reserved for the creative industries, or for those with creative roles – ad agencies, marketing, writers or designers – not for me, in a commercial, professional, corporate or public sector role.

Some say it’s just down to trust: let people work where and when they want, and they will find their creative selves.

I believe that there’s a bit of truth in all of the above.  The fundamental point is this: people should be genuinely placed at the heart of the business, and space used as a mechanism to support and reinforce values, behaviour and process.


So why do many people get it wrong?  Here are three reasons:

1) Space as an afterthought

An organisation guided by a clear vision and business objectives, supported by a string culture to get you there in the right way, should include physical space as part of the plan – not an afterthought.

2) Space speaks to people

People and space are both valuable resources and the two are intertwined.  The physical environment (and the stuff that surrounds us – on or off-site) connects with us at a subconscious level – whether positively or negatively.  Simply adding plants to an environment can boost concentration levels and productivity, according to research conducted by Cardiff University.

3) Don’t leave it to Facilities!

It’s up to People Leaders to elevate the environment conversation.  People are part of the space equation, it’s not just about costs per square foot.

Although the modern approach is a far cry from the command-and-control environments of the post Industrial Revolution, where Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management encouraged precision engineering of workers’ tasks, it seems that many offices find it hard to let go of the certainty that a ‘clean desk policy’ can afford.  However convenient for ‘hot desking’ or cleaning, the enforcement of ‘lean’ environments can actually do employee engagement and productivity harm.


Bare Desks?

Research by psychologists at the University of Exeter (2010) into the “Relative Merits of Lean, Enriched, and Empowered Offices” found that a bare desk removes a sense of identity and empowerment, reflecting Taylor’s belief that “all brainwork be removed” from the worker, and reserved for those with greater hierarchical standing.

What’s more interesting than the confirmation that people thrive in environments that are “enriched” with plants or art, is that “empowering environments” – those that involve people in the decision-making around how they are designed or laid out – have been shown to improve productivity by almost three times than those lean environments where all involvement has been taken away.


Enriched environments have been shown to improve productivity by 17%  and environments that people have been empowered to choose, change or design impacts productivity by almost a third over lean environments.

So think twice before you embark on a blanket clean desk scheme, and consider how the physical environment can engage and empower people to be their creative best.


Further reading:

Kursty’s article for Facilities Management Magazine: Why ‘lean’ office design might actually hinder business success

Kursty’s current project: Innovative Spaces: is there a relationship between space and creativity? 


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