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The complex links between office design, technology and productivity

Posted on November 30, 2016 by Charles Marks

office design and technology

A recent  report from O2 suggests that technology has allowed us to become nearly five time more productive than we were in the 1970s. The Individual Productivity Report is a joint research project from O2 and the Centre for Economic and Business Research and used a metric called gross value added (GVA) per worker per hour to arrive at its results. The report concludes from this data that in terms of IT the average British worker is now 480 percent more productive than they were in 1972, that people get more done in less time, freeing them up to spend more time interacting with clients and colleagues, both inside the office and outside, providing better service and driving business growth.

As ever, we need to put the results of such research into context. Doing more of something doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing the right things or going about them in the right way. The technology itself is creating tasks that didn’t even exist during the report’s baseline 1970s era. And, as we know, some of the technology can make us less productive and less effective in specific ways. Office design can play an essential role in ensuring we get this balance right by giving us the chance to escape our screens and phones for a while and minimising the distractions of other people’s technology and shared equipment such as printers.

Despite this climb in output, there might well be a feeling amongst workers that they are less productive than they once were, given the difficult or impossible task of trying to keep up with the information that is available to them. The O2 report reflects the exponential fall in the cost of information over the last three or four decades. In 1980, it claims that a gigabyte of hard disk space cost £120,000 at current prices. Today the cost of a gigabyte is approximately 5p, a fall of 2.4 million percent. What this means in practice is that we no longer need to be present in an office to have access to large amounts of information.

The role of the office is changing as a result. It is now a place for interaction, building relationships, sharing ideas and processing information. The office is no less important than it once was, a fact that is borne out by the shortage in available Grade A commercial property in many areas as we recover from the recession.

The journey between the productivity of the 1970s and that of today has endured a couple of blips. Technology related productivity actually fell in the mid 1980s in the midst of an economic downturn but just before the common adoption of the technologies that have done most to transform working practices. Microsoft Windows didn’t come along until 1990, the dial up Internet in 1992 and Google in 1998.

The O2 report takes the bold step of forecasting what will happen between now and the customary 2020 cut-off point for predictions. It predicts that technology related productivity will go up by another 22 percent over the next seven years, compared to an increase of 15 percent in overall productivity. No doubt this will be driven by the next wave of technological change coupled with their interrelated socio-economic and commercial developments.  The  now near universal application of flexible working practices shows just how pervasive this link between productivity, workplace design and technology has become.