Labor Productivity: Designing Offices

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Mar 14, 2013    •    1245 Views

How can my boss affect my productivity?

At Pixar, the restrooms are where Steve Jobs wanted them to be. Because they were located near a huge central atrium, they helped to generate a collaborative community. Seemingly haphazard, restroom traffic flow was an intentional strategy for enhancing labor productivity. It was how Steve Jobs used the work environment to optimize employee performance.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer appears to have the same goal. Mayer recently directed Yahoo employees to cease telecommuting. For Mayer, it was about getting people to the office to interact as a community. Telecommuting might contribute to individual flexibility but it detracted from her goals for the firm as a whole.

Perhaps Mayer was thinking of the Steve Jobs quote from Walter Isaacson. “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”

Assuming that interaction leads to productivity takes us to the next step. At Bank of America, employees, wearing digital tags, had their interactions quantified and located. Then, I guess, the Bank could optimize interactive environments when they saw where and how they existed. Studies suggest, for example, that coffee breaks boost productivity.

I worry.

Yes, an employer certainly should and could ask employees to work at work. But then, how far should they go to dictate the interaction that they believe enhances productivity? Furthermore, how much can my boss influence my productivity?

We should not conclude without defining labor productivity. It is just about inputs and outputs. Labor productivity is when your input, usually measured in hours but not necessarily, creates more output than before.

Sources and Resources: Always insightful, the James Surowiecki New Yorker column on Marissa Mayer was excellent. It reminded me of the digital sensor article in WSJ and Steve Jobs in Walter Isaacson’s masterful biography. The Steve Jobs quote is from p. 431.

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