How to make your workplace more efficient

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What if clocking in nine to five, Monday to Friday to a calm, beige office is actually stopping you from being efficient? Stylist investigates whether we need a new working model

Words: Laura Jane Macbeth

Work. Whether you skip in every morning with excited anticipation of the endeavours ahead, or drag yourself through the office door like a woman condemned – the inescapable fact is that most of us spend on average 99,117 hours of our lives there – a rather sobering thought if you’re not part of the former contingent. But recent figures show the way we work is changing – around 2.5 million of us now work from home (an increase of 16% over the past year).

So Stylist decided to look at whether we should all be shifting the way we work away from the standard nine to five, stuck-at-a-desk-all-day model – in order to be more efficient, productive and, most importantly, happier.

After all, every other aspect of our working lives has moved on – we have mobile phones, the internet and now tablets – so why do we doggedly stick to archaic working patterns that hark back to when we used gas lamps and wore crinoline?

With this in mind we contacted a range of experts to find out what we need to create the perfect workplace. So even if there is no actual skipping – possibly for the best in terms of professionalism – we’ll at least walk in with a smile on our face…

The Hours

It might feel like we’ve been locked in the nine-to-five structure since the dawn of time, but the eight-hour day was once a revolutionary concept. First championed by socialist Robert Owen in 1817, who believed workers deserved eight hours each of work, recreation and rest, by the 20th century it was proved productivity increased the fewer hours we worked.

Now we have electricity, we can effectively work any time we want. But all-night working isn’t going to catch on (humans sleep when it’s dark because our bodies produce more melatonin – a hormone which causes drowsiness), but perhaps we should be able to tailor work hours to our personal needs?

“The hours you are most productive are driven by your circadian (biological) rhythm, which determines whether you’re a morning or a night person, a lark or an owl,” explains Monica Parker, behaviourist and head of workplace consultancy at Morgan Lovell. “Larks have shorter circadian rhythms, meaning they sleep through their peak hour of sleepiness, and wake up at 7am refreshed. Owls, with longer rhythms, usually wake up around their peak hour of sleepiness at 7am, so still have high levels of melatonin, making them groggy,” she explains.

Some secondary schools are trying to combat this natural drowsiness by proposing lessons start at 11am. If workers too can control their own timetable, lie-ins might no longer warrant a P45. “The most productive period is the beginning of the day,” reveals Erin Falconer of – the exact time depends on your body clock. “People are capable of creative tasks like writing and solving complex technical problems.”

But after a couple of hours of intense work, energy levels drop and towards lunch, workers are achieving practically nothing. In fact, Falconer believes only three to four hours a day could be classed as highly productive. She believes the answer lies in four hours of screen time, interspersed with other, physical activities. “The traditional office setting doesn’t accommodate this because there are few ‘recharge activities’, which can be as simple as household chores or running errands,” explains Falconer.

Working from home means that when we lose energy we can do something else – cook, walk the dog or even sleep – until the energy returns. “People need to build in 25 minutes a day of uninterrupted thinking, away from technology and the expectation of immediate response,” says Parker. “Companies are creating tech-free zones while Nike and Google have nap rooms. Studies show that 20 minutes of sleep in the afternoon provides more rest than 20 minutes extra in bed in the morning. It’s when our bodies naturally slow down and need a top up.”

The new model could work for our bosses too. “Employers don’t pay for unproductive time and employees get to work in a pattern that adjusts to their personal lives,” says Falconer. Just imagine, two hours’ work in the morning, an hour off then maybe two more shorter stints. You’d pay your bills on time, get your groceries in the daylight and be super productive at work. It might even make that gym membership worthwhile, too.

Lunch Breaks

Like eating our five-a-day, drinking less and reading War And Peace, everyone knows we should take our lunch break – but it’s also important you don’t wait too long to eat. Your body starts depleting its reserves if it doesn’t get fed after seven hours and that’s the reason why we should eat before 2pm – the average Brit gets up at 7.12am so 1-2pm is when most of us get hungry after breakfast.

View your food as fuel (few carbs, plenty of protein and fresh produce) and avoid sugar, white rice, pasta and potatoes as they’ll increase insulin levels and serotonin that will send you to sleep. A Bupa study in July showed less than a third of us take a full hour for lunch. But don’t be fooled into thinking you’re being productive. “The lunch break is an essential part of recharging the brain for the afternoon ahead,” says work psychologist Averil Leimon. “Ideally, you need to leave everything work-related behind.” That could be as simple as going to a gallery. Jane Asscher from advertising agency 23red gives every member of her staff a cultural allowance to spend on anything with “a creative element”. “It means people are getting exposed to new ideas they can bring into their work,” she explains. “Plus, they often go with colleagues so it helps people connect outside the office.”

There’s no prescribed amount of time you should take for your break. What’s important is that you focus on something other than your inbox. Ideally, this option to refocus should be available in your workplace too and not just around midday. In his book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles For Surviving And Thriving At Work, Home And School, John Medina believes exercise creates a protein which nourishes the brain, so workers need to find ways of building activity into their day – from ‘walking meetings’ in a treadmill conference room to sitting on exercise balls to read emails.

So far, so weird, but some of these principles are starting to make their way into offices. US pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly has treadmill work stations, in the UK, recruitment company Spencer Ogden has in-office bicycles and in Sweden, workers can attend events where they can dance for an hour, called Lunch Beat. Employers have reported a hike in productivity and Lunch Beat is now backed by workers’ unions. The ideal working lunch, then, is based on getting as far away from the desk-bound sandwich as possible. Get active, get out and forget about work.

The Team

There is growing evidence to suggest that women just edge it when it comes to being the best bosses. One 2011 survey found that women came across as calmer, more tolerant, more aware of personal problems and understanding of the need for a work-life balance. However, another 2010 study found that two thirds of women prefer male bosses who they said were ‘more straight-talking, less likely to have a hidden agenda or get involved in office politics’.

While the image of female bosses excelling at nurturing may not exactly challenge stereotypes, a study published in the Harvard Business Review assessing the merits of 7,280 bosses found that at every level, more women were rated as better overall leaders than men. So hunt down a female-led team and join them. Quickly. And there is a new, progressive style of management emerging. As Mark Catchlove from office designers Herman Miller explains: “It’s about creating what we call ‘social capital’ – a sense of community and belonging. Workers are much more loyal to people than they are to a company, so bosses shouldn’t be shut away in ivory towers.”

Parker agrees and believes offices should consider how they’re structured. Recently, Mark Zuckerberg asked architect Frank Gehry to create a non-hierarchical office from just one room, a quarter of a mile long, because he wanted to be in the same room as his engineers. “It creates a sense that everyone is equally valued,” explains Parker. And in terms of your colleagues, a recent study by professors Anita Woolley and Thomas Malone published in the Harvard Business Review, revealed that while all-female or all-male teams performed the worst (The Apprentice, anyone?), teams with a higher number of women performed best overall. Women were shown to communicate and listen more to each other, share criticism more constructively and be less autocratic than men.

A degree of diversity in terms of age, gender and experience is also important. “What you don’t want is everyone in an office agreeing,” says Catchlove. “The best colleagues will encourage you, but pull you back from the brink when it’s needed.” But it seems human colleagues aren’t the key to office happiness – that comes down to our four-legged friends. “Having a pet in the office has all sorts of benefits – they help employees to relax, improve health and boost morale,” explains Parker. “If you have a dog, employees who take a break to walk them will return to work in a more productive, creative and positive frame of mind.

It’s also good for office bonding.” In fact, a 2012 study by the Virginia Commonwealth University found staff who brought their dog to work became more relaxed as the day went on. For those without, their stress levels doubled.

Design Matters

When it comes to office design, the identikit work station first popularised in the Sixties and the blueprint for offices ever since couldn’t be less conducive to creative thought or maintaining energy levels. “Sitting at a desk all day doesn’t get the best out of people,” says Catchlove. “When did you last have a great idea sitting at your desk? The truth is, few of us do. You need stimulation, interaction, or diversion for inspiration to strike.” Parker agrees.

“When you’re sedentary for hours you become dumb and overwhelmed. One strategy companies are starting to employ is having fewer desks than people. This promotes activity-based working, where employees choose their working environment based on the task at hand, and increases ‘the bump factor’, where they get chatting to colleagues and collaborate. Others – like Autodesk and Microsoft – have standing meeting rooms, with no chairs and just a bar you can lean against.

As a result meetings are shorter, punchier, more focused, accomplish more in less time, and are a measurably improved experience.” One of the most talked about offices in terms of ergonomics, is that of Google, whose new Covent Garden building couldn’t be less conventional. Lee Penson, from architects Penson who designed it, explains the thinking.

“It’s all about loosening up the way people work. The idea was to make the office work around the humans, not vice versa. We wanted the layout to be flexible – we created chairs so workers could be at their desk, then spin round so they were working with their team. Instead of meeting rooms we created flight pods – comfy living room-type spaces where you can lie on the floor or sit on upholstered sections. The rooms aren’t labelled for purpose.” And as technology develops, more change looks likely. “When we move to working on tablets, there won’t be any need for the traditional work station,” predicts Penson. “Change will follow technology and there will be a big revolution in offices. Which can only be good for the workers.”

Research also shows that having a view makes workers perform better – with one study revealing that computer programmers with views spent 15% more time on their primary task, while workers without views spent 15% more time talking on the phone or to one another.

If a scenic panorama isn’t an option, the humble plant can help. A Washington State University study showed that for workers without a window, plants made their reactions 12% quicker and reduced stress and blood pressure. From pot plants to planted walls, an office devoid of green makes for barren working practices.

Perhaps this is why Innocent Drinks, with its astroturf carpets and trees inside the office, was voted in the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For. So, what the modern worker needs is a female boss, a working day interwoven with activities away from the desk, a place to nap, a garden and a pet. Oh, and a 20-hour working week. It all sounds very appealing and might just have us skipping to work after all.

Picture credits: Rex Features

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Stylist Team