We hear a lot of talk about the ‘atmosphere’ or ‘environment’ in a workplace. Mostly, these conversations are about culture and how people feel about the interpersonal relationships they have to navigate at the day job We don’t talk nearly as much about the physical atmosphere and environment. And we really should.
A study published last year by property maintenance specialists Aspect.co.uk, who provide electricians across London, found that the vast majority of people - 83% - rate their workplace as physically unpleasant.
Among the most common complaints were that workplaces are too cold, too hot, lacking in natural light, poorly ventilated and troubled by bad smells. Other complaints included shabby bathrooms, inescapable noise, tatty flooring and even pests and vermin.
Businesses rightly focus heavily in creating a good work culture, but the physical surroundings should never be neglected. What’s a free breakfast worth if you’ve got to eat it in a badly lit, smelly and dank office?
Professor Sir Cary Cooper is an organisational psychologist specialising in workplace health and wellbeing. He believes employers are failing to consider the basics of environmental comfort.
“A physically unpleasant or even unsafe workplace is obviously bad for productivity and for an organisation’s external image. Issues like intrusive noises, uncomfortable temperatures and general shabbiness can be a distraction, but it’s also a matter of respect from employers toward their people.”
Professor Cooper believes an unpleasant atmosphere at work is a non-verbal sign from leadership that employee wellbeing is not a priority.
“Employers that don’t provide a good physical environment are sending a signal to their people that theircomfort and freedom from distraction are a low priority, which can be demoralising for any workforce. That’s not to say organisations need to invest in high-spec fit-outs and luxurious surroundings, but they should focus instead on meeting a basic standard of environmental comfort appropriate for their industry.
“The complaints highlighted in the study suggest a wide spectrum of failure when it comes to meeting these basic standards. Workplaces should be a comfortable temperature and well-lit where possible, free from intrusive noise, bad smells and other avoidable sources of unpleasantness.”
Nick Bizley, Aspect’s director of operations, says organisations could significantly improve workplace comfort with a few simple changes:
“The majority of the big complaints revealed by the study relate to issues that can be fixed or mitigated quite easily. For example, we visit organisations who would have significantly more natural light if they just rearranged some of their furniture. It’s quite surprising how many windows are obscured by whiteboards, shelves and sometimes even posters.
“Some of the other problems are just down to a lack of proper maintenance. Damp, leaks and sewage odours are a sign that these firms need to call a plumber or drainage engineer. The fact that more than one in ten people have complained about pests and vermin in their place of work is worrying.
“Some of the complaints don’t even necessarily require anything more than better communication. The fact that more than half of women complain of workplaces being too cold tells us something important. Studies have shown, for example, that office climate standards were set at a time when most workplaces were male-dominated, so the ‘ideal temperatures’ are really ‘men’s ideal temperatures’. If employers were to ask their people if they were happy with the temperature and to allow them to work in different areas with different ambient temperatures, this could help tackle that particular problem.”
As Cooper and Bizley point out, the most common complaints are relatively easy to fix. The issue is fostering a climate of open communication about the physical environment so workers can speak up if they’re not comfortable, distracted or struggling to stomach the smell of reheated shepherd’s pie wafting from the communal kitchen area.