researchWant to improve productivity by motivating workers, or maybe improving the look of their workzone?

A new study showed some "small but significant" effects on work-related outcomes -- but with a twist.

Cécile R.L. Boot, PhD, of VU University Medical Center, Amsterdam, and her colleagues evaluated the effects of changes to the social and physical work environment at a financial services company.  Boot reported their findings in the March Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

Social v. physical changes

Departments were randomly assigned to social changes, including group motivational interviews to promote physical activity and relaxation; physical changes, such as different workplace zones for quiet work, meetings, and recreation; or a combination of social and physical changes.

The social intervention led to improved work task performance, while the physical intervention was associated with improved "absorption" (being fully concentrated and immersed in work tasks).

What caused a decrease in productivity?

Surprisingly, combining the two strategies actually decreased productivity. Departments receiving the combined intervention actually had small reductions in job dedication and contextual performance (additional activities that contribute to the organizational environment). None of the interventions significantly affected absenteeism or presenteeism (time spent at work with reduced productivity).

The study addresses a growing interest in making changes in the work environment to promote employee health and productivity. It has been suggested that combining interventions to alter the social and physical environment might have a greater impact.

Suggestions from the researchers

But the social and physical environmental interventions evaluated in the study "demonstrated limited effectiveness" in improving work-related outcomes, Dr. Boot and colleagues write. The researchers suggest some ways in which the study interventions might be improved: for example, more frequent motivational sessions to improve the social environment, increased exposure to physical workplace modifications, and attention to aligning health promotion goals with the company's overall business plan.