From factory floors to our modern offices

May 16th, 2018

Over the past 60-70 years the amount of people who have completed college has risen by almost 800%. All those decades ago, many of those who didn’t attend college entered the workforce in blue-collar jobs and helped build the U.S. into a manufacturing powerhouse.

In the ensuing years, however, the shift toward additional formal education and advanced degrees brought about major changes in the labor market. Today, a far larger portion of workers work in offices than in blue-collar jobs, particularly in the U.S. and Europe.

Interestingly, though, despite the mammoth white-collar workforce, many of the techniques applied to the blue-collar labor force have not made their way to the white-collar jobs.

Worker and time optimization is a good example. Since the first factories and mills were built, increasing efficiency and optimizing how workers spend their time has been a priority. In the automotive industry, for instance, office workers with clipboards and stopwatches often studied employees to determine whether time could be shaved from parts manufacturing or the automobile assembly process. In those cases, even savings of just seconds are extremely important.

Now, try to imagine the same scenario happening in an office environment, and the reaction of the workers in “knowledge industry” jobs.

Despite the advances in technology and business school sophistication, examining worker efficiency and optimizing their time is taboo rather than tradition for white-collar workers. In office environments it is generally taken for granted that workers are maximizing their efficiency. But is that actually true?

Certainly, companies do study areas for improvement and build in efficiencies and time savings with technology as much as they can. More remote work options, experimenting with office sizes, cubicle wall heights, ergonomic solutions, collaborative spaces and more help somewhat with employee satisfaction and work optimization. But when it comes to taking a wholescale look at how workers conduct their days and how they might have less downtime, it is rarely a consideration.

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So why is it that factory settings can have such a strong focus on efficiencies while the knowledge work environment is overlooked?  How is it that one business could be laser-focused on helping assembly workers maximize time efficiencies while office workers might waste minutes or hours just searching for conference rooms or open work spaces every week?

There are lessons we can all learn by studying factories.

Furniture giant IKEA is a case in point. Its founder was someone who looked at the larger picture of efficiency and optimized all parts of his business.  While it was relatively easy to realize economies of scale and process optimization (which would translate into lower prices for consumers) at the design and parts-creation stages, the logistics elements of moving all those pieces to stores and then dealing with them within the stores added significantly more cost. So, they went back to the drawing board and decided they could optimize work at every level of the organization, which helped them create the iconic IKEA brand known for keeping pricing low because of this unique, more efficient business model.

The same technique can be applied to companies with office workers, where studying examples like IKEA and efficient factories can help them make determinations on how they can optimize time within their offices.

Our recent study Office Worker Survey showed that up to 60 minutes is wasted each week per employee within office buildings. With more companies offering flexible work options, such as hot desking for workers who only spend one or two days a week in the office, the need for optimizing the time of workers has never been more important. After all, having a worker enter a facility twice a week and then spend 30 minutes or more each time searching for an open desk is inefficient for the company and frustrating for the employee. Having a group of executives searching for an open meeting room is also another avoidable point of frustration and wasted time.

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That’s why more technology companies are focusing on helping organizations consider areas of improvement that previously haven’t been considered, such as using location-responsive apps to help employees better navigate large buildings and campuses. At the end of the day, a lot of optimizing workers’ time comes down to how and where they are moving about the space.

In this day and age office workers have more freedom in how they work, where they work, and in making decisions around their work. Although very different in nature, the lessons learned from the factory floors could serve as a source of inspiration in modern companies; how can we be more productive? What is truly important and what isn’t?

It’s truly time for enterprises to remove the hurdles that stifle collaboration, and innovation.


Looking to improve the utilization of your real estate? In our latest whitepaper we take an in-depth look at some of the drivers of low utilization and what can be done to improve.