Working effectively depends on a number of factors, including your personality, your health, your motivation, and possibly most importantly, your work environment. When all the pieces fit together perfectly, it’s hard not to be productive. And when they don’t... let’s just say that you’re not going to do your best work.
As important as each of those puzzle-pieces are individually, the one that impacts them all while being at least partly within your own control is the work environment.
What makes up your work environment?
“Environment” in this context is somewhat of a vague term that includes a lot of individual components.
Your team members
One aspect of your work environment is the people you work with. Coworkers greatly influence a lot about your workplace, your attitude, your work processes, and even your wellbeing.
When you love the people you work with, motivation comes easy. Particularly when working as a group, work becomes fun when the group is composed of people whose company you enjoy. When everyone respects each other, collaborative efforts are productive.
Yet, your coworkers can also be at the root of a “hostile” work environment. When the team members you rely on to get things done can’t cooperate, productivity stops.
The culture of your workplace affects everything about the working environment. While it in itself is composed of a lot of other components, company culture is like the personality of a business.
Not every employee fits well within every business’s culture. And the reality is that some companies either do not have a well-established culture, or have established a culture that is toxic to those exposed to it.
When you’re considering a new job, getting a feel for the culture of any company you’re considering should be a large part of your decision-making process. Start with the company’s mission statement—do their stated values fit with your own? You should be able to get a good sense of what the culture is like during the interview process, but you should also be observant. Any obvious “bad behavior” while you’re waiting to be interviewed—particularly if it’s unaddressed—should raise a red flag.
Your own workspace
Your actual physical surroundings impact your performance. This is a facet of your work environment over which you’ll have a good deal of control, so ensuring that it is conducive to working effectively is largely within your control.
Certainly there will be office policies that dictate what you can do with your workspace, but in most cases you still have a good amount of flexibility. Put thought into what you can do to make your personal space encourage good work.
While it is often thought of as separate, how your work is balanced with your personal life is yet another piece of the work-environment puzzle. When your personal life is not as good as you’d like, it cannot help but impact your ability to perform well on-the-job.
The office space
Less within your control than your personal work area, the layout of the office matters a lot. An office composed of several smaller, private offices is much different than one filled with cubicles, which is again much different from an office with an open floorplan.
Productivity and happiness
Happiness has been found to have a large impact on productivity, an important fact for employers to recognize. Oddly, though, the reverse might also be true—people who are more productive are also happier.
Of course, this creates a kind of chicken-and-egg question here—does increasing happiness lead to increased productivity, or is it the other way around? Here’s the kicker: it doesn’t matter. Both happiness and productivity are things people strive for and although it seems likely that each influences the other, ultimately we want both.
Recognizing a “toxic” work environment
It’s a phrase that gets a little over used, but a toxic working environment impacts so much of your life that it’s worth taking seriously. With happiness and productivity so apparently intertwined, eliminating anything that is disruptive to either is a worthwhile pursuit.
So how can you spot toxicity in the workplace? There are quite a few red flags to watch for, beginning with problems with the company culture.
Most challenges with a business’s culture can be tracked back to the top, but are most apparent within the workforce. Here are just a few of the warning signals to watch for:
- No clearly understood rules – Trying to get along in a company where nobody’s sure what the company’s policies are is a recipe for frustration. Whether there are written rules or not makes little difference if they are not enforced, or only enforced sporadically.
- “My way or the highway” – Bosses who refuse to hear new ideas or who refuse to accept that they are ever wrong will rarely result in high job satisfaction or productive employees.
- “Us against them” – While there will always be a degree of this attitude in most companies, a healthy office culture requires mutual respect. A workplace where employees are constantly bad-mouthing management has much deeper problems.
- No performance standards – This one parallels the first. When starting a new job, you might have ambitions to move up the ladder, or at least to upgrade your part-time position to full-time status. If you can’t be sure how your performance is going to be graded, getting to that next rung can feel like a crapshoot.
- Incompatible working styles – There are two sides to the problem here. First, there is the hiring. It is an important part of the interview process to find those candidates who will work well with your existing team members. Clearly it’s not possible to ace this every time, which means that it is also contingent on employees to adapt to their new team. When one or both of these fail, though, it is the responsibility of those in charge to correct the problem. To ignore it is to allow a cancer to grow.
While it’s true that office culture is one part of the work environment, here we’re looking at the office’s physical environment. In the future offices could become obsolete as more companies and more of the workforce is shifting to remote working arrangements. That doesn’t appear to be happening yet, though, so let’s examine some of the problems of a typical office.
Isolation – For many years, going to work in your own office was the norm. There were a lot of advantages to this arrangement, particularly privacy and the ability to minimize distractions. For many, this is still a preferred office layout and it still works well. However, keeping employees barricaded in their own offices reduces cooperative work and open communication.
More common now are cubicle-filled offices, which take the worst aspects of private offices—the lack of communication and collaboration—along with the worst aspects of open workspaces, like noise and difficulty having private conversations. At the same time, cubicles bring none of the benefits of either of the other common office layouts.
Distractions – This is the opposite problem. Lacking private offices, noise is a very common issue that affects productivity and mental health. Distractions at work have been shown to impact mood, possibly even more than they affect the quality of work. In the modern work world, headphones and white-noise generators have become common occupants of cubicles and open office spaces.
A less obvious distraction is white noise. While it’s true that it can help workers to focus on their work rather than the even more distracting sounds around them, white noise has also been shown to increase stress levels, again potentially lowering productivity and overall happiness.
Even though it’s unlikely that businesses will begin providing private offices for all of their cubicle-dwellers, options exist that allow workers even in the most disruptive of workspaces to get some peace and get work done.
Sick coworkers – While this might be unavoidable to a degree, in many hyper-competitive industries taking sick days is seen as a sign of weakness. Yet working sick costs both the worker and the company. Few people can work effectively when ill, and by showing up to work they rob themselves of the chance to recover. Worse yet, they risk exposing their coworkers, causing productivity to drop office-wide.
In an office where coming to work sick is expected, whether that’s explicit or not, “toxic work environment” is more than just an expression. Yet there’s another reason that sick employees is a sign of a toxic environment. High stress levels can often be the cause, or at least a contributor.
An open floorplan can contribute to illnesses spreading throughout the office. In those times where working with the sniffles is unavoidable, an office that provides private space for occasional use can at least help to minimize the spread. This is an excellent way to improve the health standards within the workplace, reducing some of the “toxicity”—literally as well as figuratively.
All-in-all, your working environment is important to more than just the quality of your work. Every component of that environment affects nearly every part of your life, and is something to take seriously.
If you have any tips of your own on creating a healthy working environment, we’d love to read them, so be sure to let us know in the comments below.