How to create a more productive working environment as a small business

Kate Headley discusses how businesses can identify what adjustments need to be made to create a more productive working environment.

When many small businesses consider how they could do for more productive working, topics such as flexible working policies and mobile application often to come to mind, but not all give thought to how the working environment effects staff and what adjustments are needed to help employees to perform well in their role. This is perhaps because when many business owners consider making reasonable adjustments in the workplace to accommodate employees with varying needs, it’s common for owners to think of visible disabilities.

While one in eight adults in the UK have a disability, many of those will have disabilities that are invisible to the naked eye. In our work with companies, both large and small, we’ve found that there is a vast number of less obvious adjustments that employees need, but don’t often ask for. In fact, it’s quite common that these changes are incredibly minor, but will have a noticeable impact on staff absences and employee productivity.

For example we’ve worked with a number of companies where the temperature of large open offices has had a detrimental effect on some employees. In one instance the IT team, who were surrounded by monitors and servers giving off a lot of heat, found that they needed the air conditioning on permanently. While the HR team, who were only a stone’s throw away would often find themselves exceptionally cold and without the heat from the IT equipment. Something as simple as a disparity in office temperature requirements was understandably impacting various individual’s productivity, but it was only a small adjustment – a minor reshuffling of the office layout – that was required to accommodate everyone.

So how can businesses identify what adjustments need to be made to create a more productive working environment?

An open company culture encourages productive working

Ensuring that your staff feel comfortable talking to you about adjustments and personal requirements is key, so it’s crucial that you foster an open and honest company culture and are transparent about your willingness to make reasonable adjustments to help all employees, not just those with disabilities. Make sure that you establish clear and open channels of communication, and that your staff are aware of how they might raise a concern or request an adjustment. This can be done easily and confidentially using software, such as Clear Talents, which provides all employees with a portal to request adjustments. It’s crucial that your staff feel able to approach you, otherwise you may find you lose a member of staff over something as small as being too cold because of air conditioning.

It’s also important that you understand the makeup of your existing team, however small your business is. Knowing how your team works with one another, and understanding their relationships can help to work out why productivity has dipped and identify the issue in order to increase the entire team’s efficiency. If a team work closely together and rely on other colleagues completing tasks in a timely manner, it could be something as small as providing someone with arthritis with a special keyboard to reduce pain in their wrists so they are able to complete their tasks in as little discomfort as possible and produce work at the same pace as their colleagues.

Understanding the dynamics within your team can also be beneficial in identifying when an employee is struggling as a result of the working environment, but is reluctant to ask for help. If a member of a team is suffering with anxiety it might be helpful to assign them a mentor, which will be far easier if you already understand the relationships they have with their immediate colleagues. The same can be said for a new mother returning to work, who may need some extra assistance in their initial transitional period, this might be something as simple as allowing regular coffee breaks, or again assigning them a ‘mentor’ to help them find their feet.

The government’s Access to Work scheme is available to businesses of all sizes to help them make reasonable adjustments which will allow them to retain an employee who develops a disability or long-term condition. This therefore keeps their valuable skills and saves both time and money recruiting a replacement, and shows that you value and will support your employees by having good employment policies and practices. The publicly-funded support programme can provide practical and financial support for people who have a disability or long term physical or mental health condition, and grants can be used to cover aid and equipment in the workplace, travel to and from work, and additional practical support measures within the workplace.

Productive working relies on job satisfaction

Often the small investment needed to make adjustments far outweighs the cost of having to recruit and train a new employee, with a study from Oxford Economic finding that the cost of replacing a member of staff is on average £30,614 and that staff turnover costs British businesses £4.13 billion every year, while the average adjustment only costs £30. When staff consider leaving a role for a new opportunity, job satisfaction is often the deciding factor. If an employee is uncomfortable in a working environment they more likely to feel unsatisfied and are far more likely to be unproductive.

Making a business environment geared to more productive working isn’t necessarily all about making big changes, more often it’s about small, personalised, adjustments to allow employees to perform to the best of their ability. It could be as simple as providing a chair with back support for someone who has back pain, or re-shuffling seating arrangements so that someone with a slight hearing impairment is in a quieter part of the office where they can understand their colleagues better. While flexible working and mobile working policies are certainly desirable, and have been known to increase productivity, small businesses may find that it’s the smaller adjustments that are the easiest to implement and have the biggest impact.

Kate Headley is director of consulting at The Clear Company.

Further reading on productivity

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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