Organisations are using the physical environment as a lever for change to meet the growing complexity of the world of work, and meet the needs of a workforce that is bringing more of themselves to work than ever.
It feels like every other week there is a new study out that shows the impact of stress on any particular industry or profession. The impact is usually given a dollar amount, but we know the human cost, too. Burnout, mental health issues and constant turnover are all related to worldwide organisational challenges that are rising to prominence in today’s complex world of work. Organisations are starting to cotton on to the notion that something has to change and many are changing their physical workspaces to address these issues. But why change the physical space?
Organisations are stuck in an older way of thinking
To understand the challenges organisations are facing today, we need to refer back to the world of work from many years ago. During the industrial revolution through to WW1 and WW2, much of the world saw changes to how work was done. Many countries shifted their focus heavily into manufacturing and as a result, many workers were asked to complete repetitive, routine tasks as part of a larger process. The way that companies organised themselves, both physically and organisationally, was to support these types of mechanistic processes. A prime example is the assembly line made famous by Henry Ford at Ford Motor Company over 100 years ago. While this was an innovative way of mass-producing products at the time, industrialised economies have since seen their economic output comprise less and less of manufacturing, thanks to outsourcing overseas and the introduction of automation. Leaving a gap in the nature of how value is generated. Value has moved to focus on services where more complex, human skills reside (you may have heard the terms ‘service economy’ or ‘knowledge economy’ to describe this collective shift in focus). Therefore organisations ask themselves, how does the physical space from a different era serve such different and more complex services, and human skills?
Organisations are asking more from their workforce
This collective shift has also seen a pivot from mechanistic organisations (as described above), to more organic organisations. Organisations that tend to lean towards flatter hierarchies, more integrated, cross-functional organisational structures and more flexible ways of engaging in work. Both reactive and proactive; these shifts have occurred as a response to the needs of teams and industry expectations, but they have also occurred pre-emptively as organisations strive to get an edge within their industry. No longer can we turn up to the workplace as another pair of hands; in today’s world, the value that organisations are drawing out of workers is their humanity. Organisations are asking people to contribute their distinctly human skills such as complex problem-solving, social skills and their emotional intelligence. In order to contribute in these ways and succeed in our roles, we have to tap into our genuine selves; there’s just no way around it. So organisations ask themselves, how does the physical space support and inspire this?
Consider, for example, facilitating a working session with your team. In my line of work, great facilitation requires the facilitator to set their ego aside and create the time and space for participants to genuinely express themselves. It takes emotional intelligence, understanding group dynamics, patience, compassion and letting go expectations to facilitate a great working session. It also takes the participants being able to genuinely contribute. A computer or a list of rules could never run a successful, productive session. The only way that it is possible to facilitate, or participate in, a really great working session is to bring your genuine self to the table.
Many organisations that operate to the old, mechanistic paradigm of what ‘work’ is, are not tapping into their workers’ human sides and so are not getting the best out of their staff. Using the above example, it’s as if organisations are asking a facilitator to run a session to strict timings, with strict rules and required outputs; the session reflects the mechanistic outlook of the organisation. Also many organisations understand that the nature of their products and services require staff to offer some part of their genuine selves; however, they have yet to adapt their organisational structure and physical workspace to support this happening. Again, using the above example, it’s as if the organisation has asked the facilitator to work their magic in an organisation with a strong sense of hierarchy, teams that compete with one another for resources and a non-customisable meeting room where participants sit on opposing sides. While there might not be explicit constraints, there are very many implicit ones arising from the organisational way of working that prevent people from genuinely contributing.
Using the physical space to initiate change
The organisations we work with are usually in this latter group; they understand that something needs to change but they are not sure how to go about it. Organisations realise that they can use changes to the physical space, leveraging the tangible, visible changes as an impetus to change the way of working and organisational culture. By breaking their physical constraints and developing an understanding of how the physical environment can best support staff in the work that they do, organisations can take advantage of momentum that they were previously trying to resist or manage.
The opportunity is there
The way that work looks and feels is changing as organisations ask more from their staff. The organisations which support their staff in bringing their genuine selves to work are better able to meet the growing complexity of the world of work. Lower turnover, less burnout and mental health issues are just the tip of the iceberg; the core consequence of adopting human-centric ways of working is a workforce that is supported to fully bring their human skills to their work and get that bit closer to achieving their potential.
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