The future of work: “New world disorder” in the workplace
Designers of workplace environments need to move away from a “one size fits all” approach based exclusively around open plan spaces, because these workplaces are creating disengagement and alienation among many employees.
This was one of the key messages from Dr Libby Sander, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Bond University Business School, in her presentation on the Future of Work at the Total Facilities conference in Sydney.
The workplace, said Dr Sander, was a “cognitive scaffold” which combined a host of factors, from acoustics to personal space to management issues around “sociopathic leadership and abusive supervision,” all of which had an impact on happiness and ultimately productivity.
Designing the workplace was a multi-disciplinary project which should not only combine architecture with psychology but needed to recognise how different people responded to the environment.
Can one size ever fit all?
Established trends such as open planned offices and hot desking, which instead of being welcomed by employees for their flexibility were actually increasing the feeling of loneliness and isolation for many.
“The idea is that you should meet this person you are sitting next to on a particular day, and introduce yourself and share ideas and have cross disciplinary collaboration,” Dr Sander said.
“But the research is showing that people have become indifferent. They think ‘I’m not going to be sitting next to you tomorrow so I can’t be bothered saying hello and I’ll probably never see you again’ so it delivers the opposite to what was hoped for.
“That is not to say that this kind of working does not work for some people, but one of the biggest problems we have is that it is generally a one size fits all approach.”
There was little point, she said, of having everyone working in the same room if no-one could concentrate because of the noise. Investing in better acoustics for workplaces was often talked about at the beginning of projects, but was too often cut back for budgetary reasons.
A ‘new world disorder’
Dr Sander said that with the nature and design of work changing so rapidly, many people were lonely, stressed and unhappy in their work environments. Architects and designers were “doing their best to support people” to be healthier and happier at work, but there was still a “new world disorder” where people were looking for security and fulfilment.
She also identified the concept of “presenteeism” as a major problem in Australian workplaces. Simply defined, presenteeism is the undermining of workplace productivity due to stress, pain, illness and disengagement. Workers may be physically present in the workplace, but for any number of reasons they are not working at anywhere near their full potential. Dr Sander estimated that presenteeism costs the Australian economy A$34 billion per year, against A$7 billion for absenteeism.
Other organisations, she said, were scared of the future and this was manifesting negatively in the workplaces they created.
“Many organisations are worried they are going to be the next taxi industry disrupted by Uber…they think they need to keep pivoting, be more like a start up, when they may not actually need to do that.
“There is a pressure to innovate, but often organisations say ‘let’s get everyone together at 10am on Tuesday and that’s the time to innovate.”
Innovation, she said, could never be an “agenda item”: it was often “messy” and required a culture of safety in which people were able to make mistakes and take risks.
The culture fit dilemma
Another issue in the workplace is diversity. Despite modern management embracing the idea of diversity, in practice many organisations were undermining the concept by recruiting narrowly to fit a culture they were seeking to promote.
“We have hired so strongly to fit culture over the last few decades that we have a lack of diversity in thinking,” Dr Sander said. “So when you add to that the contingent workforce, on short term contracts, you have people who are not prepared to speak out and challenge authority and say ‘hey I think that is a stupid idea, why are we doing that?’
“This is a worrying trend, and you might now have a whole lot of people who are thinking the same way because they have been hired for culture.”
Some employers were recognising the environmental impact on work. US company Delos, for example, provides “wellness intelligence platforms” for residential and commercial situations and practices much of what it preaches at its New York headquarters. There, 78 sensors monitor a myriad of environmental conditions – such as oxygen levels and temperature – and a virtual waterfall positioned at the central staircase adds a new water drop every time somebody takes the stairs.
“So this subtly suggests to people that they should move around a bit more, go and talk to some more people,” said Sander.
In these more advanced workplaces, employers are providing quality food, sleep hubs where employees can rest, and a menu of benefits from health care to gym memberships.
“The other big trend is around optimisation of benefits and the experience, and that is one really positive response we are seeing to the challenge of future work,”