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Issue Two 2013 - Issue #19

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A space that works

Story by Lisa Starkey

View articles in related topics: Design, Film, Multimedia, Education

Photo: Eamon Gallagher

We all know the feeling: another management-inspired workshop, offsite or, worse still, an action-packed rope climbing, abseiling and orienteering festival, with blindfolded individuals placing their complete trust in their fellow workmates, or heaven forbid, the boss.

Will all this activity in casual clothes really improve workplace culture? Can it actually build trust in a workplace, and more importantly, can it build trust between management and staff?

Workplace environment and culture

Swinburne academic and world expert in an emerging area of workplace design research, Dr Agustin Chevez, doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but his research might just cast some light on a new path to lasting improvements in workplace culture, without a rope or a cliff anywhere in sight.

“My research,” says Dr Chevez, “is about trying to understand the social dimension of space in work environments … how people interact with space to perform work activities.”

A key social dimension, Dr Chevez suggests not surprisingly, is trust. He is researching the issue of trust at work, with his current project in partnership with design consultants, Geyer and its workplace director Laurie Aznavoorian, and Great Place to Work, an organisation that focuses on building trust in the workplace.

The research project is exploring the relationship between trust and the physical environment. What role does the physical environment play in building and maintaining trust?

Meeting industry needs

The industry collaboration with Geyer is important because, as Dr Chevez argues, “together we manage to produce academic grade research with industry relevance.”

According to Dr Chevez, corporate Australia is engaged in the implications of his research. “Australia is a very mature market. There are some sophisticated organisations that understand very well the role of research in informing workplace strategies and recognise that there is a need for evidence-based claims about the success of alternative working environments.”

And what does he think of activity-based work (ABW) – a concept where employees have no set desk – embraced by corporate heavyweight Macquarie and others? “It is a brilliant concept! The problem is that some organisations are lured by their ‘funky’ fitouts and want to implement the looks rather than the principles. In my opinion, ABW is one of those things that you cannot buy in the sense that it is not achieved by purchasing a variety of furniture, but it is something that is developed through time and requires the support and alignment of management.”

Workplace design is currently undergoing something of a shift, with many organisations embracing the trend towards flexible and more collaborative work environments. Dr Chevez’s research shows that the ongoing success of any new working model, regardless of trends, relies on supporting an effective relationship between space, people and technology, in line with the business approach and with the full support of its staff and, importantly, its management. l

Better workplace design

Dr Chevez’s dos and don’ts for employers and facility managers.

Plan, don’t react
Every organisation is different; develop your own plan based on your own circumstances. Avoid over-reaction based on half-understood decisions taken by other companies. A change in workplace culture in one organisation – e.g. Yahoo!’s recent step back from their ‘work from home policy’ – doesn’t mean ‘Working from home doesn’t work!’ Equally, if Yahoo! reinstate their policy, it shouldn’t be used as proof that ‘working from home’ does work for all.

True innovation
Possibly the best opportunity to truly innovate in the workplace might not come from adopting the latest technology or funkiest workplace. Instead it might come from taking a few steps back. Rethink processes, understand how and why things are done and identify opportunities to do them better. Then you can design better spaces to support those new activities.

Maintain/improve the design intent
Design principles should be monitored as closely as other parameters currently monitored by facility managers (e.g. electricity consumption, air-conditioning, etc.) to ensure they are maintained, if not improved.

Leadership is a key ingredient of workplace strategies, serving as a space activator. It activates the space to work in alignment with the design intent. In addition, our current understanding of trust in the workplace is better served through leadership.

Explain, don’t impose
Employees are likely to have a higher level of trust with their organisation if their working conditions, in terms of place and time (where and when they work), are explained or, even better, developed with them, rather than imposed.

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