Our sense of personal space is elastic, but are the anxieties imposed by modern working expanding the circumferences of our personal bubbles? Are you accommodating work, or driving it away?
For decades, employees have been on the receiving end of office densification projects. Let’s be honest: latterly, many of those will have been positioned as tactics to promote teamwork and collaboration, when actually the driver all along is a reduction in space as part of a cost reduction strategy. The personal influence on the working lives of millions of employees worldwide cannot be underestimated. The social and organisational impact of the progressive erosion of employees’ independence, personal space and autonomy is, I believe, the area now needing the greatest attention and investigation. The time has come to focus on the individual, along with their personal contribution and their productivity.
Some would attest that the modern workplace is all about productivity and is the natural evolutionary development of the overly territorial, cookie-cutter corner desk and cubicle farm environments still typical at the turn of the millennium, planned in corrals to give the illusion of micro communities. But the result of that advancement today is too often a brash collage of inhumane, stripped back industrial settings, typified by exposed structures and services, off-grid furniture planning, eclectic finishing and, most pertinently, a non-territorial approach to who works where.
When I tell my wife at breakfast that I have to “ponder an egg” she knows I have to isolate myself and produce an object of personal value-add. It may be my esoteric little quip, and at this stage in my career I do have the immense luxury of near total autonomy over my working day, but it highlights to me the central problem with so many contemporary workplaces. For me, concentrative reflection means getting up early, isolating myself somewhere at home, or most often going for an hour-long bike ride or kayak session. But at no time do I dare go to an office (be that my own, a customer’s, or a co-work space), because distraction is guaranteed.
So, Dr Peggie Rothe’s incredible article on page 8 is, for me perhaps, in Leesman’s 8-year history, the single most important and seminal discovery that should change how any organisation that values employee experience approaches workplace. The simple discovery is that employees’ opinions of whether a workplace supports their productivity is most closely linked to how well it supports concentrative focused work. Fail to support concentrative work and you fail on all levels. So why do so many of the workplaces in Peggie’s study falter? Recent work by Princeton University professor of neuroscience and psychology, Michael Graziano got me thinking. It explores emergent research in personal space. Graziano, describes a “personal bubble… a margin of safety” that we build around ourselves like an invisible “force field”. Elaborate networks of neurons monitor this zone and alter our behaviours and emotions based on the perceived threat level of incursions.
Prompted by observation of wildebeest on the Serengeti, who monitor the movements of stalking lion, triangulating their proximity to the edges of their comfort or threat zone, psychologists have established that our individual personal zones or bubbles are elastic, extending with anxiety. Impose stress on a subject and their zone would appear to enlarge. Flatter or put the subject at ease and the zone shrinks. I then wonder whether we have any real perception of what impact our depersonalised, unallocated, densified workplaces are having on employee sense of individual, personal space. And is it possible that when these tactics are deployed collectively, they are conflating to create unnecessary anxieties, which, in turn are worsening an employee’s ability to manage on the new workplace savannah?
So having pondered this “egg”from the sauna, not from an office, I feel a creeping sense of irony that I first contributed to this Leesman Review column in 2011, under the title “Out-of-Office”. My challenge to you now is to critically appraise the spaces you are designing or managing and ask: are you accommodating work, or driving it away?
Philip Vanhoutte | Leesman
Smarter Working Champion and Chair of the Leesman Advisory Board.
Philip was one of the first to appreciate the benefits of Leesman when he revamped the offices of Plantronics in Europe. The resulting success story is well covered in the Smarter Working Manifesto (in 5 languages). Philip has been a staunch supporter of Leesman ever since as Chairman of the Advisory Board. He advises educators, consultancies and assessors to develop and exercise practices and tools that give professionals and their leaders the physical, virtual and behavioural support that leads to potent human realisation.