There’s an internet meme that does the rounds about grammar. You’ve probably seen it. It’s about the difference between knowing your -ahem- stuff, and knowing you’re… well, you get the message.
This article relates to this concept. It’s about how we understand the terms workspace and workplace, and whether we really know how to use them properly, in practical terms, to the benefit of our organisations and people. The workspace industry is notorious for borrowing concepts and focusing on buzzwords and fads. People in the office sector seem to increasingly talk about place rather than space, perhaps without really understanding what the difference is. As a consequence, there is a real risk of the thinking and meaning behind the distinction being lost. And we would argue that building a “high performance workplace” is a challenge if the place/space nomenclatures are being too casually interchanged. Words matter. They are a primary method we use to convey our thoughts and complex ideas. But we often implicitly assume that the person on the receiving end of our discourse understands things exactly as we do. So let’s take ‘workplace’. What does it mean to you? Pause for a moment here and have a ponder. If you’re in the built environment industry, your definition will most probably include some sort of physical, spatial element. But what if you’re from a HR or OD background? Chances are, any spatial element of workplace has been replaced by notions of organisational climate and culture. We’re not talking about those tom-ay-toe/tomah-toe type pronunciation differences here. This is about knowing your… you know, rather than blindly adopting the phrases du jour.
The notion of place in built environment terms has its roots in urban planning and design. During the 1960s, urban activists like Jane Jacobs and behaviourists like William H Whyte began challenging the then growing conventional wisdoms of urban design. In reaction to top down and rigid planning solutions that favoured cars and shopping centres over people, Jacobs and Whyte foregrounded placemaking, both as a process and philosophy, to collaboratively reimagine public spaces as the heart of communities. So from these foundations it becomes clear that places are fundamentally social. Turning our attention back now to workplace, we use a simple equation to capture this, and in doing so unite those different perspectives from HR and the built environment:
From here, we find it useful to frame conversations about work and workplace using the diagram above. It’s like an old-school graphic equaliser with two slide bars. One bar represents workspace, and the other culture. Each bar runs from traditional to progressive. So how would you position the bars to represent these two elements of your own organisation? Does one lead the other? How close are they? Have they drifted over time? Does your workspace represent your organisational culture? Now, think again. If you want to change one element, where would you move it and why? Thinking about workplace this way is important because it shows the connectedness between the two elements. But how are they linked – with string or elastic? If you pull them too far apart, will the connected system fail? You can choose to change them independently. But many organisations make the mistake of focusing on their workspace (both physical and virtual) and either forgetting about culture, or hoping that changing their space will be a catalyst in itself. All of a sudden the industry calling card of change your space, change your culture seems very significant, and even a potentially dangerous move. Workspace is always to some degree a reflection of your organisation. It can help facilitate change, but it isn’t a silver bullet.
We can see evidence of our thesis here borne out through some recent Leesman insights:
1. Understand your workforce – employee activity profile (complexity) is more relevant than age, generation or gender
2. Variety is key – providing a mix of different settings and empowering employees to use them is of pivotal importance
3. Physical versus behaviour – high performance workplace does not come automatically
Just from these three points, the interplay between organisational space and culture – people doing what they do – is immediately clear. The first point nudges at both the need to understand specifically how your workforce works, rather than embrace easy and over-traded categorisations. The second turns to space, but suggests the social relevance of choice. But it is through the third that our workplace equation above really shines. High quality workspace provision is of limited use without significant cultural consideration, through the way we go about doing what we do. At this point it’s useful to return to the concepts of place and more specifically placemaking. If you’re going to genuinely embrace workplace, then it’s important to understand the thinking that sits behind placemaking. This is not a shopping list design exercise, or about lip service ‘consultation’. Placemaking is about action research, community participation, user-centred design, inclusivity and ownership. Heaven forbid, it’s about allowing people to change and adapt their space, rather than receive top down imposed solutions. To use a certain built environment discipline’s title to really drive this point home, placemaking is less managing facilities and more enabling communities. In many respects the thinking behind placemaking resonates most significantly with some of the currently popular co-working spaces. For those that have been considered beyond the superficial ‘industrial chic’ aesthetic, such as the seminal Impact Hub in Westminster, designed by the iconoclastic and RIBA award-winning studio Architecture 00, the implicitly socio-spatial design considerations afford workplaces with community at their heart.
So, what does this mean in practical terms? And how can it help you become more informed and aware regarding your workplace?
It’s about viewing space and culture together, not in isolation. It’s about gifting control back to the people that use space through the choices you provide and the leadership behaviours that empower and enable them. It’s about not just paying lip service to the term ‘workplace’ and doing a bit of hollow consultation with those pesky users to tick the box. It’s about seeking genuine qualitative information to complement your quantitative data, in order to get past the what and into the why, particularly regarding the behavioural elements that underpin successful workplaces. Only then can decisions about your workplace become truly informed.
Here at 3edges we’re on a quest for more qualitative workplace understanding. We’ve recently launched the Workplace Matters podcast, available on iTunes and Acast. It’s a platform to explore the rich, diverse ideas and perspectives that inform workplace knowledge, in contrast to the carefully choreographed conference slots we’re all too aware of. We hope you find it valuable. Because workplace does matter, once you really appreciate what it is.
To find out more about the Workplace Matters podcast, visit www.3edges.co.uk
Ian Ellison | Partner | 3edges
With 18 years’ experience spanning workplace and facilities management practice and education, Ian has developed a reputation as an engaging and entertaining thought leader. Passionate about the power of workplace to enable better business outcomes, his work at 3edges helps organisations to make better workplace decisions through action-led research, consultancy and education.
James Pinder PhD | Partner | 3edges
James is an applied researcher, consultant and educator with a longstanding interest in the workplace, and the impact it has on people and organisations. He is a skilled and experienced evaluator, adept at providing organisations with new insights and communicating those insights in ways that are engaging and easy to understand.