Last time we wrote about how the word 'workplace' is a polyseme. A word that has evolved to have subtly different but interrelated meanings. And if we're to get to the heart of workplace experience we need to be mindful of that; and that requires a new frame of reference.
To do that some people might focus on specifics – things that enable and delight them, or frustrations that hinder their efforts. Other might outline causal relationships between different facets – the way in which, for example, their ability to collaborate effectively as a team on an important task is helped by the design features and tech functionality of a new work setting. The point is that if we embrace workplace as polysemic – in the same way that Trist and Bamforth recognised organisations as sociotechnical systems in 1951, and that Becker and Steele understood workplace to be an ecosystem of work processes, physical settings and IT in 1995 – we unlock the opportunity for meaningful insights from the specific to the general, and the independent to the interrelated.
Appreciating workplace in this holistic way also offers opportunities to go deeper, using models and theories that help reveal more insights from its constituent parts.
From a people perspective, we can utilise concepts from the likes of Deal and Kennedy and Godin , who suggest cultural elements of communities, drivers, activities and behaviours. For workspace, we can reprise the concept of Duffy and Brand’s ‘shearing layers’, which, when simplified to locations, settings, features, and services, allows us to embrace workspace as distributed and location agnostic. For technology, long-standing IT frameworks such as Whisler and Leavitt’s can be updated to encompass hardware, software, connectivity, and tech support. And all of these provide reasoned and evidence-based links to business outcomes, akin to Duffy’s repurposing of Kaplan and Norton’s famous ‘Balanced Score Card’ concept: organisational performance, reputation, brand, and the affective impacts on those involved.
From these foundations we iteratively shaped the Workplace Mix™, a framework that brings together elements of people and culture, workspace and technology, all in the service of business outcomes.
None of the elements of the Workplace Mix™ represent intellectual or inaccessible concepts. Instead, the framework seeks to represent the myriad lived, and sometimes mundane, day-to-day experiences of workplace users on their terms and in their own words, rather than the conceived intentions of workplace providers. An architect, designer, CEO, CPO, or even a head of workplace might have a grand vision of what they expect a given workplace experience to be. But to conceive of it is not to live and feel it, because there is no getting away from the innate subjectivity of experience.
Workplace experiences ebb and flow. They are rich and complex. While they might seek to cater for diverse and wide-ranging groups, they are individually and often very personally felt. They are shaped over time, yet can be transformed – from delight to disgust, or vice versa – in an instant. And they are typically subtle and nuanced – not only positive and negative, but often ambivalent too.
So how do we understand or improve workplace experience in broad terms? First, we accept its systemic nature, and build bridges with the teams, colleagues and disciplines needed to represent and change it - something that seems to have become increasingly common as organisations address their ‘hybrid’ challenges.
But then we have to listen carefully, and also without prejudice. It’s our responsibility to learn about our people’s workplace experiences, in their own words, and from their own unique perspectives, to encourage and embrace the full spectrum of experience. Why? Because people naturally talk about things that matter most to them, and they rarely respect our contrived departmental boundaries of so-called workplace expertise. It’s human nature to tell stories about what disgusts and delights us, what helps and hinders us, and what could be done about it. So it’s here where the richest seam of insights into workplace experience potentially live, rather than in the safe and unexceptional middle ground.
A more holistic appreciation of workplace experience calls for new ways of exploring and evaluating it. If workplace has previously been viewed in silos, then it should come as no surprise that existing ‘workplace experience’ conceptions and associated measurement tools reflect this. In short, the way something is defined inevitably influences the way it gets evaluated. So if we view workplace experience through the specific lens of our own organisational responsibility, then we risk perpetuating the continued fragmentation of workplace into isolated facets, using tools and techniques that are unable to recognise or represent the interconnectedness of holistic workplace experience.
This is why we believe the 2020s will be the decade of holistic workplace experience breakthroughs.
In 2013, Frank Duffy was interviewed for the British Library National Life Stories project . In it, he reflects on the impact of facilities management, the profession he had played an essential role in establishing several decades earlier:
‘one of my disappointments in life is the failure of the facilities management profession to influence anything beyond its own boundaries’.
Duffy goes on to say
‘they saw themselves as part of the supply chain. They didn’t see themselves as defenders of the users. It’s an ethical problem’.
Equipped with this new awareness of holistic experience through the Workplace Mix™, we envision a new hope for workplace professionals to live up to Duffy’s original aspirations of what Price subsequently terms ‘expert workplace management’, at arguably – and in the face of global workplace attention and disruption – the biggest opportunity since its inception.
So next time you need to go in search of workplace experience – to understand, measure and potentially improve it at your organisation – start by asking yourself two critical questions:
- How broad is our appreciation of workplace, and
- Do we have the best tools and capabilities to explore the diverse experiences of our people and their impacts on our business?
If you want to find out more about how Audiem can help you get to the heart of workplace experience, get in touch.
You can also hear us discussing the academic background to the Workplace Mix on an episode of our podcast, Workplace Geeks.