Reimagining Workplace Research: Insights from Jeremy Myerson


February 22, 2024

This blog is inspired by our chat with workplace health champion Jeremy Myerson on the Workplace Geeks podcast. Have a listen.

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What if you were going to survey your workforce about their work behaviours and rather than a bank of questions, you instead had a single grey box on a piece of paper to present to employees? Well Jeremy Myerson and his colleague Catherine Green turned that research method into the award-winning paper "Space for Thought: Designing for Knowledge Workers" which earned the prestigious 'Outstanding Paper' accolade at the Literati Network Awards for Excellence in 2012.

Jeremy Myerson, Professor Emeritus at the Royal College of Art, is a luminary in the field of workplace research with a career marked by prolific outputs which have had a profound impact on workplace design. His extensive tenure at the Royal College of Art and directorship of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Research have solidified his status as workplace royalty.

The starting point for this particular piece of work comes from how we view space, Jeremy lamenting the fact that we view the office through a technical lens, as a ‘thing’ rather than understanding the relationship between space and people.

“Historically, if you look at the workplace industry, it's been viewing the office as a technical construct. So, they apply technical considerations, mathematics, engineering, and they see the office as something approaching an engineering puzzle, that if you tighten the bolts, you know it will go faster kind of thing. And we have always rejected that position. We understand the mathematical and engineering aspects of the office. But the people who go and work in these places are not machines. They're human beings. And therefore, we were always in our research advocates for the user."

The study offers a nuanced exploration of the workplace dynamics of knowledge workers, a group that Jeremy says have been lumped into one homogenous profile of worker. This project aimed to move beyond the generic categorisation of knowledge workers and instead identify typologies based on their mobility within the office environment.

The study's methodology is a blend of qualitative research methods, incorporating in-depth interviews, observational case studies in three different organisations, and a novel drawing tool. The drawing exercise involved participants using a grey box to represent the office building and drawing their mobility patterns within it. This visual representation provided a unique and efficient way to gather rich data on how individuals move within the office space.

This technique was designed to get round the sense of dread that people get when presented with stacks of questions with agreement scales on them. Instead employees were asked to draw their pattern, without taking the pen off the paper. A rapid exercise, but one with stacks of insights.

The resulting typologies identified four distinct knowledge worker profiles: Anchors, Connectors, Gatherers, and Navigators. Anchors, characterised by low mobility, spend most of their time at their desks. Connectors move around the office, linking various individuals and teams. Gatherers split their time between the office and external locations, while Navigators have the highest mobility and are infrequent visitors to the office.

Whilst it is perhaps common knowledge now, at the time the study emphasised the importance of designing workplaces tailored to the specific needs and behaviours of different knowledge worker typologies. It challenged the traditional approach of designing offices based on organisational charts and promoted a more human-centric perspective, considering factors like autonomy and interaction with others.

But the findings of the study remain relevant today, especially in the context of the evolving nature of work, with the widespread adoption of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Jeremy highlights the significance of considering autonomy and interaction with others in the current discourse around workplace dynamics.

“A number of people have been back in touch with me about this paper in the COVID era, …., we are treating the returners to the office as one homogenous mass and, you know, companies are saying everybody back to the office or everybody has freedom to work remotely. And they're not really segmenting.”

In practical terms, Jeremy advocates for workplace users to adopt a more experiential approach, emphasising the importance of understanding how individuals feel about their work environment. He suggests incorporating creative and participatory activities, such as workshops or drawing exercises, to supplement digital data collection methods.

When talking to Jeremy it’s clear that you can get valuable insights into workplace behaviours using novel, creative approaches to research. Catching up with Dr James Pinder afterwards, for our regular ponder, he spoke about how he’d used tools like this and how they create lightbulb moments and shift perspectives. Those moments being crucial if we’re going to get people to consider the importance of understanding the diverse needs of different groups within an organisation, steering away from a one-size-fits-all approach.

James also emphasised the significance of participant-led research, allowing individuals to shape their perspectives rather than imposing predefined boundaries like a standard set of questions.

Food for thought.

Jeremy is still a very active part of the workplace research scene through his work with the WORKTECH Academy, so do check them out. And of course, have a listen to the episode.

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