The polysemic workplace

Ian Ellison

Workplace Experience

March 1, 2023

In 1982, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman published what would become one of the most influential business books in history. Originally a marginal internal research project at management consultancy McKinsey, In Search of Excellence explored the art and science of management in successful American organisations, at a time when the business world had become obsessed with emulating Japanese business practices. The book introduced the McKinsey 7S Framework, a framework that depicts the systemic interplay between seven hard and soft elements in organisations, now familiar to business management students and leaders around the world.

Perhaps less known is the fact that Peters viewed physical space as perhaps ‘the most important and least appreciated tool of contemporary knowledge management’. You might wonder, then, why physical space was not the eighth S of McKinsey’s model?

Despite this, since the 1950s workplace scholars from different disciplines have recognised the fundamental interplay between how people are organised and motivated to work, and how they are enabled to do so through their surroundings, tools and technology.

So, if the focus of the 1980s was on business ‘excellence’ in terms of performance and efficiency, perhaps the most important organisational pre-occupation of the post-pandemic 2020s will concern something equally complex and elusive: workplace experience. Thanks to the pandemic, never have so many people – workers and managers alike – experienced first-hand just how different work can be under altered circumstances. And with this, for many, comes the realisation that where, when and how we work can be reimagined, remixed and rebooted.

So how do we better understand not just how this feels for those involved, but also gain insights into the performance and diversity implications for our organisations? To answer this question, we first need to reconsider what we mean by ‘workplace’.

Consider the following statements:

  • ‘Come and visit us in our great new workplace
  • ‘It’s become a pretty toxic workplace to be honest’
  • ‘MS Teams gives us a great new collaborative workplace
  • ‘Our workplace pension is the best in class’.

Each sentence makes implicit, intuitive sense - you most likely don’t have to re-read them to understand the meaning. The first is about the physical workspace of a building. The second is about culture, and a dangerous sounding one at that. The third is about new piece of technology that enables distributed work. And the fourth refers more generally to employee business, rather than personal, benefits. Together, they show how just how ubiquitous the term has become – all are true, and indeed useful, but none are the same.

Language can be tricksy like this. It is arguably our most powerful tool as human beings – the key, says Harari in his book Sapiens, to our ancient ancestors being able to communicate at scale, allowing common understanding and thus cultures to be established, leading to community advantage. To this end, Terry Pratchett famously suggested that our species ought to have been called Pan narrans, the ‘storytelling chimpanzee’, rather than Homo sapiens ‘wise man’ – wisdom, he suggests, being one of our least evident features. Yet language is also flawed in many ways, not least because there are only so many words. Which brings us back to workplace:

In linguistic terms, workplace is a polyseme – a word that has evolved to have subtly different but interrelated meanings.

No wonder then that it gets used differently within both businesses and academia, and triggers so many debates about what exactly it is.

So, rather than argue for one interpretation having more importance or sway than others, what if we embraced the significance and interdependence of all these facets together – business, people and culture, workspaces, and technology? After all, people work, both alone and together, in wide-ranging locations, using the various tools available to them, towards their organisational goals. So, what if we then set out to listen attentively, without prejudice or expectation? What we might discover is people talking in all sorts of different, multifaceted ways about how their workplace is influencing their ability to get work done. And to make sense of that, we need a new framework. One that captures all of those facets.

But that’s another story. Read on about our contribution to this debate. A framework that brings all these parts together.

If you want to find out more about how Audiem can help you get to the heart of workplace experience, get in touch.

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