Evolution of the psychosocially healthy, productive workplace

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A critical review of the current but rapidly changing state of the workplace, in all its physical, virtual and connected forms, is needed. Of particular interest is the make-up of both the psychosocially healthy and productive environment, given the impact of a constant drive for cost-effective physical and virtual spaces that must simultaneously marry with usability issues and employee attraction for more flexible and healthier working conditions.

How do organisations successfully engage employees to embrace the increasing use of the flexible workplace with real-time reporting and feedback, so they actively and equally benefit? Clearly technology is playing an ever-increasing role in providing the necessary reporting tools. To evaluate this terrain from the perspective of performance, I have been in discussion with major space users and worked in concert with Guardian Global Systems, which provides both technology and systems that can be deployed to manage and report on space use and efficiency in the workplace.

Finally, who maintains and evaluates these monitoring and feedback tools to optimise performance with costs and promote employee health, if not social capital more generally? These critical issues will be explored and discussed further.

Increasing workforce agency, mobility and flexibility
Even in highly structured factory environments with specific quotas there is a growing recognition that ‘worker agency’ is vital. Building upon an organisation’s established policies and procedures, flexible and skilled interpersonal staff responses to emerging employee issues and short-term personal commitments (such as family or health issues) are crucial for achieving worker satisfaction and continued commitment to productivity. Moreover, just as organisations have various means of linking output to people and units, they are also capable of inferring pain-points, staff burnout trends (including unplanned leave and stress injury claims), churn and opinion trends, via periodic employee engagement surveys.

Where organisations use digitally based content – which must be the vast majority – there is a blurring between physical and virtual workspace activities, as there is between the workstation and its location. We also have a heady mix of workforce variables, building upon the rise of worker agency with numerous options for worker flexibility together with technological mobility. These softening boundaries are demanding more from organisations, particularly their responsibilities protecting if not promoting employee health and well-being, alongside maintaining competitiveness for attracting and retaining talent in an increasingly mobile and interconnected world.

New management issues
How are these shifting arrangements effectively managed? The more flexibility staff gain to work in various on- and off-site locations, the less managers are able to use traditional ‘manage by sight’ approaches. How effectively does your organisation know how its staff use workspaces and resources? When staff move across a number of floors and sites, working across multiple projects, how suitable is each environment? How useful is the line manager’s approach? Certainly, the oft-referenced ‘micro-manager’ has a major problem when s/he cannot constantly monitor the minutiae of activities and behaviours of his/her more flexible, mobile and potentially empowered team.

It is fair to say that most organisations are invested in utilising new technologies to improve efficiencies, to be cost-effective yet competitive. Interestingly, this focus increasingly synchronises with staff-driven enthusiasm for more flexible working arrangements and more conducive work environments. But allowing, if not promoting, increased staff mobility creates a new set of challenges. Despite various electronic means of communication, people still need to meet with each other. When are they in the office? Which building are they in and how readily can they be located? Requirements for resource allocation become more dynamic: when and how can staff find desks or spaces? When is a ‘neighbourhood’ at capacity? What kinds of office set-ups and workstations are most in demand and when? Companies requiring cross-functional projects and/or innovation require breakout areas and collaborative spaces. So how do managers and team leaders know whether (and when) their facilities are providing the optimal level of support to meet the needs of this more demanding and dynamic workforce?

With the rise in paperless offices, plug-play printing, collaboration and cloud solutions, organisations and their staff are rapidly adapting to new tools without completely solving pre-existing problems. For example, virtual teamwork has been found to improve individual innovations under certain circumstances (by reducing personal inhibitions, time-intensive turn-taking and social hierarchies). Yet there is also a long-standing concern for ensuring cross-functional interactions, warding off silos through co-locating staff and co-working offices. Likewise, the other long-standing problem of open-plan offices distracting and even stressing staff still exists.

Balancing health and efficiency with productivity
Since organisations need to know how new and shifting workflow and workplace activities affect performance, employee engagement necessarily moves centre stage, rather than being a lower priority to the ‘bottom line’ – an epiphenomenon mainly considered during strategic reviews. With the pressing demand for flexible approaches to workplaces, a more interdisciplinary focus is therefore required to explore a range of tensions beyond traditional cost-result matrices: employee performance-engagement and workforce health-sustainability dimensions are jockeying for attention.

Workforce design is central in the composition of successful teams, as it is for organisations protecting staff from psychosocial hazards by regularly auditing job roles and their tasks so they can support and develop the abilities and diversity of their position holders. The impact of office space configuration upon performance outcomes is likewise considered in terms of key design continuums, from assigned seating to hot-desking on the one axis, and due consideration for private offices through to open plan facilities on the other.

Critical convergences
As well as a constantly developing interaction between more flexible workplace/space processes, it is also necessary to consider the burgeoning array of data outputs and the tools required for tracking and evaluating them. Organisations have at their disposal social network mapping tools, sociometric badges and geo-location tags, together with room occupancy sensors. Behavioural trends can be tabulated and visualised using activity heat maps, as well as inform algorithmic modelling predictions. This ever-expanding mix of measures and methods is clearly not driven by altruistic interest but necessity. To manage expenditure and remain competitive companies must review cost-benefit mixes more frequently than ever. Moreover, tracking and evaluating workgroups and workspaces parallels the need to constantly evaluate costs/benefits of software integration, alongside online behaviours.

Real-time workforce evaluation goes beyond periodic employee engagement surveys and facility usage reports. These new sources offer immediate feedback on the quality and quantity of workplace interactions, enabling heightened awareness of trends such as psychosocial distance and engagement – both within and between workgroups. It is now possible to track, visualise and evaluate behavioural activities and trends across online activities, physical environments and the psychosocial dimensions. I have not even mentioned the rising concern for physical health vying for attention, following decades of sedentary living, snowballing healthcare costs and consumer interest.

A balancing act beckons: how can these inputs and tools benefit both organisation and employees? When does physical, virtual and psychosocial tracking create a negative surveillance culture, and how can these systems be promoted to employees as part of their cost/benefits mix?

These workplace trends require a visible and committed dialogue within the workforce in order for them to be embraced and optimised, otherwise we risk rapidly descending into Big Brother paranoia and joining the ranks of the ever-increasing job insecurity epidemic. Indeed, from a psychosocial health perspective, further levels of potential communication breakdown, interpersonal conflicts or isolation may be unleashed, as well as the promotion of counterproductive cultures. For example, transparency has long been found to promote open communication and increase accountability. But there is a threshold where the erosion of workplace privacy makes employees feel too exposed and stifles innovation – especially when combined with intense tracking. Likewise, and once again flagging the need for employee participation, the use of social mapping tools can backfire: quick-fix managerial temptations to solve complex interpersonal and inter-group dilemmas can ignore emotional responses within an organisation. Revealing both positive and negative network maps can have significant and unexpected psychological repercussions.

In sum, we can stabilise the potential tightropes by consciously empowering the workforce with these self-regulating and personal-professional development tools. To collectively navigate this new era, we therefore need a commitment to realising a critical management theory approach – one that actively prioritises a more holistic balance between workforce health and productivity – as our concept of the workplace continues to evolve.

This is an abridged version of the full article in print.

The author Marko Turner is a workforce health and workplace development specialist. This article was written in collaboration with Guardian Global Systems.

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