The most common response
When office workers ask me what I do, I know that the answer ‘I’m a workplace design strategist’ will not cut it. Workplace strategy is a fairly new and unknown service. Also, these words may sound rather unexciting, especially for those who don’t particularly like their workplace (and find it difficult to imagine how it could be made really attractive). Which is, unfortunately, the majority.
So my answer is usually along these lines: ‘I guide the design of physical work environments that enhance people’s work experience and performance, and support business success.’ Or in more casual context: ‘I help create thriving workplaces that bring the best out in people – spaces where they feel, think and work better.’
And the vast majority respond with something like: ‘Oh, so is it about ergonomics?’
This response reveals so much about how most people see the role of the workplace, and the way they relate to it…
Positioning our various body parts in specific angles to avoid pain and injury – is this really all that a high performance environment can offer? Is the workplace a mere container of work activities? Is connecting with the space (or even enjoying being there) a luxury or is it irrelevant?
We may have forgotten the answers
We know the answers, of course. However, when we look around at our workplaces, we can find it easy to forget these answers.
We know very well that our environment influences who we are, how we feel and think, and what we do. When it comes to choosing a family home, a travel destination or a restaurant, we have a sense of what kinds of places bring out the best in us. And this has little to do with ergonomics.
We also recognise that our workplace is not any different in this regard, and its quality is an important contributor to our professional and life experience, whether good or bad.
Still, so many people (business owners, decision makers and office workers) settle for suboptimal workplaces, perhaps because it’s not really obvious how the physical space could work for everyone and make a substantial difference.
Just to be clear, good ergonomics (taking care of the health of our joints and muscles) is very important. But we are not machines, so we also need other types of ‘lubrication’ to make our mental wheels roll well, along with the wheels of the organisation.
There are many ways the space around us can help!
For example, a thriving workplace reflects the brand and values of the organisation we are part of, and helps us connect our purpose. It’s functional, and it supports our work processes and the exchange of knowledge. It gives easy access to the right technology. It assists us to be present and switched on, focused and energised. A thriving workplace is comfortable, inspiring, and makes us feel valued. It supports a vibrant culture, and enables us and the organisation to adapt to change. (I will write about these strategies in detail in subsequent blog posts.)
I believe that valuing (and therefore improving) our relationship with our work environment can also shift our relationship to our work and each other. When the workplace is seen as an expression of the ‘spirit’ of the organisation, it has the power to transform businesses from groups that come together for making a living into thriving work communities that deliver outstanding results with passion.
It’s great to see an increasing focus on quality workplace design, the growing number of brilliant examples, and the conversations around these topics happening online and offline. Still, I look forward to the day when most people will see ergonomics only as a starting point in the bigger picture of human-centred workplace design.