With all the activity in the media in recent weeks around flexible working and working from home, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was all some disastrous experiment.
National Australia Bank CEO Ross McEwan has ordered senior managers back into the office five days a week – and in his latest salvo on working from home, Elon Musk suggested that employees who work outside of the office are “morally” dubious.
I think the reasons for wanting people back in the office aren’t the ones that are being trotted out almost daily in the media. But more on that later.
Since completing a PhD on the topic in 2017, I’ve continued to empirically study how our physical environments influence our psychological and physical states.
It’s hard to feel inspired or creative in a noisy open-plan office with rows of the same desks and chairs. Background noise, noisy co-workers, loud telephone conversations, impromptu stand-up meetings in the middle of the office and interruptions make it very difficult to conduct work that requires concentrated effort.
Additionally, my research colleagues and I found a significant causal relationship between open-plan office noise and physiological stress.
Our study in experimentally controlled conditions using heart rate, skin conductivity and AI facial emotion recognition showed that negative mood increased by 25 per cent and physiological stress by 34 per cent.
This may be one of the reasons that “work from home” has been the most searched-for term on Seek for months. That, and not having to commute for hours every day.
But what about all those serendipitous conversations that spark great ideas, and the collaboration that flows magically when employees are all in the room together? Except that it usually doesn’t.
The pandemic and the years of not being in the office have resulted in a collective amnesia about the research evidence and the reality of most modern offices.
The concentration part is, not surprisingly, very important. My own research showed that when people can’t think and focus to get their work done because of noise or distractions, they become more withdrawn and less likely to collaborate. And a whole body of empirical research over many years has clearly demonstrated that simply shoving everyone together in one space does not result in more collaboration and innovation.
But I think the arguments for and against being all in the office are casting our gaze in the wrong direction.
In organisational change, a key trap that confounds most efforts is attending to the presenting problem instead of the actual problem. Focused work without interruption, creativity and innovation, building social and professional networks, knowledge transfer, learning and development and unplanned encounters are all important. As is autonomy and flexibility.
Individuals differ in their personalities, their work styles, and the work they actually do. Different aspects of our jobs require us to be in different cognitive, emotional and physical states throughout the course of a single day. The late afternoon, when we are likely to be a bit tired, is actually conducive to creative thinking but not so great for making important decisions.
Having a clean and ordered desk is helpful for certain types of work (and managing the impressions co-workers have of us), but messy desks signal to our brains that it’s OK to colour outside the lines and to look for new patterns in among the disorder. Messy desks are beneficial for creativity.
We need to shift our attention to creating the work states that will enable us to be at our best, instead of all on the workplace.
In my doctoral research, I developed a scale that assessed the most important psychological responses to the physical workplace. The results, published in an empirically validated scale, showed that the more important reactions we need from our workplaces are focus (a cognitive response allowing us to think and concentrate to complete our work), a sense of beauty (an emotional response, an essential, constitutive element of organisations which has important implications in organisation theory), and connectedness (a relational response that involves the extent to which the environment facilitates a sense of community and a feeling of belonging to the organisation).
We need all three, but not at the same time. And not in the same place. And it matters much more than you might think.
There is a scientific reason for this.
Aside from the noise of most modern offices, another reason we often struggle to maintain energy or inspiration is that the sameness is very boring to our senses.
At a psychological level, we are biologically disposed to seek out locations where there is some complexity, some interest, and where messages are conveyed in different ways.
Such spaces evoke awe and a sense of beauty, fundamental human needs, and important precursors to positive mood, creativity, wellbeing and trust formation in organisations. Researchers have found that a preference for beautiful environments plays a role in attracting people to restorative environments and retaining them for a longer time than would otherwise be the case, allowing them to recover from attentional fatigue and stress.
It’s no wonder we don’t feel good among acres of grey carpet, computer screens and melamine.
When Jonas Salk was having trouble working through problems developing the polio vaccine, he would regularly leave his bland office and work from the Basilica in Assisi. He noted that the space created a state for him that helped him solve the issues he was struggling with.
Where we work must enable experiences that match the state required for the work.
A library can provide a sense of order, structure and focus by acting as a cognitive scaffold.
At other times, a lively cafe space may be the perfect backdrop for emotional contagion and collaboration among a team.
Instead of focusing so much on the workplace, our focus should be on the work state we are trying to achieve.
The effect of our spaces on our physical and psychological states is more profound than we realise.
In a study using mobile fMRI brain imaging scanners, research by Julio Bermudez found that simply putting people into certain types of buildings (ones that inspired awe and a sense of beauty) caused them to enter into a mindful and meditative state with no other interventions required.
Walking meetings have been shown to improve divergent creative thinking by 81 per cent, and being in nature for even short periods has significant benefits for our mental and physical wellbeing.
LinkedIn has redesigned its San Francisco office with 75 different types of work settings. There are work areas for quiet focus without interruptions, outdoor workplaces, cafe areas, meeting rooms with or without tables to alter the power dynamics and a range of others in between.
LinkedIn also encourages staff to come in and use spaces to support the work they need to get done and then to leave to use other spaces outside the office as they see fit.
Truth about ‘lazy’ Aussie workers
I think the push in some quarters to get everyone back into the office for the majority of the time is being driven by two factors.
The first one is concern about commercial property values.
The second is a peculiar harking back by some managers to a 1950s Theory X approach. Theory X assumes that all workers are lazy, must be watched at all times and need to be directed and controlled in order to work.
The number of managers and organisations who are still invested in command and control approaches is far more significant than might be imagined.
Against this backdrop, the way we design work has changed permanently.
Organising our days around the desired state and then selecting spaces that fulfil these needs is what the future of work looks like.
And I could work for days in the incredible space in the lobby lounge of the Shangri-la in Singapore.
Dr Libby Sander is an assistant professor and future of work expert at Bond University.
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