Saturday, 23 March 2019

Psychologist fest at Workplace Trends

It was a privilege to chair the morning of yesterday’s Workplace Trends (WT) conference. This WT conference was different to previous ones as the focus was on new research that will ultimately influence workplace design, management and use. The researchers submitted abstracts which were scored, blindly, by myself and Mark Eltringham of Workplace Insight. Some nine papers out of thirty or so were selected for presentation. 

The researchers were joined by an initial keynote address from Rob Briner. Rob is a psychologist that advises organisations on how to use evidence to influence decision making. 

Rob told us about the multiple sources of evidence and the flaws associated with each of them. I initially thought he was suggesting relying on gut-feeling and experience to make decisions, but it was more about using gut-feeling and experience to filter and question the evidence, rather than take every piece of new research, or shock headline on new research (that usually misinterprets the findings to support a pre-determined agenda) at face value. Of course, the relevance to the workplace arena is in adopting, but nevertheless challenging, evidence-based design. 

There was also an after-lunch debate, by Rob Harris and Katrina Kostic-Samen (the current BCO president), in which Rob argued that the workplace community had run out of ideas and is reinventing old ones. However, my key takeaway was don’t jump on and adopt the latest workplace fads; whilst we need fads (whacky ideas) to push boundaries, wait for them to be tried and tested, with some solid evidence. So, we need ongoing new research not to directly influence our designs and decisions per se, but to add to our knowledge base and experience to inform our designs and decisions. We are after all the experts.

I am not going to run through each of the nine presentations, as they are outlined on the Workplace Trends website and live blogged, but pick up on five key themes:
  1. Psychologists: They are like buses. Out of yesterday’s 18 presenters, and chairs, one-third are psychologists. As a psychologist, I hope this is indicative of the workplace industry finally understanding how psychologists can help with workplace design and management. Speakers often say that people are the organisation’s biggest asset (not the space) and the office is there to support the occupying organisation, and fundamentally the workplace consists of people and process as well as place. Tamed psychologists have the tools and skills to help. Before you say there was selection bias, remember all abstracts were reviewed blind.
  2. Mega data: It was a research conference so not surprisingly the presentations were data rich. But I was most impressed by the range of data. We had the usual qualitative and quantitative occupant feedback techniques, but the presentations indicated increasing use of cognitive performance tasks and physiological measurements (cortisol levels etc). As well as space data there was also more use of environmental monitoring, in particular CO2 levels.
  3. Tech savvy: The means of collecting the data uses new technology. Sensors are being used more to monitor the environment and occupancy levels. However, apps are being used to collect feedback in real-time at a tracked location, which in turn can be correlated with the conditions being monitored in that place. I have written before on how we will move away from one-off surveys to ongoing live feedback and the apps seem a good way forward. Many cognitive performance tasks and physiological measurements are also available in app form. I was, however, surprised that there was no mention of wearable tech. Many workplace related experiments take place in labs or simulated office environments, but one paper showed how virtual reality can be used to study changing workplace parameters (as well as be used in the design process).
  4. Productivity: I often say that when two or more workplace consultants gather in one place they shall discuss productivity. Not surprising then that much of the research was on how to improve wellbeing and performance, and elements of it, like job satisfaction, motivation, multi-tasking and creativity. The relationship between performance and various environmental factors was clear – do interrogate it but the evidence-base is building and convincing.
  5. Demographics: There were middle aged men in suits on stage (I was one of them), but I was really impressed by the mix of age groups, gender and countries represented at this year’s conference. It’s not all about the millennials, but it was particularly refreshing to see younger researchers and the new intake of workplace consultants presenting their findings.

Okay I will focus on one paper. The day was completed by Neil Usher’s (Workessence) presentation on his Eight Workplace Laws. Laws not rules because they are not meant to be broken, are fundamental and are relevant across all scenarios. I will take up the challenge of finding another pertinent law of identifying one that doesn’t work, but I have to say that on face value Neil has got it spot on (again). Neil’s laws seem grounded in Greek philosophy, and another reminder that a lot of what we discuss in the workplace community has gone before. Be careful though as the fall of Ancient Greece was partly due to not being sufficiently flexible or agile to defeat the Roman army. Fortunately, Neil’s first law is flux, the workplace is in continuous change, and his second law is that the workplace is an ever-evolving beta version. So, we need new research, we need evidence, but we also need to question and challenge them, we need change, to move forward, and we need to not forget those less interesting but fundamental workplace factors.

The ongoing debate of open plan versus enclosed offices was raised by a couple of presenters. I am looking further into why some of us are less in favour of open plan or agile working then others. Please take my short on-line survey in return for an early copy of the report. 

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