Engagement in the post-Covid workplace
Four and a half years ago I began a professional doctorate. I had an aspiration to contribute to the bringing together of academia and practice in the world of workplace. The first challenge as a doctoral student is to identify the topic you want to research – that seemed easy on the surface, but narrowing down my topic into something that could be isolated for the purpose of research was tricky. The temptation is to choose a huge topic that has lots of interconnected points – it would be interesting to do, but you could never actually finish it, let alone limit yourself to 60,000 words on the topic.
I settled on exploring the link between employee engagement and the workplace, building on previous research I had done around motivation. With a topic agreed, and a notion of how I might collect some data, global events rather took over proceedings – Covid stopped my research in its tracks. I spent many months mourning the loss of the study I wanted to do, and railed against the idea of linking my thesis in any way to Covid. Now the word is one of just six in my thesis title… quite a turnaround! The reality sank in for me that it was impossible to disentangle the issue of Covid and hybrid working from any exploration of the workplace; and so with renewed focus I embarked on my fieldwork.
I was incredibly fortunate to have two organisations willing to participate in my research. They were both transitioning to new activity-based workspaces during the first lockdown. I spent time interviewing users of the two spaces after they had moved in, and observing behaviours in the space to build up a picture of how people were settling in to their new way of working. Interviews were transcribed, and observations recorded in a research diary, both of which were then coded to aid in analysing and developing themes.
In this series of four blogs, I plan to share some of the key findings from my research. With only two case studies I do not pretend that these findings should be universal, but my hope is that they spark debate and discussion among the practitioner community, encouraging that link between academia and practice that I aspired to four and a half years ago. Over the coming months I'll share more detailed thoughts on three main areas:
Collaboration now looks like absorption The way that we collaborate has changed beyond recognition since 2020 – many of our interactions now happen through a screen. This changes what we need from the workplace – places to take calls without disturbing others, or being disturbed, means we need more hiding places – something that runs counter to the idea of transparency which is at the heart of many workplaces.
The presence-based loyalty scheme Hybrid working resulted in thinly populated workplaces. Those who attend frequently can shape the rules of the space much more easily than those who are "just visiting".
Hybrid negates the need for switching behaviours Switching from one setting to another was previously a mainstay of activity-based working. More time at the screen, and fewer people in the office both mean that the risk of depriving others of what they need has reduced, and as such, the need to switch has decreased.
What does all of this mean? What should we take away from this research? I believe that the most significant contribution that this research can make is to encourage organisations to think about alignment. Alignment between the stories that the organisation tells about itself, and its workplace approach. For instance, an organisation that talks about flexibility, but manages by presence, will inevitably find it hard to get buy-in for something like activity-based working. The two things are polar opposites and people will feel the incongruence. Activity-based working can offer greater autonomy, and requires mutual trust – if those things are missing from the behaviours of the organisation then any attempt to have a flexible approach to work will fail.
In a spatial sense, this means we need to move away from the cookie-cutter template of activity-based workspaces. So many offices have the same settings without due consideration for the activities that people do, and more importantly, for the culture of the organisation. The mix of settings should be aligned to both of these things in order to create opportunity for enhanced engagement.
Our workplaces are always saying something. Many people don't recognise it consciously, but they are a physical manifestation of culture. Make sure your workplace is saying what you want it to.