What Shapes a Whole Workplace?

Kathryn Nuss is our new director of programs and membership. Her first task is to launch a project competition recognizing workplaces that go beyond traditional moves and metrics to promote a greater sense of wholeness both for the organization and for employees. Below, she outlines the inspiration behind the program, which will open for entries in early 2016.

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Image via Death to the Stock Photo.

What is it about the word “whole” that makes us feel good? It’s a simple word, but with important implications in terms of the workplace. Whole means uncompromised. Intact. Natural. And in a way, the workplace has been compromised: we hear a lot about the idea of “decoupling” the space from the work, breaking down the parts, and dissecting the workplace in an attempt to understand the intricacies and nuances of the way people work. But we’re afraid this is too reductionist an approach to spaces that, at the end of the day, must support people. Living, breathing, human people.

One of my first projects at Work Design Magazine is to develop a project competition that will seek to recognize workplaces where work, space, and people are seamlessly linked and mutually dependent. It won’t be just another design competition; this is about acknowledging smart design but going beyond with criteria that address what we believe comprise the whole workplace.

With the competition, we want to recognize companies that are rethinking how they measure productivity, how they’re integrating choice into the work environment, and how in tune they are with the whole employee; the whole person. We want to evaluate the state of the whole workplace: the effectiveness of the physical environment, yes, but also how well the space supports the culture and if the employees are truly empowered to make choices about where and how they work.

We want to evaluate the state of the whole workplace: the effectiveness of the physical environment, yes, but also how well the space supports the culture and if the employees are truly empowered to make choices about where and how they work.

Usually, the word wholeness is used to describe a human condition. But through the lens of this competition, we want to look at it as a workplace condition. After all, workplaces are human places. Some describe the workplace as a living, breathing thing, going as far as relating the workplace to an organism. Sounds pretty human, doesn’t it?

Workplaces change, adapt, and reinvent themselves. Workplaces envelop the corporate culture, the attitudes, value system of the organization. They can support wellness and inspire engagement. We hear a lot about well-being at work, too, but we think that’s just one of the elements that supports a greater sense of “wholeness” in the workplace.

What do the experts have to say?

To further explore the idea, I reached out to a handful of our expert contributors. When I ran it by Sven Govaars, a workplace consulting regional leader in Gensler’s Houston office, he agreed that the concept of wholeness helps get to an important aspect of the workplace that can’t always be measured, but can most certainly be “felt”.

“You can be in what isn’t a great ‘workplace’ but you can have a great experience,” he said. “It’s all about people. Giving people choice, and allowing them to create their own balance. You hire people for their expertise, but on day one, the whole person shows up. We need to create settings to meet the needs of the whole person.”

This is especially true today, because for the majority of the workforce, work isn’t about production anymore. We’re now firmly in the age of the knowledge worker, and evolving towards an age of the learning worker. With the knowledge and learning worker landscape comes a greater sense of community and there’s a heightened desire for sharing ideas and authentic communication in the office. People are looking for more “soulful” workplaces, ones that are rooted in practicality but are also aspirational – and inspirational. There are more and more conversations happening (it’s not about efficiency anymore, it’s about expressiveness) about how to help employees feel happier, healthier, and more engaged — more human — and how the workplace can support this. Learning workers need a whole workplace, one that fosters choice, community, and connectivity through tools and technology.

You hire people for their expertise, but on day one, the whole person shows up. We need to create settings to meet the needs of the whole person.

When I talked to Kay Sargent, the director of workplace strategies for Lend Lease, she summed it up by saying that “happy, healthy, empowered, engaged workers perform at a higher level than disgruntled, unhealthy, disengaged employees any day.” Therefore, she added, “we need to focus more on how to engage employees and less time on how to measure or prove what we all know to be true.”

Which is a great point, and one that many organizations routinely struggle with. How do we prove this? Should we even bother? And on top of that, in light of an aggressive war for talent, can companies afford to spend their time trying to prove what works for them, or should they move forward confidently in a direction that best suits their culture, their behaviors, and their purpose?

What people are doing in their lives to promote wholeness can’t just stop when they walk into the office.

One of the purposes of this competition will be to validate and recognize companies that haven’t necessarily followed a road map to arrive at wholeness, but rather have “hacked” and made adjustments to their space and behaviors without pausing to “prove” anything. Changing and adapting the workplace to align with expectations and work modes shows that people are at least striving — or searching — for better workplaces. This rang true for many of the companies featured in our current Work Design TALK series. New talent will seek a workplace that supports the work itself, but they are also looking for a place that is inspirational, aspirational — workplaces that support their core human needs as well as their well-being.

In a recent conversation with Sally Augustin of Design with Science, she told me, “A great workplace has a positive ‘silent conversation’ with its employees. For example, [it] communicates an employee’s value, [and it] supports cognitive thinking and emotional needs, affecting mood in desired ways. Our mood impacts how broadly we think, our ability to solve problems, how creative our thoughts and behaviors are, and influences our health and physical well-being.”

Charlie Grantham explained that he finds it helpful to begin by assessing your state of well-being, and then go further outside of yourself and integrate these concepts into your surrounding community at work. By doing so, he sees a path by which you might eventually acquire a healthy “practice” of wholeness, both at work and in life — an idea he explored further in a recent article on our site.

“Work and the place in which you do it occupies maybe a third of your time,” he added. “People and organizations should ask themselves how being at work could integrate with everything else, so that you can start to make the workplace a sort of seamless thing. What people are doing in their lives to promote wholeness can’t just stop when they walk into the office.”

What are you doing to promote wholeness at work?

In light of all this, we’re beginning to consider criteria that we believe will touch on key aspects of the workplace, beyond the physical design of the space. Considerations include choice, connection, community, change, wellness, and design. We believe each of these categories provide a unique lens for viewing how “whole” your workplace is or can be and indeed are the elements that make up a whole workplace, but we know there are more.

The call for entries will open in early January 2016. In the mean time, we want to know what you think contributes to a whole workplace. Tell us about a workplace that enables choice, connection, community, and change in a way that supports the whole person. Shoot us an email if you have a good story, stay tuned for more articles related to the topic, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn to learn more about the criteria, submission guidelines, and our quest for wholeness at work.

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