Event #1: Workforce Mobility

The first GoodWork Society’s public debate kicked off on 7 February 2018 at Perch in Rosebank and we were overwhelmed with the quality of conversations that were had. The GoodWork Society was created to have smart people in South Africa talking about ideas to spark change in the workplace and to change the way we think about work, and that was evident in the content that was discussed on the night.

The thoughtfulness and insight of our panelists meant that everyone in the room had at least 15 vigorous nodding moments of Aha. You could sense the energy in the room as themes about space, culture and inclusion were debated.

We had panelists representing a wide variety of perspectives, and while the subject was intended to be around workplace mobility, and working in mobile ways, the topic followed its own path to the changing nature of work, and the role of workplaces as active citizens. It’s difficult to synthesise 2 hours of rich discussion into a summary but here’s an attempt at highlighting the most salient points.

Our panelists were: Sian Cohen, Lauren Kruger, Linda Trim, David Pierre-Eugene and our MC for the night was Thabo Ngcobo. The panel was facilitated by Vincent Hofmann.

Photo Credit: Palesa Sibeko

Four core themes emerged from the discussion:

  • Mobility, and the habits (good and bad) we create at work

  • The continuously changing nature of organisations

  • The relationship between space and culture, and how each can enable the other

  • The role of space and its potential to be inclusive (or exclusive)

Mobility and Work

What emerged from our discussion was this idea that life is about experiences and people expect that from work. With the increase in millennials entering the job market, the expectations that people have is that if they are to spend 70% of their awake time working work needs to enhance their lives.

“Workplace Wellness is not 10 000 steps — you can’t leave work in a foul mood.”

The challenge is that people work best in different ways and companies need to become more comfortable with allowing individuals to work differently.

One way this can happen is for individuals to start developing a vocabulary for what kind of environment enables their best work: the sounds, lighting and space that work best for you. Once you can articulate this you can start to request it and then leaders have a ‘why’ for implementing changes to the working environment.

Discussing increased flexibility at work prompted a discussion about the habits we create for ourselves in the context of work, and the structure these habits bring. With complete freedom comes expending mental energy to be flexible and mobile. “Where should I work? Which coffee shop/flexible space is right for me today? Is it safe to leave my laptop if I need to go outside?” are all questions of where to work that take up energy that could be spent on the work itself.

Do we like our habits because they free up our brain, or are they our habits, because we don’t know we can have new ones?

Continuously Changing Organisations

Organisations are fluid, this means that they are not fixed at a point in time but rather, their size, tasks, products & services and customers will change over time. As a result we need to think about work more fluidly and also to think about how these organisations occupy space differently at different stages of their lifecycle.

There is a need then for flexible spaces: rooms that can change size depending on how many people are employed, or if they want to work together or alone, surfaces need to change to accommodate different ways of working and lighting needs to be able to be adjusted to allow for different kinds of work, deep work, collaborations or presentations.

Space and Culture

Space and culture need to support and enable each other if you want all people to be as happy as possible. As much attention that goes into designing a space needs to be given to the community of people who are going to be in the space.

If you create nap rooms or quiet spaces but the culture is one that disapproves taking breaks, no-one will ever use those spaces, or if you create collaborative spaces but never communicate, or demonstrate to teams that the organisation values collaboration those spaces will stay empty.

As a company you need to design for healthier habits and teach people how to use the spaces.

In the context of psychological support, space and leadership need to work together strongly to give all employees the right environments they need to feel supported so they can do good work.

Inclusive (or exclusive) spaces

Does your building address socio-economic issues? What role does a building play:

  • for the community it is located within?

  • for the people who show up after-hours to service it?

  • for those who have disabilities?

  • for those who commute and don’t have cars?

The workplace is an environment to start addressing social issues that are deeply rooted in our society, where you have a convergence of people from different socio-economic backgrounds and who are diverse in culture, ability and education. How easy or difficult is it for them to interact with one another. Does the space enable them to do so?

What about the home as a workplace? Does it create the right conditions for the people in the home, the cleaners, garden service or refuse removers, to do their best work? Do they feel comfortable to take breaks, or are they unsure about what is ‘allowed’ in your environment?

The workspace needs to play a larger role in what it means to be an active citizen. But this is challenging when decision makers have a limited view and often design for themselves.

It’s unlikely the CEO of a Sandton corporation will try to commute to the office by taxi before signing a lease for a new corporate head-office.

Or that the property developer will actually get someone with limited abilities to test out his new development’s accessibility rather than just making sure he’s ticked the boxes for the by-laws on what is mandatory.

We need to start developing deeper levels of sensitivity to the fact that people who are not like us will be using or interacting with spaces and we have the choice to highlight their difference, making them feel uncomfortable about it. Or we can design to accommodate it and make them feel welcome.

If you design for children and people with disabilities, you design better buildings anyway, so why not just start there?

We also need to start exploring ways to make spaces play a larger role in the community as leaders and employees challenging our companies to think about how the workspace can serve the community.

After hours, can students use the office as a safe place to study for exams? Can the shuttles that ferry people to the train, airport or other buildings, be used on weekends to benefit the community?

There is an education process that needs to happen to break down the barriers between the fancy people in suits and the people on the outside who feel like they wouldn’t belong inside the shiny office-building.

Photo Credit: Palesa Sibeko

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu

A person is only a person in relation to other people, we affirm our humanity when we acknowledge that of others.

These topics and the education process associated with them is the challenge that we as The GoodWork Society care deeply about solving.

Here are some practical suggestions that as people in workplaces you may try to educate and activate workplaces to be better, to be good:

  • Take someone with a physical disability through the building to see how or if the space accommodates for their disability. Does it make them feel comfortable, can they access everything, if not, identify where there are opportunities to change the design.

  • Get people to start doing their sensory profile to understand the ways in which the environment positively and negatively affects them so the workspace can start to adjust to accommodate their ideal conditions.

  • Spend time observing the people after hours in your workplace and see if there are things you may be doing that make doing their job more or less difficult.

  • Look outside the building, at the community that surrounds it and identify ways to bring them inside — host a movie screening in your auditorium for the vendors who sit outside, or find an after-school program that needs a safe space to tutor on weekends and let them use your empty space.

There are so many ways we can harness the power of workplaces to make the lives of employees, leaders and the community better.