Dr Sarah Cotton/ space and place play an important role in healthy work behaviours

As working lives for many have recently been redefined by remote working, the need to design work environments that embrace flexibility, strong culture and wellbeing is more important than ever. Understanding how to approach these complexities is enriched by talking to experts who study what makes companies tick. Studio Director Rachael McCarthy recently sat down with Organisational Psychologist Dr. Sarah Cotton to discuss this wide-ranging topic, uncovering some key insights that we’ve shared here.

Rachael McCarthy: I’ve noticed that there are key values, such as flexibility, that come up time and again for our clients. Have you found that flexibility means roughly the same thing across different organisations and generations who are in the workforce?

Sarah Cotton: I think it's a great question that even before COVID-19 was really emerging. If organisations are serious about retaining and developing people, then they need to understand what a flexible future actually looks like – especially now. And it's no longer just a ‘nice to have’ benefit.

If you look historically, at flexible work, it used to be seen largely as part-time arrangements for those with parental responsibilities. We know now it's much, much broader than that, and it’s so personal. There was a great study done by The 100 Percent Project around working men. They found that about 75 percent of men really needed to use flexibility. And yet, when you look at the uptake of flexibility by men, you only got about 25 percent of men actually asking for it. I think this points to two issues: awareness and cultural stigma. Certainly we're chipping away at some of that stigma and COVID-19 has provided an incredible catalyst for us (especially many men) to think about how they want to integrate work and life moving forward. Encouragingly we’re moving from compliance to culture—slowly, but it is happening.

It’s important that organisations are supportive of this change, especially leaders. While employees are adapting to the changing nature of work quickly, we need to make sure that we are also equipping our leaders with the tools to be able to support the transition and effectively manage in a new way. If your company is serious about supporting true flexibility in this modern age of work, you've got to move beyond good policies and create consistent leadership capability to translate that at the coalface.

RM: How does this apply to older workers, especially those who are unretiring? Are they using flexibility differently?

SC: Some emerging research with older workers shows that standard flexible work arrangements such as job sharing, part time work, working from home are beneficial but not the only types of flexibility older workers need. The ability to take chunks of time off in order to travel or look after dependent partners, children or grandchildren are also equally important. Our Ageing Workforce Ready (AWR) project is also showing the importance of aligning policy and practice. To that end, I don't think we've been very good at deconstructing jobs. If we had more of a team based working mentality, rather than an individual focused working mentality, the flexibility to spread deliverables and tasks across a group would enable these chunks of time to be taken more flexibly. There are great conversations happening around how we manage knowledge and how innovation happens. The evidence is saying more and more that doesn't come from a single great individual or a small group of people. It comes from the diversity of thinking, from collective groups coming together. So there's certainly a synergy between greater flexibility and more innovative, creative ways of working.

RM: From my experience, place has a huge role in building organisational culture. From your perspective, how can we design a place that can boost culture?

SC: From my experience, place is often the lever that doesn't get harnessed enough when building strong culture.

We have to identify the symbolic and practical elements of space that build great culture, it’s just good business sense. It’s essential to workshop how the design of space maps to an organisation’s cultural and physical values and how we can enhance these values through physical space. We need the tools and the knowledge to do that effectively. We don’t do enough of this kind of research. In light of COVID-19 as we re-think our physical spaces even further, I think that this will become even more critical. For example, we need to be careful not to unwind some of the positive culture changes that have come with agile workspaces. It will be important to think creatively about how to build safety and community into cultures, as we could too easily end up with fear and disconnection.

RM: If we're all going to be working longer, then how can workspaces create space for recovery, help us to stay healthy and to build sustainable careers?

SC: I think creating places that can assist with internal recovery at work and provide opportunity to recharge and recuperate are becoming increasingly important. We need to trial these ideas. The lunchroom is one of the most unpopulated spaces in a workplace today. We reflected on this issue recently- where were people spending their time and having a break? People are finding it hard to find spaces to focus and recharge needing to utilise spaces like the storeroom, where they could sit quietly and knew they wouldn't be interrupted. I think we have been very good at creating spaces for collaboration but not so good at creating spaces for focused work and recuperation.

So I think we've identified the need, and it's probably then understanding what amount of time and what frequency people need to access these recovery spaces, where, presumably, you go to be by yourself. Or maybe there's space that you can go to with others. But there's a common purpose of being there - to reframe your day as a break away from work.

RM: What about the debate over “owned’ or flexible workspaces - where does the value lie? Have you found in your research that people feel more secure and confident when they have an “owned” place to do their work? Or does the control enabled by having choice in the workspace hold greater benefit?

SC: I think that space and place also play a critical role in creating healthy work environments from a psychological safety perspective. It’s tangible. Organisations have the responsibility to provide levels of choice in the physical environment to mirror the autonomy people have in creating their roles and being their best self. What about personalisation? How important is that? This is an interesting debate, because we see it now as we’re debating how important assigned space is to an individual – especially in light of what this means as COVID-19 restrictions start to ease and we consider what the return to the office may look like.

We spend so much of our time at work, we need to make it count. More and meaningful research—especially qualitative findings—will be the lynchpin to a successful built environment in our rapidly changing world of work.

Dr Sarah Cotton is a work-life transition expert and co-founder of Transitioning Well. Transitioning Well works with forward-thinking companies to support employees through work-life transitions.