Stay in Touch With Each Other at Work

Article originally posted in The West Australian newspaper.

Reducing reliance on digital collaboration can drive positive workplace cultures, according to Strategic Career Management Director and Lead Career Strategist Kendal Drew.

“I think companies should look at how they communicate – not just through information and communications technology services and technology-based approaches, but make a return to picking up a telephone or face-to-face contact a priority within work teams,” Ms Drew said.

“We’re all very comfortable with emails. They’re convenient, we can write and read them when we’re ready and can order our thoughts before hitting the send button. But if we’re doing this and sending emails to the person sitting next to us, this is the biggest driver of loneliness in the workplace as we get to feel less connected in real time.”

While some may consider the solution lies with an open-plan office layout, Ms Drew said these were not a “one-size-fits- all” solution. “This needs to be balanced with opportunity to focus (for both introverts and extroverts) as open-plan can be distracting; for the introverts the noise and movement can be draining and for the extroverts, there’s too much going on and pulling them away from their work,” she said.

“The opportunity to collaborate needs to be tempered with opportunities to concentrate, focus and remain on-task – the open-plan environment doesn’t generally provide this.” Ms Drew’s sentiments align with a 2018 study titled The impact of the open workspace on human collaboration.’

The research showed online communication increased and face-to-face communication decreased by approximately 70 per cent in an open-plan environment. Ms Drew said there was a perception that productivity was based on ‘head down’ work rather than collaboration. “People are possibly conscious of being seen as being too sociable, time- wasting and not being task- focused,” she said. “Taking advantage of quiet spaces, meeting rooms, using headphones to block out noise and managing your time effectively will all help.”

Specialising in commercial workplace, residential and interior design, State 28 Interiors Director Miriam Terry said not all her clients preferred open-plan designs. “It’s vital to ensure you have sufficient support spaces to go hand-in-hand with open-plan to make it successful,” she said. “There isn’t one solution that suits all. A workplace should be tailored to suit the end user’s needs, likes and functionality, otherwise you can end up with a beautiful office that fails the end user as it doesn’t function for them, or vice versa.”

Ms Drew said while agile workplaces where employees are able to work from different areas of an office, rather than being anchored to a single desk, may sound good in theory – and could work for those who worked remotely and were only in the office, sporadically – they weren’t for everyone. “Many people prefer to have a place that is their own, where they can set out their usual tools of trade, favourite coffee cup and personal items, and leave and return to at will,” she said.

“The reality is time and energy will be utilised in setting up and adjusting to the new spaces rather than concentrating on the tasks assigned. Staff will likely revert to email communication as it is quicker and easier than taking the time to locate colleagues within the building for face-to-face discussions. All of this affects morale, productivity and connection.”

Ms Terry said cubicles and segregated office plans could work in some instances. “They can work, for example, in legal practices; however, they can discourage teamwork and transparency between staff,” she said. “It can lead to a hierarchical feel amongst staff, which isn’t always the desired intent. “Not all users benefit from collaboration, so the key is offering a wide variety of working styles, not just all collaboration or all focus spaces.

Activity-based-working (ABW) often works best when staff still sit within ‘home zones’ and so continue to have good proximity to their team. “Technology needs to support ABW. This can include allowing staff to be located when they are logged into their emails/computer, having team touch down zones allows for daily meets, perhaps first thing in the morning, to set goals for the day/week.”

From a design perspective, Ms Terry said providing great staff facilities and amenities, including large breakout spaces, access to healthy workplace initiatives, and an office look and feel which suits the user and encourages interaction where applicable, could work wonders. “We encourage the incorporation of colour palettes, that engender calming, natural tones with less bright primary colours,” she said. “We often draw our palettes from the client’s location, and it’s almost vital to include biophilic design (connectivity to the natural environment) in a workplace. “Research has proven it enhances the environment we work in.”

Ms Drew said it was important for leaders in organisations to model the behaviour they wanted to see in others and be authentic. “Be positive, interact with and get to know your staff on a personal level. Lead from the front, respect their privacy but also interact with them in person – as people first, and workers next,” she said. “Regardless of the layout of the office, this will drive the culture.”

Author – Sandra Argese

Copyright The West Australian newspaper