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“It’s the workplace, stupid!” A variation of “It’s the economy, stupid”, the now renowned phrase Bill Clinton used during the 1992 presidential campaign ─ calling Americans stupid for thinking anything but the economy was important. You could use the same phrase about the workplace, since the workplace represents a key added value in Facilities Management.

Article - Social Physics

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It takes professionals to create an appropriate workplace and ‘appropriate’ varies considerably, depending on the type of organisation. It takes experienced specialists to define and understand workplace requirements, to deal with financial restrictions and to come up with workplace concepts that resonate with each specific organisation.

Having said that, I don’t feel that we quite comprehend yet some of the fundamental knowledge and insights that would help us create an even better workplaces than we have today. But what is a ‘better workplace’? Let’s keep that question in mind for a moment by revisiting the word ‘workplace’ itself. Workplace is a contraction of two words: a place where people work. We ‘work’ to produce value for our organisation. It is not surprising that the term ‘workplace productivity’ is often used. In fact, understanding the principles behind ‘workplace productivity’ is one of the holy grails in our industry.

Work consists of a wide range of human activities, most of which imply interactions with others: we collaborate, we work in teams and our activities take place in a context of processes. In other words, work is a social activity and human behaviour is at the centre of it. And that’s where it might be going wrong: our understanding of human (social) behaviour.

Some striking, recent publications got me to this train of thoughts. The first one is ‘Social Physics’ by Professor Alex Pentland, Head of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the World Economic Forum. Pentland promotes a new science called Social Physics, based on extensive measurements of human activity and the use of analytics technologies to understand what actually drives behaviour and its effectiveness.

He describes the mechanism of ‘social learning’ as a very fast way for humans to learn. Without going into too much details (I recommend you read the book instead), please find here is a short summary.

Societies (such as organisations and companies) consist of people, socially connected in one way or another. Every individual has close and distant connections. Within each organisation (society), there are multiple groups of more tightly connected people (perhaps a department or a team).

The first stage of social learning is ‘exploration’, where individuals interact with others and exchange ideas.

In the second stage, valuable ideas are identified and implemented. They are embedded in the practices of the community (team, organisation). Pentland refers to this phenomenon as ‘engagement’.

Pentland found that the success rate of an organisation is influenced by the rate of new ideas shared. In an experiment, all interactions of financial traders were monitored whilst the profit made during trading time was tracked.

The group of traders who worked on their own were fairly isolated. Their ROI is significantly less compared to the group of traders who shared ideas at a high rate, but only within a fairly static group of colleagues. Pentland calls this phenomenon the echo chamber.

The most successful group of traders were in fact those who exchanged ideas at perhaps a lower rate, but who also exchanged ideas with people they did not know well from outside their inner circles.

What do these findings mean for the workplace and for workplace design? Now that we understand more about social behaviours, it is time we reviewed our workplace strategies to allow these types of human interactions and social learning to take place. But there’s even more to it. A neuroscientist published a book on the inability of the human brain to multi-task. Food for thoughts for a future blog?

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