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“It’s the workplace, stupid!”

We all remember the impact of Bill Clinton’s renowned phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” that he used during his 1992 presidential campaign—urging Americans to refocus on the unquestionable importance of the economy. Today, one could say the same about the workplace, urging Facilities Managers to refocus on the workplace and the added value it brings.

Article - Social Physics

This article explores how IoT and Big Data help us understand behavior in the workplace. Social Physics also has implications for facility management.

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It takes professionals a great deal of time and effort to create an appropriate workplace, and the definition of an appropriate workplace varies considerably depending on the type of organization and industry that it serves. It takes seasoned specialists to define and understand workplace requirements, deal with financial restrictions, and construct workplace concepts that resonate.

Having said that, I feel there is valuable insight and fundamental knowledge that we are overlooking—insight and knowledge that could help us create even better workplaces than we have today. So what is a better workplace? Let’s take a second to revisit the word “workplace.” It’s a compound noun pulling in the words, “work” and “place” to describe the concept of a place where people work. Because we work to produce value for our organization, it is not surprising that the term workplace productivity is often used to define that concept. In fact, understanding the principles and discovering the magic formula to continuously increase workplace productivity is one of the holy grails in our industry.

Work consists of a wide range of human activities, most of which require interactions with others. For instance, we collaborate and work in teams, and often our activities take place in a context of processes. In other words, work is a social activity and human behavior is at the center of it. And that is where I think we may be going wrong—in our understanding of human (social) behavior.

Some striking, recent publications put me on this track. The most relevant being the book 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. In his book, 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 behavior and its effectiveness.

He describes the mechanism of social learning as a very fast way of human learning. Without going into detail (I recommend you read the book instead), here is a short summary.

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

Pentland defines the first stage of social learning as “exploration,” where individuals interact with others and exchange ideas. 

In the second stage, valuable ideas are identified and implemented—embedding them in the practices of the community, such as a team or organization. Pentland refers to this as “engagement.”

Recognizing and identifying the different stages of social learning is one thing, but what how does that translate to value in the workplace?

Pentland found that the success rate of an organization is influenced by the rate in which new ideas flow. An example in the book of how social learning influences productivity is defined by an experiment conducted on a number of financial traders. In this experiment, all social interactions of the financial traders were monitored, and all profits made during their interactions and trades were tracked as well.

Some of the traders that were monitored remained fairly isolated and worked mostly on their own. Their ROI was found to be significantly less when compared to the group of traders who shared ideas at a higher rate. Another group of traders shared ideas at a high rate, but only interacted within a fairly static group of colleagues. Pentland calls this the “echo chamber.”

The most successful group of traders monitored were those who exchanged ideas with people they did not know, even though they may have had a lower rate of exchanged ideas than those in the “echo chamber.”

What does this mean for the workplace and for workplace design? Now that we understand more about social behavior, perhaps it is time we reviewed our workplace strategies and structures to allow for these types of human interactions and social learning to take place. This may allow us to move away from the productive workplace that may be stuck the isolated and echo chamber segments and into a more productive workplace that allows for more interactions with a wider variety of people.

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