The way that an office is designed can enhance or undermine trust between everyone in the workplace, including leaders and those who report to them. At national interior design company, Geyer, workplace design partner, Laurie Aznavoorian, is engaged in research to establish just what kind of impacts our modern design trends are having on trust in organisations.
Trust today is a two-way street, says Aznavoorian. “Ideas of trust have changed. It used to be a bureaucratic model, from top down. Companies trusted their employees because they could walk around and see them doing their jobs. In modern times, trust goes from the bottom up. Staff look at organisations and in particular at their leaders to see how they are dealing with external forces impacting the business. For example, during the global financial crisis, people asked if they trusted the company they work for. Were they jerks and did they lay everyone off, or were they honest about their situation?”
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Geyer is engaged in a three-way research project with Swinburne University and Great Place to Work, an organisation that audits and ranks workplaces according to their appeal to the people who work at them. “Trust is the defining principle of great workplaces – created through management’s credibility, the respect with which employees feel they are treated, and the extent to which employees expect to be treated fairly’,” the Great Place to Work website explains.
At the same time, the workplace has gone from being a “dumb thing” to a “working ecology”, says Aznavoorian. “The office has become to a rich description of how the physical environment can support business goals and human behaviour and culture.”
As companies move from manufacturing to service industries, trust is a key element of success. The way we work forces us to formulate trust bonds faster than before, and often with people we have not met, and may never meet other than via a videolink.
However, trust is at an all-time low in organisations, Aznavoorian contends, “When trust is low in a company, it leads to all kinds of problems: higher transaction costs, a lot of micromanagement, lack of clarity around goals and authority, toxic organisations, low morale, people leaving or not really doing their job.”
This inspired Geyer, which employs 120 people across six studios in Australia and New Zealand, to undertake primary research into the issues.
Geyer went back to the workplaces that ranked highly on the Great Places to Work list, with high levels of trust, asked further questions and observed some of the workplaces to try to establish “causality” between the way the office was designed and the levels of trust.
The research, while not establishing purely causal relationships, did reveal several insights into the relationship between office design and trust.
Time to reinvent the wheel
The fastest way to erode trust in workplace design is to simply do what has always been done, Aznavoorian says. “That is the biggest mistake I see in workplaces,” she says. “We have lots of people who come in to our offices with their plans drawn. As for new technology, attitudes, ideas, and practices, they don’t care. So their employees go in to their new office design and they see that their boss has a huge office when the boss travels five days a week, and they have a crappy kitchen and are here every day, they think, well this leadership team has not thought about us, about our work, and about how and why the space is used.
“We also have clients who go right through the process, and get highly valuable results.”
Space, technology and quality of equipment
Fairness builds trust, but Geyer’s research shows the links are not clear-cut. For example, employees do not begrudge their boss a bigger office (provided they use it), however, if they see leaders getting better equipment or technology, they had a different response.
“What we found is the one that impacted a person’s trust relationship was a difference around quality. If the boss has a better chair, or light, or ergonomics that made it higher quality, then they were almost twice as likely to have lower trust level. That really eroded trust.”
The take-home for leaders? If you have $100 and plan to spend it on a better chair for yourself, it will erode the organisation’s trust.
Technology fell in the middle, Aznavoorian says. Employees’ trust dipped if the leader has better technology, but not as far as other types of equipment.
That’s a worry
One worrying element for leaders that is emerging from Geyer’s research is that activity-based workplaces – which encourage flexi-desking and choosing a space to work according to the task at hand – do not lead to an increase in trust; in fact, staff working at desks show a level of trust as high or higher than those in flexible workplaces. “You would assume that people who had the opportunity to work around the workplace would have higher levels of trust, but a lot of people who can’t move around still have high trust levels,” Aznavoorian says.
In fact, what improves trust the most is clear communication; the more certain staff feel about their job role, the more they trust their employers.
So, do designs that enhance clear communication improve trust? Yes, but clear communication will accommodate design elements – such as private offices – that do not typically enhance communication. “As long as I know what someone is doing in that office and why it is private. If it’s a medical practice and someone has their clothes off, or that door is closed for a financial conversation or my boss is holding a conference call with five countries, for example.”
Aznavoorian believes that activity-based workplaces have not adequately addressed the emotional and psychological challenges of alternative working.
The answer lies in identifying ways designers can integrate the “emotional hooks” of a physical environment into virtual space to personalise them. “We must make every experience we have in our new workplaces rich, rewarding and inspiring or we risk fracturing the organisations we are hoping to unite.”