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Rules of engagement

Dr Edward Finch, author of an Anabas white paper on agile working, looks at how a better understanding of human nature can help create a harmonious, engaged workforce

In May this year, corporate office specialist Anabas launched a white paper entitled ‘What type of office worker are you?’, the first in a series looking at the evolution of agile working. The paper focused on the importance of understanding human behaviour and work styles, how they influence interaction within the workplace itself and underpin engagement.

It was identified that the single most challenging issue for modern organisations appears to be engagement. For those organisations that get it right, they reap the benefits of a more creative and more productive workforce. However, polls suggest that the problem of engagement is getting worse for many global corporates. Instead of feeling a strong connection with their jobs and colleagues, employees increasingly feel disconnected. They don’t believe they can make a real contribution, and the result is an environment of mistrust. People cease to share information, talk behind each other’s backs and avoid face-to-face conversation.

Given these behaviours, any manager involved in an office move will know just how devastating such a climate of suspicion can be. Feeling exposed in a new open-plan environment, office workers can quickly become disenchanted, choosing to work elsewhere. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and it seems that true ‘agile thinking’ may provide the answer. As a result, a number of leading FM organisations are waking up to the possibilities of human-centred agile working.

Agile working in the FM industry typically describes ‘unbounded working’, made possible by the use of networking technologies such as wi-fi, the cloud and secure internet (VPN). It is used as a synonym for flexible working, new ways of working or smart working, and FMs have undeniably helped to engineer the ‘work anywhere’ dream.

But agile working was originally conceived to be much more than this. In fact, although the term was coined by a group of emerging software organisations, their mantra was ‘individuals and interactions over process and tools’. Seventeen developers, many from competing companies, met up in the mountains of Utah in 2001. They developed what is known as the ‘agile manifesto’. This encompasses a ‘set of values based on trust and respect for each other and promoting organisational models based on people, collaboration, and building the types of organisational communities in which we would want to work’.

The sceptics among us might argue this was wishful thinking produced by a set of mavericks. In reality, they had transcribed the DNA of those flourishing start-up organisations who eventually challenged the document-driven monoculture of larger organisations.

So the challenge in the white paper was to take a look at the future evolution of agile working. More specifically, could an agile approach create a high-engagement office environment? Our story began with rediscovering agile approaches described in the original agile manifesto. We chose to focus on just one of its four main precepts: ‘individuals and interactions over process and tools.’ Their argument was that ‘…the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.’

In office design we often focus on interaction. Generally, high levels of interaction are seen as beneficial to workplace productivity. But more recently, many designers have expressed concern that high-interaction environments overwhelm our ‘attention space’, particularly in open-plan environments. We wanted to understand much more than interactions. After all, computers are becoming increasingly adept at interaction, with the advent of big data, machine learning and algorithms (the Boston Consulting Group predicts that by 2025, up to a quarter of jobs will be replaced by either smart software or robots).

But what humans are indispensably good at is collaboration. Collaboration demands behavioural changes, working together and sharing of ideas, attitudes and goals. With this in mind we chose to focus on individuals and ‘temperament’. This approach was very different from many prevalent FM approaches to work style, which either focus on ‘culture’ or ‘mobility’ (deskbound, internally mobile or externally mobile).

What makes for good collaboration is diversity, in approaches to problem-solving, idea generation and attention to detail within teams. We’re not talking about differences in religion, gender or culture; we are talking about differences between you and me as individuals.

One aspect of temperament that has attracted particular attention is trust. Trust has repeatedly proven to be the one characteristic that is evident in high-engagement organisations. What is particularly rousing is that trust is ‘measurable’. From the research by Paul J Zak, a neuroeconomist from Claremont Graduate University in southern California, trusting behaviour is stimulated by a brain hormone called oxytocin. It was known from earlier experiments with rodents that they released oxytocin when it was safe to approach another animal. Under stress, the release of oxytocin was inhibited and animals were much more reluctant to engage with one another (it’s tempting to think of these hormonal dynamics in the modern open-plan office).

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, ‘The neuroscience of trust’, Zak describes his own trust experiment involving human participants. “A participant chooses an amount of money to send to a stranger via computer, knowing that the money will triple in amount and understanding that the recipient may or may not share the spoils. Therein lies the conflict: the recipient can either keep all the cash or be trustworthy and share it with the sender.”

This simple experiment showed that most participants (though not all) were willing to send money, and the recipients in turn were willing to return some of it. In other words, they were acting in a trusting (sender) and trustworthy (recipient) manner. To determine the effect of oxytocin, blood was drawn from each participant just before and just after their decision to trust others. It dramatically demonstrated that the more money sent, the more oxytocin was produced by the recipient. In fact, the amount of oxytocin produced was a good measure of how trustworthy the recipient was. That is, how much money they were likely to share.

So why does a facilities manager need to know and understand this? Some of the recommendations for increasing trust include: recognising excellence; inducing challenge stress; giving people discretion about how they work; enabling job crafting; sharing information more broadly; and intentionally building relationships. Each of these measures can be addressed in workplace design. The key is employee involvement and discretion.

Trust is only part of the picture. When we look at temperament, numerous traits define us as individuals. And again, neuroscience is opening up new vistas of understanding of how we collaborate at work. A surprising starting point is the work of Helen Fisher, a US-based anthropologist from Rutgers University, who asked the question: what attracts people to one another? This led her to work with Love.com in characterising romantic relationships. More recently she has worked with Deloitte using a system known as ‘business chemistry’ to understand relationships at work (see Vickberg and Christfort’s article, ‘Pioneers, drivers, integrators and guardians’, in the Harvard Business Review). Their approach is founded on brain chemistry and identifies four distinct work styles:

  • Pioneers are creative risk-takers who are prepared to go with their gut instincts
  • Guardians pay attention to detail and think it is important to learn from the past
  • Drivers are largely focused on winning, like to tackle problems head on and see the world in black and white
  • Integrators, who place great emphasis on cohesion and group identity.

At first sight, this might appear to be a simple variation on the extrovert/introvert personality profiling that we have all encountered in job interviews. But what is compelling about the four-temperament system is that it is based on scientific evidence that contradicts established thinking. In fact it is possible to directly map each of the four work styles to a particular brain chemical. The illustration shows how dopamine is prevalent in pioneers, testosterone is the overriding hormone in drivers; serotonin is responsible for guardian-type behaviour, and oxytocin is dominant in integrators.

But this is not about putting people in pigeonholes. It seems that most of us are a blend of two or more temperament-based work styles. The challenge for managers is to create a working environment where opposing work styles are able to get along. Pioneers, for example, do not instinctively get on with guardians. They are frustrated by the guardian’s preoccupation with detail and often feel they are obstructing their own more impulsive approach. Managers need to help them find the middle ground in a cooperative setting.

Finally we return to the ‘so what?’ question. Agile thinking means ‘diversity thinking’ – and in particular neurodiversity. We now have a far greater understanding of human behaviour and how we collaborate as groups. Neuroscience is providing a clear scientific basis for understanding work style differences. FM has to show that the physical and service setting can enable people to fully express these varied characteristics.

Instead of operationalising and standardising environments for a homogenous set of workers, our challenge is to provide for a neurodiverse working population. By taking the time to understand what really makes people tick, FMs can nurture and cultivate the people and the place to create a harmonious agile workspace.


Dr Edward Finch was previously Professor in FM at Salford University and is now a freelance writer on workplace futures. He is the author of the Anabas white paper, ‘What type of office worker are you?’

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