Dr Caitlin McDonald: Space at work – the new organisational frontier

Work is changing: the accelerating flow of new technologies, new communication tools, and ever more ubiquitous and reliable connectivity makes it possible for organisations to re-think how and where their employees need to be. There is a fracturing of time and space as organisations become ever more porous. As more and more organisations work outside in, rather than inside out, they are losing coherence: virtual spaces, mobile and nomadic working in distributed teams, redrawing of organisational boundaries… None of this will go away. In fact, adopting these new ways of working is accelerating, with unknowable consequences as different trends interact with each other.   

To make the most of this potential for a more distributed and mobile workforce, teams and individuals need to adapt, developing new etiquette and survival strategies for the new technoscapes in which they work.

There are three resources that really govern the productivity of organisations, teams and individuals.  Time and space are of course precious finite resources, but the third, attitude, is the secret source to success. It is the frequently neglected resource that can transform wasted or inefficient uses of time and space into behaviours that power the organisation towards its goals. Attitude is more than mindset: it’s an evolving way of thinking about how to effectively navigate time and space in order to make the most of their potential, not a ‘set’ way of being….

Where is work?

Ultimately in this day and age, where there is Wi-Fi, there is work. Organisations have an increasing array of analogue and digital tools and places at their disposal to enable work to happen wherever and whenever it needs to. But to make the most of this potential for a more distributed and mobile workforce, teams and individuals need to adapt, developing new etiquette and survival strategies for the new technoscapes in which they work.

Yet like all changes that humans go through, we bring our fundamental humanity with us.  This means that some of the same organisational challenges which we’ve been struggling with since the 1960s are still prevalent today: challenges about how teams communicate, how to foster effective collaboration, how to make open plan offices not just an efficiency drive, who knows what at what time and where to find the right knowledge when we need it. Today’s employees are equally uncertain about how advances in digital technologies will impact their future working environments.

Digital tools do not define the workplace

Digital tools are making a big difference and are of course ubiquitous: the increasing presence of digital tools like video chat, cloud storage for our files, and digital calendar tools in our personal lives gives consumers the fluency to quickly adopt similar tool sets when they show up in our workplaces.

Companies are responding to this by introducing new policies around flexible and remote working. Floorspace is expensive. Why not give employees the flexibility they want while reducing the literal overhead costs? There are some major advantages to embracing a more conceptual model of the workspace: rather than an office where we go to work, the workspace is any space in which we work.

What computing can teach us in HR

Organisations seeking to maximise the productivity of ever more asynchronous and distributed teams would do well to learn the lessons that computer scientists and software engineers are using to orchestrate the vast architectures of distributed databases which do everything from processing our credit cards to sending cat gifs in emails. In order to work together effectively, we need organising principles that act as enabling constraints. This frees us up from constantly renegotiating how we work together so we can focus on the work that really matters together.  Looking at this in the context of time, space and attitude, it could be summarized as:

  • Time: find a rhythm that encourages some synchronicity across the entire team, whether that’s regular in-person meetings, periodic virtual hangouts, or something else. This will reduce the complexity of back-and-forth communications, particularly across large groups.
  • Space: a degree of autonomy over one’s working environment goes a long way. Everyone likes a lot of light and a view of green plants; we found no surprises in the data we collected as far as those features go. But having the right kind of space for the right job, and the ability to choose aspects of one’s environment even if that choice is limited, gives employees a sense of self-directedness at work.
  • Attitude: The way people speak about and behave regarding the first two principles gives profound clues to the third. This is how leaders can find out what is really driving their organisational performance. The key is digging under the surface to discover not only what people say but the fundamental shared worldview that resonates throughout the organisation. By getting to grips with this, teams have the opportunity to enact profound change in how they work together.


Find what works for your teams

There is no one communication tool, nor one way of organising the office, to rule them all: your organisational needs will dictate the kind of physical and digital spaces you require to get the job done. Using methodological tools designed and tested in the social sciences to dig deeply into how work is done in a variety of different organisations opens up many possible different modes of what work could look like. Anthropology is not only about going into the field, but coming to that ‘the field’ is all around us, all the time, wherever we are.

Finding these emergent headlines from ‘out there’ also allows us to re-examine what might be unique about our own working culture. By bringing this into the light, we are able to take action to proactively shape who we collectively want to be at work. This gives us the freedom to question what we assume is ‘the way it is’ and decide how we really want it to be.





Dr Caitlin McDonald is the Leading Edge Forum’s resident Digital Anthropologist. She helps business leaders and teams learn to step outside their version of ‘normal,’ suspend judgement, and consider things from many different perspectives. This gives businesses the leading edge through boosting customer empathy, finding new solutions to old problems, and enriching the insight power of big data through multidisciplinary approaches. Recognised for her domain knowledge in qualitative methods like ethnography and participant-observation, Caitlin spent six years at the quantitative coal face developing analytical models and designing dashboards for the world’s largest collaboration and talent network for education professionals.