Forming Community with S.M.A.R.T Work Design


The role that our workplaces play in encouraging and enabling our relationships at work, was largely taken for granted, until they were taken away from us. 

A silver lining of the pandemic, we realised the impact of our workplaces and the role they play in our establishing and supporting the social & support networks in our lives. 

And social connection is a foundation for building any community.

Today’s guest ARC Laureate Fellow Sharon K. Parker.  I was first introduced to Sharon and her work through my friend and Colleague Dr Meg Hooper of Carousel Consulting, and her S.M.A.R.T Work Design Model, to develop meaningful and motivating work.  This piece of work has been instrumental in underpinning our approach to work design and workplace design, a difference that Sharon will elaborate on in today’s podcast. 

Meg has been following Sharon’s work for a very long time, and such I’ve invited her along to co-host today’s episode!

 ARC Laureate Fellow Sharon K. Parker is a John Curtin Distinguished Professor, Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design at Curtain University, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of the Society for Industrial and Organisational Psychology.

Sharon has published more than 250 internationally refereed articles on topics such as work design, proactive behaviour, mental health, and job performance, has over 46,500 citations, and is ranked in the top .15% of global scholars in her field.  

She is the founder of the S.M.A.R.T model, cofounder of the Thrive at Work Initiative, and has contributed to policy on work design in Australia and internationally.   

With the breadth of research that Sharon has done, this podcast could go in any direction, but as we are focused on the role of community in the workplace this season, we’ve narrowed in on this topic and explored how the work she does overlaps with this ability to build community.

So today, we are exploring;

  • Her view on the relationship that exists between our workplaces and the role they play in building community
  • Her S.M.A.R.T work design model and what the important factors are to consider in building community and where organisations could be letting themselves down
  • The role of autonomy in buffering the effects of poor workplace design
  • The definition of work design and the overlap to workplace design
  • Some of the key consideration that designer, Culture Leaders and property managers/specialists should be looking at when it comes to workplace design

Sharon’s perspective on this is fascinating and Meg & I were loving this conversation - we honestly could have chatted for hours.  So, I hope you love listening to this episode as much as we loved recording it!



TRANSCRIPT - Building Community with SMART Work Design


Speaker: The role that our workplaces play in encouraging and enabling our relationships at work was largely taken for granted until they were taken away from us. A silver lining of the pandemic was that we realized the impact that our workplaces have and the role that they play in establishing and supporting the social and support networks in our lives.

Speaker: And social connection is a foundation for building any community. Today's guest is ARC Laureate Fellow, Sharon Kay Parker. I was first introduced to Sharon and her work through my friend and colleague, Dr. Meg Hooper of Carousel Consulting. We were looking at Sharon's smart work design model to develop meaningful and motivating work.

Speaker: This piece of work has been instrumental in underpinning our approach to work design and workplace design, and it's a difference that Sharon will elaborate on in today's podcast. Meg has been following Sharon's work for a very long time. And as such, I've invited her along to co host today's episode.

Speaker: Now to give you a bit more of an insight into Sharon's impressive career. Let me read you her bio. ARC Fellow, Sharon K. Parker is a John Curtin Distinguished Professor, Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design at Curtin University, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences.

Speaker: Fellow of the Society for Industrial and [00:02:00] Organizational Psychology. She's a recipient of the ARC's. Kathleen Fitzpatrick Award, the Academy of Management OB Division Mentoring Award, and last year was selected as Curtin University's research leader of the year. She has published more than 250 internationally referred articles on topics such as work design, proactive behavior, mental health, and job performance, has over 46 and a half thousand citations, and is ranked in the top 0. 15 percent of global scholars in her field.

Speaker: She is a past associate editor for the Journal of Applied Psychology and Academy of Management Annals. Sharon has attracted competitive research funding worth over 70 million and has worked with a wide range of public and private organizations.

Speaker: She is the founder of the smart model co founder of the thrive at work initiative and has contributed to policy on work design in Australia and internationally. she is one incredibly impressive lady. And I am so excited to have her join me on the podcast today. When I was mapping out this season, she was at the top of my hit list and she said, yes.

Speaker: So I'm feeling very lucky to be sharing this episode with you. Now with the breadth of research that Sharon has done, this podcast could really go in any direction, but as we are focused on the role of community in the workplace this season, we've narrated on this topic and explored how the work she does overlaps with this ability to build community.

Speaker: So in today's episode, we're exploring her view on the relationship that exists between our workplaces and the role they play in building community, her smart work design model, and what the important factors are to consider in building community and where organizations could be letting themselves down, the role of autonomy in buffering the [00:04:00] effects of poor workplace design.

Speaker: The definition of work design and the overlap to workplace design and some of the key considerations that designers, culture leaders, and property managers and specialists should be looking at when it comes to workplace design. Sharon's perspective on this is completely fascinating and Meg and I were loving this conversation and we honestly could have chatted with Sharon for hours.

Speaker: So I really hope that you love listening to this episode just as much as we loved recording it.

Melissa: So Sharon, thank you so much for joining me here on the podcast. I have been very much looking forward to having you join me for this episode. So welcome.

Sharon: Thanks very much, Melissa. It's lovely to be here.

Melissa: Now, Sharon, for our audience tuning in today, can you just give us a bit of a top line, high level overview of your work and what you're most passionately interested in at the

Sharon: Okay. I am, the director of the Center for Transformative Work Design, which is a center that I established, , about six or seven years ago now. So we've been focusing on this topic of work design, which I'm sure we'll talk about, but I guess my current, passion is really around some of the challenges

Sharon: that are emerging Because of the acceleration of digital technologies and what that means for work and the quality of work and work design and so on.

Melissa: Wow. Fascinating. And I'm no doubt that's a very big field at the moment, given the way that technology is completely changing and the, the rate at which it is changing as well.

Sharon: , yeah, it's a big, topic and I think in a sense, it's, it's classic technologies advancing faster than the social side, which is figuring out how do we effectively work with it and so on.

Melissa: Yeah. And what are you finding to be the most, the greatest challenge that we're facing as a result of that?

Sharon: I think one of the biggest challenges is that there's a lot of focus on the technology and all the whiz bang things that can [00:06:00] do and, you know, hear that in the media all the time. But there's much less attention to.

Sharon: if this technology is actually implemented into the workplace, how are people going to use it? How are they going to use it to actually achieve their goals more effectively, more efficiently? And so often you see, fancy technologies just plopped in with no thought to the work design or how people are going to work with that technology.

Sharon: And you either see that it gets ignored and doesn't get used if it's for example, medics who've got power, you know, they can just. Sometimes ignore the technology and disregard what the AI is telling them and so on. But we also see in other contexts where people don't have power, that technology is being introduced in a way that actually makes their, their work hellish in a sense.

Sharon: so that would be the number one thing is that we've got to give much more attention to How do humans and technology work together?

Melissa: That's really fascinating what you've just said, because I see the same thing. It's just, there's so much available to us, but what's the best use of it? How do we best optimize that into the way that we do work and our workflow? And to what value is it adding, to what extent is this actually being.

Melissa: Assisting in the work that we're actually doing, or how can it provide insights into ways that we could potentially do things better. And from a workplace perspective, how can we further optimize that workplace environment? So I think there's some really interesting things that are going to continue to evolve, particularly

Melissa: from the technology side of things.

Sharon: and what, what's important to recognize is that, the people that are purchasing and commissioning technology, which are the bosses in the organization seduced sometimes by the promise of all these efficiency gains and, replacing workers and so on. And so they're not necessarily thinking so much about what is the impact of this going to be on people's work.

Sharon: But that's an important part of the equation.

Melissa: Yeah, I [00:08:00] completely agree.

Melissa: so Sharon, one of the things that I'd be really interested to understand from you is this particular season of the podcast is all about the role of community within our workplaces. Given the extent of the research that you've completed, what is your view on that relationship between our workplaces and the role that they actually then play in building community?

Sharon: guess in a sense, what I'll talk about here is the, the R in the smart model of work design and the R is for relational and I guess recognizes, , that. , work plays a really important role in terms of providing opportunities for people to connect with others and build that community. So I would say, you know, two things. on the one hand, work is a vehicle for people getting

Sharon: access to community. I would also say that creating quality community in the workplace is vital for delivering the work as well. So I think they sort of both influence each other. But I guess if I can sort of just unpack a little bit, when I talk about relational work, what do I mean by that? well, I guess the first thing is that work provides an opportunity for people to connect with others. And that might sound obvious, but I think to some extent we took that for granted until COVID, and then suddenly people are working at home and feeling isolated and so on. And we really then I think appreciated that work is a chance, , to actually have informal connection Thank you.

Sharon: with other people in all sorts of ways. And that still matters to people. So that's the first thing is that work is just provides an opportunity for connection and informal connection. And that's really important from a health perspective and, for performance and all those sorts of things. And we can unpack that more later.

Sharon: The second thing I think is that, , what's important is that people get access to support in the workplace. So we know that, and I know, you know, this Meg, from. All of the [00:10:00] work on job stress, and we've got a lot of attention to issues like psychosocial hazards in the workplace and the responsibility of employers to prevent harm, all those things.

Sharon: One of the things we know is that if people have got pressure in their work, they've got demands, and everybody does, that's sort of what work is, then we know that social support is very protective. And we know that from our own experience, of course. we've got a big demand or deadline. If you've got a boss that's saying, How are you going?

Sharon: What can I do to help? That's so different to having to do that on your own. So that social connection and support is the sort of second key component. And of course, if you've got the opportunity for connecting with people, you're just, connecting with people more often, you've got more chance of that support too.

Sharon: So they, they go together, I think.

Melissa: So really from what I've just heard you say, the workplace, and I agree with you, we didn't really realize the impact that it was having on our ability to form these social connections. We just kind of really did take it for granted until we didn't have it. But the, the workplace itself is actually kind of this container that enables these relationships and these connections to be formed.

Melissa: Hmm. Mm hmm.

Sharon: Absolutely. And of course, we can also see the reverse, as in we can see workplaces with harmful and toxic relationships. So we've just done a very large study of respect or lack of in the mining sector here in Western Australia, where sexual harassment of women is unfortunately. quite common. so we can also see that, the community can break down because of those harmful relationships too.

Sharon: So we want those positive, social connections , and relationships. And by the way, that doesn't mean a world in which people don't disagree with each other or have different opinions. That's important, actually, for innovation and for creativity. [00:12:00] It's important to have those different perspectives.

Sharon: But if , it's about presenting them in respectful ways and listening and all that sort of thing. I guess the, another component of, of work from a community perspective. can be in terms of that sense of team, so. What that's about is, is fundamentally about a group of people who've got a shared goal or a shared purpose.

Sharon: And that's in a sense what defines a team, , as opposed to a group of workers. So if people are a team and they need to coordinate their tasks that are interdependent with each other, their work affects other people and other people's work affects them, then that is also, powerful force in organizations, isn't it?

Sharon: To be part of. a team and to feel that you are working together with other people on achieving goals. So that can be another important relational component of

Melissa: Yeah, absolutely.

Meg: Mel And I have been working hard at that team level, acknowledging the protective effects that teams can have. Everything else can be really quite horrible, but if you've got a powerful identity or a powerful sense of belonging with your team, then it can be protective in so many ways.

Meg: And I think sometimes we don't even realize all the mechanisms that allow the team to be some kind of magic sauce. So that one's at a team level.

Sharon: Yeah, it's so true because, you know, if you've got that functional team, you're connected into a clear shared purpose, you know, you've also got that more social interaction, you've got that opportunity for more support and I think also, you know, another component of the relational work, is the opportunity, I guess, to make a difference to the wider community.

Sharon: In other words, to impact lives in the community. outside, , of your team through the work that you do. And here I'm referring to , some of Adam Grant's work that I know you're both familiar with around connecting with the beneficiaries of, , the work and, , sort of making a difference, , to other people's [00:14:00] lives.

Sharon: And again, if you're doing that as a team, that's a very powerful recipe because you've, you know, got that sense of connection and we in belonging and you're collectively making a difference to other people's lives. that's another component of what we consider are in the relational model.

Sharon: It's not just your own internal connections and opportunities for contact, but your opportunity to know that you're making a difference to the people who, , benefit from your work, , whether they are patients in a hospital or whether they are. People that you're calling up because you've got to recover a debt from them , you can do that in a way that is kind and empathetic, that means you're actually having a positive impact on

Melissa: Yeah, it's really interesting to think about that ripple effect and how it actually transfers on. And I think that's one of the things that from the workplace design perspective, it's something that I try and do to connect. People who don't necessarily have that direct connection with that end beneficiary, that end client or that end user, it's how can we create some sort of line of sight for them through the actual environment? So they feel like they have an intangible connection to them in some way.

Sharon: think that's so important because not all jobs have that immediate, you might make cars, but you're not necessarily going to see someone driving your car that you made around. But you can certainly receive the feedback from people who are buying the cars know, you would be familiar with Adam's work where he shared with people letters that came from, in his case, it was people who benefited by getting scholarships generated by call center agents, and he shared those letters with the call center agents so that they could see, okay, it just feels like we're calling up people and asking for money and getting rejected all day, but actually it's generating income to support people to go to university and that has profound effects on their lives.

Sharon: So just think sometimes you write a [00:16:00] list, you have to be a bit creative about how you build those connections because they're not always.

Melissa: And I liked how you said that in, in terms of building this team community, there has to be this common sense of purpose. And I think that's something that isn't always clearly articulated or thought about, and the other piece that you said there is about, you know, what are we coming together for? How are we doing our work?

Melissa: And I think Meg and I talk about this in terms of the idea of routines and rituals. What are we doing that is going to be. Connecting is how are we doing it? When are we doing it? And so that there's a repetitive pattern about what work looks like for us so that we know when we need to be together and when we can be apart.

Melissa: And that probably comes, starts to dive into my, my next question, which is around You mentioned the smart work design model earlier. I'd love you to tell us a bit more about that and what all of the letters stand for in the acronym, but then let's dive in a little bit more deeply into the impact of autonomy and how that can work. start

Sharon: in the model and that's the relational aspect of work. And so that's about designing work in a way to ensure there is that opportunity for contact. There is that support from your boss and, you're creating. teams if that makes sense for the nature of the work.

Sharon: Let's start at the beginning. So S is for simulating, and this is about the importance of having work that is interesting and challenging and includes some opportunities for learning and growth. So having a variety of tasks using a variety of your skills.

Sharon: Engaging in problem solving, you know, if we go right back to the Industrial Revolution, the whole gist of Taylorism was to take away problem solving types of aspects of the work from workers and just give them very narrow jobs, think about the classic assembly line is you just have one person [00:18:00] turning the nut on the tire all day and that's what you do.

Sharon: And unfortunately, that sort of. mindset of Taylorism and simplifying work has really embedded itself into the minds of many managers because they think that's the most efficient way of doing it. You know, let's, focus on that person getting really, really, really good at photocopying or whatever.

Sharon: But of course we know that that's got issues for repetitive strain, injury, boredom, fatigue lack of meaning, all those sorts of things. So, at the end of the day people want and need to keep growing and learning across their lives. It's a really important part of human nature. So, stimulating is all about, let's look at the work design, let's see if we can design the work.

Sharon: So that people have got that variety and challenge in their work. M is for Mastery. , and what we mean by that is that people want to go to work 9 percent of people want to do a good job when they go to work. And to do that, they need to know what is it that they're meant to be doing.

Sharon: What are their roles? What are their responsibilities? How are they going in the delivery of those roles and responsibilities? So what sort of feedback are they getting about their performance? So not, I'm not talking feedback once a year in your performance appraisal. I'm talking about regular feedback on how they're doing.

Sharon: So Mastery's all about, in a sense, it's about making sure people are clear on what it is that they're doing and how they're going in their work. And I guess, we actually find in a lot of our research that um, A lack of clarity is first of all, surprisingly prevalent and second of all, very stressful for people.

Sharon: So I'll just give an example. We're currently doing a lot of research in the health care and social assistance sector. So people who deliver care to aged care or social work and so on. So role clarity , is often one of [00:20:00] the biggest factors that we

Sharon: find that we're working on. And it's not so much, I don't think that people know what they

Sharon: should be doing it's which of the million things are they tasked with is most important.

Sharon: And in a world where they are really really overloaded how do they prioritize the different tasks? And how do they know what they're doing versus what someone else is doing because a lot of the time, You've got, for example, a lot of staff turnover. So you've got People in and out, you know, revolving door.

Sharon: And that can make role clarity really hard because no one's even got time to properly induct someone into the role , and make it clear for them. So that's what mastery is all about. It's all about clarity. Autonomy, and we're going to talk more about that in a minute, is fundamentally about the ability to shape the world that you live in, and. to shape the work world.

Sharon: So that might be your ability to influence when you work, where you work, And it certainly includes your ability to influence how you work. so do you have any influence over the methods that you use in your work. The order that, you do your tasks, even. So autonomy is about that We're going to talk more about that, so I won't say any more about that.

Sharon: So we've talked about R already, the relational component in the SMART model And then T, the final one, is tolerable. And this is about tolerable demands. So, what we know from, decades of research is that, the biggest predictor of burnout or exhaustion or mental ill health in work is excess demands.

Sharon: So those demands might be workload, just far too much to do in the time available. It might be long work. hours. It might be emotional demands. So I've mentioned already. The set aged care sector, of course, there's not only a hell of a lot of work to do, there's a lot of emotional demands. [00:22:00]Actually, another demand that they face in that sector, which sort of conflicts and causes emotional demands is compliance demands.

Sharon: In other words, they're just constantly having to focus on complying with the rules and the protocols, which have been put in place to protect patients. But in fact, perversely can stop. people being able to provide the care that they want, which creates an emotional demand, because most people who go in that sector want to help people and want to look after people.

Sharon: And if they can't, that feels really stressful to them naturally. demands exist in work. And, and that's, I often say that's sort of what work is, right? You've got goals you've got to achieve and they are demands. They are pressures. But we need those demands to be tolerable. And, and what I mean by tolerable is they need to feel manageable to you.

Sharon: they need to not be overwhelming you. This is a hard point for people to get their head around. And people will say things to me like, well, exactly. How many hours is it okay for someone to work, or exactly what score on the workload scale is acceptable and what is not acceptable. people are different, right?

Sharon: Some people thrive on long work hours and working all the time, and other people don't. Some people thrive when their life is going well but then they get small children or they get divorced and then they don't thrive anymore. So it's, it's really about what you're able to cope with, what you're able to tolerate.

Sharon: That's what's important. so that's why I talk about tolerable demands. It's not that we're trying to eradicate all demands from work, that would be silly because work is about demands, but it's about making sure that those demands are manageable for the individuals that are achieving them. And that won't be the same for everyone.

Sharon: So that's the SMART model. So it's all about work design, I guess, and it's all about a sort of simple approach, I guess, to addressing [00:24:00] the core psychosocial risks that we know exist in the workplace. And, you know, as mentioned earlier, there is now increased awareness amongst employers that they have that legal responsibility to not cause harm.

Sharon: psychological harm as well as physical harm to their workers. So that's the model in a nutshell, but I think we want to dive now more into autonomy.

Melissa: Meg, have you got a question before we start? Hmm.

Meg: of a I really find the model fascinating because tolerable demands, is it's almost like the other elements of the model can protect against all sorts of demands. And, and One of the areas of work we're doing at the moment, or some of the clients we're working with at the moment, the demands are really hard to identify because they are demands like, and you already referred to the work you're doing with respect, but the demands are emotional because people are dealing with incivility in the workplace.

Meg: So they're dealing with rudeness and. When we look at the source of the rudeness,

Meg: why is it okay for people to be rude to each other like this? Actually, it's the workload that people have got nothing left. People have got cognitively loaded to the max and have nothing left for all of those other emotional processes like empathy and all of those social processes that do take a little bit more of your, your brain energy.

Meg: And so then have to look at demands in that, as you said, in that holistic sense to say demands can come from an absence of the other areas in the model as well. you know, I'm a huge fan

Meg: of the model and use it on a regular, but it's, really important people understand that the model isn't just like this linear kind of approach.

Meg: It's it's actually interacts. And it's why when we're building community in a workplace, we need to be really conscious of how things play out. And leaders in particular need to be really intentional about how they're setting up their work. Communities and how they're establishing communities that don't then become overdone strengths and place a [00:26:00] demand on people that was unintentional,

Sharon: your point Meg, to look at the model holistically is super, super critical, you know, and you've mentioned already the idea that if you've got demands, it might impair relational aspect of work. Equally, we know that if you've got a high level of demands, actually having positive relationships.

Sharon: That support we mentioned earlier is, is protective. Autonomy is protected. If you've got, you know, a high level of demands, but you've got the autonomy to manage those demands, that's protected. And we also see things like, if you want to give someone autonomy really important that they've got mastery because otherwise you're sort of setting up a recipe for anarchy.

Sharon: Actually, you know, if people don't know what it is they're meant to be achieving, they don't know what their roles and responsibilities are, and then you're saying, hey, do what you like, have autonomy, that is not what we want. So, so they absolutely complement and they need to work together in a holistic way.

Sharon: So that's a really important. Thank you. The other thing I just wanted to say, what that triggered in my mind when you were talking you know, in a sense, this goes back to the relational component. That behavior from colleagues of incivility and harassment is actually very damaging. , I think people can go, it's just a bit of fun or toughen up princess type of stuff.

Sharon: I did some research many years ago, so I'm talking, I won't even say how many, with police officers In the UK and we were at sexual harassment amongst female police officers Which was this was sort of a long time ago. It was pretty rife But what we found was that if people were harassed By their colleagues that was a completely different experience to being harassed by the police clients or criminals, right?

Sharon: So if criminals were you know, abusive to them, what that, that meant for women was, this is part of my job to, to deal with this, is they're just, behaving that way. And it didn't really honestly have much impact on them. But if they were being [00:28:00] harassed by their colleagues, that had a completely different meaning.

Sharon: It basically meant, you're not welcome here, we don't want women doing this job, we feel threatened by y'all. They don't say that, but effectively that's what it is. And it was very, very negative for people's mental health and well being. So the same behaviour, you know, being called a tart, as an example, that was a very common one, had completely different meaning if it's internal versus external. And I think that's what we try to convey when we work , with our mining community. you know, if your friend down the pub calls you a tart, that's got a completely different meaning to your colleague saying that, and that's what people need to learn. That the same behavior can have a quite different meaning for people. So, your comment about the incivility, I just, one of the things in our mining study, actually, we showed is that what we call gender harassment, or not we, but people in, in, in the field, which is that sort of well, low level, and I'm putting that in quotation marks, but it's that sort of comment like, oh, women can't do this job, or you know, make me a cup of tea, you know, type of it's not the same as sexual coercion, which would be a more extreme form of harassment.

Sharon: It's like, you know, have sex with me if you want to get promoted. Of course, that's very extreme. But interestingly, in our research in the mining organizations, we found that that, constant exposure to low level gender harassment was just about as psychologically damaging as the more extreme forms.

Sharon: Because it's sort of just persistent and constant message, if you're not welcome, you're not part of this community, to go back to your point, Melissa, about community. You know, it's, it's a message, you're not welcome here. And that's very, that's very that really wears you down, I think, as a female in those

Melissa: And, in terms of that idea of building community and bringing people back into the workplace, you know, if we're hearing these conversations around [00:30:00] mandates and return to work policies and this. push requirement to get people back into the workplace. The point that I'm trying to make through these, these conversations is that it's a much bigger conversation.

Melissa: It's a bigger holistic picture. There's a lot of moving parts in it. It is a complex discussion. And if you've got. That kind of environment where those kinds of conversations are happening, then that's going to be undermining the most gorgeous fit out that you're going to be creating or the best coffee machine that you put in there or the new training programs that you're putting over the top.

Melissa: You know, they're almost like these glossy overlays that we're trying to pretty everything up and make it look perfect, but there's some fundamental. Things that are challenging the organization to actually operate. And I think that's, that's the point that I got to particularly as a workplace designer, you know, I can create the most gorgeous fit out for somebody, but if there are functionally things going on within that organization that are not complimenting.

Melissa: What that, beautiful box looks like, you know, what's inside that box is not going to function very, very well. And that's why, super interested to have these conversations with you, because , that idea of autonomy that sits over the top, it's about giving people that choice. Is the choice to come here or not to come here, but if we can encourage people to actually want to be there, and that takes a lot of these elements to be put into play in the right way, then that's going to become much more of a motivating factor.

Sharon: I think you're absolutely spot on Melissa. So, we often get asked, you know, how many days should people come in really to me, it's about, providing as much autonomy as is reasonable and feasible, I do think we have to add the caveat as is reasonable and feasible because some work does require you to be working alongside other people in, conversation, et cetera.

Sharon: But if we focus on that, we don't need to be mandating come in two days or because, because in fact that could be worse. Some people [00:32:00] might actually want to come in five days, right? So in fact all we've done is take the previous lack of autonomy. You've got to come in all the time and swap it with, don't come in some of the time.

Sharon: So I think it is about, trusting people with making sensible decisions. And there may be occasionally 1 percent where you have to then say actually you're not coming in at all and we need you to or, or whatever. But the problem is we often create in organizations rules based on the 1%, and it penalizes the 99%.

Sharon: And yes, it stops the 1%, but you also are doing all the things you're talking about, like alienating people. And I think one of the problems is that people like. if they're asked to come into work, well, why? There needs to be a reason to come into work. And if you can articulate why, , and it's absolutely within your right and responsibility as a leader to do that, we're trying to build culture.

Sharon: We're trying to have people innovating and whatever the reason is Those are important, and if people understand why, then, they do it, and, you'll get so much more out of people if, if they are coming in out of an intrinsic motivation, because they understand those are the important things, they feel part of that, they want that too, than if you're doing a coercive, you must come in X days or X time.

Sharon: I, I do think, and this is actually to go back to your earlier point, Meg, How the model of the smart works together because I often say on the one hand We've got the autonomy the agency Let's have that but we also want the are in work We want the relation or we want the connection and so there is maybe some trade off there that actually if we want the good relationships We know, for example, that newcomers, people just starting out in a workplace can really suffer if they don't come in because they don't get all [00:34:00] that informal socialization, learning the ropes, etc.

Sharon: So, you know, coming in as a newcomer is really, really important and really good. And that might mean a little bit of a trade off to your agency, your autonomy. but you know that it's going to have a long term benefit. So again, it's about thinking about these components in a holistic way. So yes, I think you're absolutely right, Melissa.

Sharon: It's about autonomy, reasonable autonomy. It's like I said before, it's not, people sometimes think autonomy is anarchy and it's not.

Sharon: And neither is it abdication either. It, you know, because that's another confusing thing that happens is that All right, you want autonomy?

Sharon: Okay, do it yourself. It's up to you. Free for all, but as a manager, they've still got a really critical role of providing support, providing the mastery, so again, it's not about abdication of responsibility. It's about autonomy, but with those other components

Melissa: Yeah. And I think you made it like, just, you touched on it just there at the end. I was thinking about it as you're talking. Autonomy without mastery, without those clear guidelines, those boundaries, those expectations, what are my outputs requirements without that, then we are a lot more lost. But if we are leaning into mastery a little bit more than I think that level of autonomy can actually go up.

Melissa: But I, I would. guess in a lot of the organizations that I've seen is that there's lower levels of mastery, hence the reason the higher level of autonomy, because we're not very clear about what we expect from people, what those outputs are, and that comes back to that whole presenteeism and I'm leading you because I can see you kind of mentality.

Sharon: Yeah, that's absolutely right. So yes, they need to go hand in hand.

Melissa: Yeah, beautiful. One of the questions I have for you is you co wrote a chapter in a book and the book is called Organizational Behavior and the Physical Environment. And the chapter that you co wrote was called Connecting Workspace, Work characteristics and Outcomes through Work Design. One of the comments that I picked up on [00:36:00] that you said in there was that Autonomy can actually help to buffer the negative effects of

Melissa: poor workplace design. Can you kind of elaborate on that a little bit? Because I think a lot of people who are probably tuning into this podcast haven't got the brand new shiny workplace. They're probably dealing with, things that no longer

Melissa: fit for purpose. How does autonomy actually start to help counteract some of that?

Sharon: Yeah. So, I mean, I guess, let's imagine you're working in a big open plan office and you're very distracted because of that but if you've got autonomy and you were able to say, okay, I've got a really, Important deadline that I've got to absolutely focus.

Sharon: And so I will work from home today, for example, that would help you to manage that pressure of the distraction or conversely, if you've got a physical work design where, perhaps is really just not a very nice environment to be in. Actually, let me give a real example. So, a friend of mine is doing some work as a pharmacist.

Sharon: So, helping to dispense pharmaceuticals for people. And she's talked to me about how the space is physically very cramped. But she also is standing all day and there's not proper design of the desk. So she's not able to so I was saying, what, can you get a stool and sort of sit on the stool to take, the weight off your back and there's not really room to sit the stool on it, et cetera.

Sharon: She's had to go to the doctor to get aspirin. Because of worry about blood clot, so at the same time, she's working in an environment where there's not autonomy to say, okay, I need to have a break right now. my back is really hurting. I need to go and change task, do something different where I can physically

Sharon: sit

Sharon: down for a bit and get my, yeah, yeah.

Sharon: So, so that would be a different example, but basically it goes back to that broader point that autonomy [00:38:00] enables you to manage your demands. And if those demands are emerging as a result of your physical space that you're in then autonomy can help you to, to manage them. Of course, in that case, really the physical work design should be changed.

Sharon: And I talk to her about, you need to talk to your employer because this is, work is causing you

Sharon: harm because of the physical design and the, and the lack of ergonomic considerations. Um, So yeah hopefully that will happen. But yes, so, so I I do think that I guess the physical work design is, you know, the layout and.

Sharon: And the geography and the light and you know, you are the expert, all those things. But I think we can think about the psychological work design, the smart alongside of that. And I think that's important. I just wanna pick up on an earlier point you made Melissa, which is, you know, one of my personal bug bears too is that often we do see organizations engaging in these very surface.

Sharon: sorts of things, very fancy environments, beautiful paintings on the wall. And, they themselves may have precarious work, whatever. , it's not only is it sort of neglectful to think like that, it's actually can, can also backfire and be worse because people feel like, oh, you've invested all this money in the physical space.

Sharon: But what about me and my work? and it's the same, not just with physical design, but even with, things like, it is a little bit like the yoga at lunchtime and, those things are lovely. But if they're happening in a context where you're working 12 hour shifts that's the issue.

Sharon: The 12 hour shifts is the issue, not the yoga at lunchtime. So, and I think people get very cynical about what it is that people are trying to do , when they do these things that are so obviously not the things that should be focused on.

Meg: it's exactly the conversations that we've had now with some of our joint projects where,

Meg: It's sort of just.

Meg: Make it pretty, [00:40:00] then everyone will be okay. Right. And one, that's such an under kind of statement of the skill.

Meg: It now brings to these spaces, but it's also it's also Yeah. completely misunderstands why you do what you do and why you you invest so much time and understanding what the culture of the organization needs to be to to really make the most of this. beautiful space that you've that you've designed.

Melissa: Yeah,

Sharon: Yeah,

Melissa: And I think that brings me to a question I have for you, Sharon, is that you talk about work design, and obviously I do then do workspace design, and you talked about it in this chapter. Can you just explain to me what the definition in your mind of work design is, and then. You know, we've spoken a bit about workspace design, but what relationship do they have to each other or what relationship should they have

Melissa: to each

Melissa: other?

Sharon: Yeah, so work design is so the sort of academic definition that I use is that it's about the tasks, responsibilities, activities, and relationships in work, and what they are, the nature of them, and also how they're organized. So, you know, we were talking before about whether you're a team or a group, for example.

Sharon: So, a team has a work design where people actually need to collaborate with other, each other to meet a shared goal. A group is just a bunch of people who might connect with each other, but they don't have that shared goal. So they've got different work designs. We could go further and say, okay, a self managing team has a different work design to perhaps a traditional team because in a self managing team, the way that the work is organized is that the workers themselves will make decisions about who's doing which tasks and when and have basic autonomy over, over a lot of the things that traditionally a leader or boss might do.

Sharon: so that's what work design is about, how those tasks and relationships and activities are organized. and then smart model is like, It's these [00:42:00] aspects of work design that when you make decisions about the tasks and the relationships and the responsibilities, it creates psychological experiences for people, such as where the work is stimulating or where the people feel, they've got autonomy.

Sharon: So, those aspects of SMART, I guess, reflect the decisions that have been made The tasks, who does them, the decisions, who makes them, the activities that people are doing.

Melissa: Yeah. Hmm.

Sharon: that different to workspace design? I think they absolutely go hand in hand. And one thing I could probably learn from you, actually, is

Sharon: more, you know, about what

Sharon: sorts of space design are conducive to good work design and vice versa. At a very simplistic level, for example, I observe in my own work environment that having two floors, creates. It's two different worlds and we're constantly brainstorming ways to increase interaction across the two floors. And I imagine that's a fairly common scenario. And, but I could see there how, work design from the more psychological sense is important.

Sharon: Because actually, if we make sure that our teams are spread across the floors, so that they still need to work together across the floors, that, that might compensate for the less than ideal physical design, for example. So, I can see all sorts of interesting ways in which that more psychological aspect and physical aspect of design come

Melissa: Yeah, absolutely. And you're right there because a lot of the time we do have these physical constraints and it's like, well, what is the best way for us to organize our teams to be able to, to work across those sort of those boundaries? One of the other things that I wanted to ask you about is that. You commented in the chapter, particularly that work design is something that isn't often considered when people are designing these work environments. And I would have to agree with you. [00:44:00] It's one of the things when I go into workplaces with a client for the first time, and I'm observing their existing environment, it's just not conducive to the work that they do.

Melissa: And that's a big part of what I do is really understanding. What the business does, what are the team dynamics? What's the org structure look like? How does communication flow? you know, the strategy, the goals, the values, the vision, the whole gamut of what it is to make that business. Because I feel like our responsibility as workplace designers is to support that and to enable that and make it as.

Melissa: easy and as frictionless as possible, do you have any suggestions? that you could give to designers, culture leaders or property managers to start thinking about how they could think about workplace design more holistically from the context of work design?

Sharon: Yeah, it's really important. I think and you know, I often use a sort of iceberg metaphor for the work design, which is, you know, at the visible part of poor work design is often things like stress or poor performance or people leaving. But, the solutions people often turn to when they. see stress, are often more individual.

Sharon: Oh, you can't cope or so let's send you on resilience training or whatever or performance. Oh, you need more training. So what I'm encouraging people to do is to think about the work design that might be beneath that iceberg. And it is. less visible. We try to make it more visible through smart surveys and other sorts of things, but it's less visible than, somebody just not coming into work at all.

Sharon: That's very visible behavior. But unfortunately people then diagnose their problem as things other than work design and often individual behaviors. Oh, how do we, how do we shift the dial? I guess is your question.

Sharon: Yeah, and look, I think that there's a number of [00:46:00] answers to that question. I think one would be educating people about this stuff because it's not, look, it's honestly not really even taught in MBAs, you know, in MBA programs.

Sharon: People might get half an hour on these sorts of topics if you're lucky. So I think that would be a really good start is training our leaders, our, our architects, even our human resources people, we don't even really train human resources people enough around these sorts of issues, in my opinion.

Sharon: So, so I think that's where I would probably start is really building that into training. The other side of the coin, of course, is legislative change. And we've had that actually. And I have to say, I do think it has shifted the dial a little bit. we've never had so many people

Sharon: caring about work design before. So, you know, something, something has happened.

Sharon: It's, it's

Meg: Ha

Meg: ha

Sharon: it's either COVID or regulation. I'm not sure, but probably a little bit of both actually. Yeah. in terms of how do we

Sharon: get our people leaders and designers and, so on to create better quality work. The

Sharon: number one thing I think I would always advocate is. involving the workers in the decision making. the whole premise of good work design is that people have.

Sharon: got voice and agency and, and stimulating

Sharon: work. So why not

Sharon: apply that to the actual design process? So allowing people to have a voice if we're, and I think that would be true with physical work design.

Sharon: It's absolutely, certainly true. With, with the more smart sort

Sharon: of work design that we do, it's really, really

Sharon: important to tap into the experiences of the people doing the work. And, and I

Sharon: think too many people at work get things done to them. This would be more about people working together to create better quality work. And after all, who are the experts in [00:48:00] people's work design?

Sharon: The people doing the work! So, for the people who don't have a massive amount of time to go and get re skilled in this stuff, I would say at least talk to people who do the work and try to understand the world from their perspective and get them involved in any redesign that

Melissa: Yeah. Couldn't agree more. first step in our process is to start asking people, engage them in a workshop, talk to them about what workplace design can look like and does look like, and then invite their feedback.

Sharon: And then listen, you know, the other thing is we see a lot of that engagement of people, but then there's no, there's no listing, there's no feedback loop, so then, then whatever decisions are made, there needs to be that feedback loop, well, this is what we've decided, and this is why, because otherwise people are, oh, yeah, we put, we made our suggestions, no one listened, and then the next time, Someone wants to talk to them like, what's the point, you know, I've already shared it, so I think we got that process of listening and feedback in a sense, it's the mastery almost being applied to the process has to go all the way through the process.

Sharon: So. It's so important and you would think it would be easy to do, but I mean, I guess the reality is many people are overloaded and pressured and, you know, they've got their own bad work designs to contend with, some of these designers are under ridiculous time scales, etc. so it can become a little bit of a vicious

Sharon: circle, I guess.

Sharon: And actually, that's just one thing maybe just to share, to start winding up is some of our research. We've looked at. We've looked at how people design work, so we just created a very simple little simulation where we say here's this person's job

Sharon: 50 percent of the time, they've been part time, they're going to go full time, you know, here's some tasks, what tasks would you add to this 50 percent job to make it full time, so very simple little scenario.

Sharon: And we basically then measure what tasks people give, this hypothetical person. And first of all, we show that an alarming number of people give this poor person whose [00:50:00] basic job to this point, 50 percent of the time, is photocopying and filing. They just give the poor person more photocopying and filing when we've actually created this lovely array of other tasks that

Sharon: could be given. So we find, first of all, that, people don't naturally design good work on average. , and second of all, when we look at, well, what predicts who designs better work, first of all, knowledge is important, so that goes back to that education piece. But the other interesting predictor is having autonomy in your own work.

Sharon: So the, the people that do this little simulation, if they've got, well designed work themselves with a lot of autonomy, they tend to create better quality work for other people. So sometimes we think there might be a bit of a vicious circle. Where if you yourself have not got good work design, you know, you're then not creating good work design for other people.

Sharon: So, so that's also something to, to bear in mind is, yeah, we've, we've also got to try and create good work design for ourselves and for these senior leaders and so on. So that they can, they've got the mental space and they've got the inspiration, I guess, to design good work for other

Sharon: people.

Meg: it's interesting, isn't it Mel? Cause we have both really crafted our own jobs by starting businesses and, you know, and, and have huge

Meg: amounts of autonomy. And. I feel like that just gives us so much more empathy. I don't, I'm sure there's other ways to get it to be empathetic, but I feel like because,

Meg: because of the level of autonomy in our roles, we have different conversations than a senior leader in an organization might be able to have.

Meg: Because of the level of autonomy we've crafted

Meg: for ourselves in our roles.

Sharon: Yeah, that makes sense. And in a sense, entrepreneurs I think the problem with entrepreneurs is not autonomy. It's the tolerable

Melissa: Yeah,

Melissa: we very much. agree

Melissa: with.

Sharon: you'd probably agree with

Meg: Yes. Yep. Me too.

Melissa: Yeah, we're very much failing in that last T.

Melissa: Yeah,

Meg: Work's in progress. Work's [00:52:00] in progress.

Sharon: Yep. I suspect a lot of us who love our work, you know, that is the biggest danger I think is, you know, and I guess what we've been talking about is the responsibility of managers and leaders and bosses to design good work. We also do have a responsibility ourselves as well, because sometimes we are our own worst enemies.

Sharon: you know, and particularly professional work where, you know, we sometimes are in control of what we say yes to and what we say no to. So it needs to be both ways. There's that, that, that top down, but there's also the bottom up as in what we do to create good work for ourselves.

Melissa: It is a fascinating conversation, Sharon. Thank you so much. so much for joining me and to Meg to joining along today too, and being my co host on this conversation very much appreciated Sharon, if people want to find out more about the work that you were doing um, where's the best place for them to head and find out more.

Sharon: Probably the simplest is just to go to the website, which is transformativeworkdesign. com. And that's where we, there's links to us, but also summaries of our work and so on. So that's transformativeworkdesign. com. All

Melissa: Perfect. I'll pop the link in the show notes for people as well to check that out. And highly recommend reading that chapter of the book as well, because you made some really interesting points in there. And a lot of the pushback that I do get around modern work designers, people have an interest in.

Melissa: Expectation and understanding of open plan design and what all its flaws are. And you highlight all of those, but you also highlight a number of the positives that come out of it. And I think it's just about understanding the trade offs and understanding the right way of assembling these spaces to support different organizations and different team needs.

Melissa: But once you understand that, I think there's some, there's some good work that can be done in there and you outlined it really well. So

Melissa: thank you for that.

Sharon: you guys. It's been lovely to

Sharon: talk with you this morning.

Melissa: Thank you.

Meg: Take care

Meg: Cya. Bye.



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