The Anthropology of Work

Here’s a whitepaper I wrote awhile back… see what you think.

The workplace is where it all happens… ideas formed, problems solved, challenges met, relationships developed … all for the sake of performance. In most workplace applications, the measure of productivity is determined by the very nature of work including how it is performed, the processes we use and the “stuff” that gets in the way. We wonder whether today was going to be or was actually productive. We monitor the activity of others to see what might be happening or check on their progress. The service industry keeps track of time and the degree to which it can be paid for by someone else. It all happens in the workplace, yet it is the environment that is so often overlooked as the contributor to organizational culture and success.

In today’s economy, issues of globalization, diversity, sustainability, employment branding, agility and employee reward and recognition are directly affecting the way today’s workplace is formed. A strong focus on organizational culture is also uncovering many opportunities for changes in work habits and they way companies organize and create expectations for their employees. Perhaps the workplace is the key link between how work happens, the culture of an organization and the ways the economy is transformed around the world.

An organization’s Cultural Behavior defines the norms and values of an organization. It is a collection of observations and markers that define who an organization is – at its core – as well as the way it behaves in all forms of interaction. Cultural Behavior defines the capacity for an organization’s success.

Work Habits define how things get done. It combines process and output; both often prescribed by an organization as best practice or expected behavior. When someone says, “We do things a certain way around here”, it is the Work Habits that they are talking about.

Future Trends in technology, human performance and organizational dynamics shape an organization’s future aspirations and plans for exploring new ways of doing things. These declarations based on past performance shape what the future will look like and who will adopt these new ways of doing things and behaviors demonstrated by a firm.

Common in all three of these workplace elements – Culture, Work and Trends – is the ability to observe and assess each. Based on these observations and evaluations, we better understand the impact on how people and an organization might behave in their environment. By analyzing the implications of these elements, we develop appropriate requirements of a workplace and leverage it for the good of the organization as well as the people who work within it.

Cultural Behavior

One specialist in organizational development, a company called Human Synergistics, has a long history in helping organizations enhance effectiveness. They focus on the culture of an organization, recommend strategies to help improve performance effectiveness and intentionally change work cultures for the better. The goal of Human Synergistics’ lead assessment – the Organizational Culture Index (OCI) – is to illustrate the current cultural elements of an organization and offer a roadmap of change to make it more constructive.

According to the OCI assessment, a constructive culture is one that embodies achievement, self-actualization, humanistic-encouraging behavior and affiliations. Combined, these four areas represent a willingness to cooperate as well as a commitment to solve problems together. The implications to a workplace are many:

Achievement is defined by an organization’s need to attain results and willingness to accept strong challenges. There is a realization that effort produces results and strong goal orientation among stakeholders. Consider what happens when work is impeded or is slowed by the workplace. Perhaps it is an Internet outage, a temperature problem or not having access to the facilities required for effective performance. It is often taken for granted, but basics of workplace support are vital for achievement.

Self actualization describes a need for personal growth and fulfillment coupled with a strong desire to learn and experience with others. It would be difficult to attach specific elements of a workplace to the self-actualization of an individual. Still, just as is the case with achievement, the workplace can prevent self actualization from happening. Frequent interruptions or disorienting quietness may prevent a strong satisfaction with work. Distractions may slow the learning or thinking process. When on a job interview, it is common to feel like the work environment you are visiting is the right (or not so right) fit. It is often the case that simply by walking around, you gather impressions from your surroundings. It may very well be this idea that links self-actualization in the workplace. At a minimum, satisfaction and happiness are affected.

Humanistic-encouraging behavior suggests a committed interest in growth and development. These kinds of organizations will often engage in coaching and be viewed as personally supportive and interested in its employees’ well being. While the specific programs and activities valued by a company are a large part of this, there is also a visual element here. A workplace that values growth and development includes recognition in visual ways. It demonstrates a commitment to learning by enabling space to support these processes wherever and whenever they happen. In some cases, this may be embodied by learning spaces, but equally important is the way that information is shared and used across the organization.

Affiliation is all about relationships and open communication. An “open door” policy seems to be the one most commonly adopted by organizations today. A clear channel of communication across all levels of an organization should be encouraged. Yet, when measured in the workplace, we note a completely different story. Rarely are there enough places to collaborate and complaints are often waged around the lack of social support the work environment offers. In today’s world, largely due to technology, work and life are more intertwined than ever. So, when there isn’t a place to interact, behaviors of teams can get in the way of an affiliation culture.

Work Habits

In today’s world of work, individuals and groups perform flexibly to get things done. Sometimes there is a need for individual focused c concentration; other times it requires a meeting or discussion with a few others. Depending on the process and task at hand, there are still times when we need to meet intensively to collaborate and solve problems. A day’s work becomes a range of activities – we Focus, Collaborate, Network and Develop – varying over time according to priority, goal or work style.

These are habits in the sense that they become part of who we are as we grow and develop in a career. Performance becomes our own understanding of what it takes to get the job done using the four modes of work to get there. Sometimes, the workplace forces us into habits based on what is easy or more convenient. If the environment is very open, it may be difficult to focus or concentrate. Many times collaboration spaces are underutilized with fewer occupants than capacity. We’ve observed people compensating by finding room – on or off site – or skipping it altogether. The fact is, the workplace can enable or inhibit work from happening, but without a keen understanding of how work happens, it is impossible to accommodate high performance.

A portion of my experience is in observing the workplace and helping organizations better understand how and where work happens. In companies that pay close attention to their workplace, a few general “truths” emerge. Consider these ideas for your own organization and observe the way your workplace supports or gets in the way of the daily work of your employees and teams.

  • Work Modes – most of our time is spent “heads down” on concentrated work. The remainder of the day is spent collaborating formally and informally which leaves only a small amount of the day left for developing and innovating.
  • Barriers – noise, lack of quiet areas and privacy are cited most frequently as inhibitors to work. These barriers lead to the most time spent unproductively.
  • Location – for all the attention “work from home” programs seem to get, there still is a relative small amount of time away from the main place of work.
  • Office Utilization – At best workplace utilization is around 70%. That means 2.5-3 hours per day, desks are vacant likely due to collaboration in other locations, working in other places and moving around informally.

It is no wonder that workplaces are often viewed at minimum as inefficient and sometime ineffective. While the focus must be on collaboration and ubiquitous sharing of ideas – that is the very core of our work and productivity today – it seems that there is equal importance on balancing the need for concentration and privacy. Even in casual observation of today’s workplace, it is clear that there is not enough space dedicated to focused and concentrated work. The pendulum may have swung too far toward the goal of efficiency and openness. A better way to manage and design space is at hand.

Future Trends

In reviewing the future of the workplace and its connection to employee satisfaction, it becomes clear that the world of work has changed. These changes offer new perspectives on the future of workplace design and functional support required for its occupants.

There are six areas of most relevant focus when it comes to the workplace of the future:

  • Agility – the degree to which an employee can adapt to challenges as well as how they typically demonstrate flexibility.
  • Diversity – a description of the cultural, ethnic, living patterns and work style variability in today’s workplace
  • Globalization – the virtual and distributed nature of work and organizational structures
  • Employment Branding – the impressions, both visual and sensory, left in the minds and hearts of employees as well as employee’s engagement in relationship with employers.
  • Rewards and Recognition – the ways and methods by which pride of work, performance and commitment are demonstrated and rewarded in the workplace
  • Sustainability – materials used in application of work environments combined with habits that demonstrate commitment to environmental stewardship.

Trends in Action

The workplace can be agile by offering support to all forms of work as needs change throughout each day or in different phases of projects. The employee’s choice about how and when to work drives their needs of the environment. This range of activity calls for a diverse range of space to help foster an environment of agility and flexibility so important to today’s environment.

To understand the impact of diversity and globalization, watch a social space within a corporate headquarters or even within a busy city location. Virtual collaboration and information sharing adds new dimensions to workplace design in the areas of concentration and privacy. To work effectively in both live and virtual environments, it requires recognition of when both happen and a range of flexible settings to support this type of activity.

Through observational research methods, the signals of what is acceptable in work and practice become clear. The pride of an organization is displayed in common and individual space. For example, work habits relating to clean desks and organization skills are just a few of the ideas important to an organization’s “employment brand”. There are great opportunities to mark an organization’s environment consistent with its employment brand strategy. Use of space then becomes driven by the personal and professional needs of its occupants and things change every day.

The Anthropology of Work

Webster’s Dictionary defines anthropology as “the study of human beings and their ancestors through time and space and in relation to physical character, environmental and social relations, and culture”. Apply the concept of anthropology to today’s work environment and you begin to look at anthropology as study of humans… at work. More specifically, this type of anthropology focuses on behavior, the culture of the work environment and the strategic aspirations of an organization. This concept goes beyond asking what someone needs to be effective; instead, it looks for clues and signals of required changes to be effective in the future.

Based on assertions described in this paper so far, the Anthropology of Work is some combination of the organizational culture represented by a group of people, the habits of work performance they demonstrate and the trends driving their current and future existence.

In a summary of all of this data, perspective and points of view, it seems that there are ten relevant findings that should drive the way workplaces evolve in the future.

1.      Pay close attention to how work happens

In addition to asking what happens in your workplace every day, you should also set about a process to observe the behavior of your workforce. You will likely notice that some spaces are working well, some are getting in the way and some are empty (or at least mostly empty). Social experience is important in today’s work environment and seems to go hand in hand with productive work. Watch for it!

2.      Develop new concepts and try it on for size

When you find out what is going on with your people, you might consider identifying the passionate ones and work with them to develop a workplace that works. Find an underutilized part of your facility (an older building or swing space) and set up a pilot environment. Watch what happens… and beware! People you select should be ready, and willing to live in the fishbowl, because you will generate lots of interest and questions from those who want their environment to work better. You will also gain huge insight into what will work for you and your culture.

3.      Develop some workplace guidelines

One of the ways you can deal with the interruptions that cause so many of us to fall out of “flow” is to develop a system to signal when NOT to interrupt. Give everyone a do not disturb sign, put red dots on the workspaces when you are working, a privacy screen or other mobile space divider… something to make it obvious that you are working hard and cannot be interrupted. If interruptions aren’t the problem, maybe something could be addressed by involving workers in developing the guidelines for using their space most effectively. Not only is this a best practice, it helps engage your employees in the change process.

4.      Make sure you have enough collaborative space

Teams who work together on a regular basis are probably frustrated by not having access to conference rooms. They probably don’t want to go to the trouble to schedule that fifteen-minute touch base update. Open team spaces may simply be a matter of adding tables among team members who need them.  You may also be able to share spaces between individuals who aren’t in the office as much. That way, you create space for collaborative use.

5.      Put some space in-between.

In the nooks and crannies all around your workplace (unusable corners of buildings, in and around columns, nearby coffee machines, etc.) build some places for people to sit and talk. It doesn’t need to be much. It is amazing what a table and chairs will do to get people working together productively. Watch where people walk and put some lounge seating or informal chat stations in their way. Add a watercooler between two departments. Use the traffic patterns to your advantage and watch the ideas happen!

6.      Create shared concentration spaces

Rarely does anyone spend his or her whole day in a concentrated work mode. Perhaps a private office can be divided in such a way to allow shared access. It’s empty anyway, why not get more use of it? Privacy is still important. The challenge is to balance the need with the space available.

7.      Visual display… everywhere the eye can see!

It is natural to want to display your thoughts for others to see. Perhaps you see individual work spaces with project plans on whiteboards or messages to staff when away from the office. With the advent of media and digital imaging and presentation capability, technology requires a vertical space to share. If writing “save” on the board seems to happen all over the conference rooms, it is sign that more display might be needed. It can be mobile or hung on the wall, but whiteboard and digital display are in!

8.      Make it easier to connect

For very little investment, you can easily get technology, power and communication access points up to waist height. Find places where laptops are used and make it easy to connect. If it makes sense, you might explore putting a few “touchdown” spaces in place for visitors or sales people to work. Wireless Internet technology is an expected norm in today’s work force – your staff expects to access the network whenever and however they need it.

9.      Put some things on wheels

The easiest way to assure personal control of your space is to grant the freedom to move it. Mobile tables can be added to most any configuration and allow extra work surface.  Mobile file carts make it easier to get the stuff we need from individual to group and back again. In both cases, no extra space is usually required.

10.  Be intentional… in everything

For each workplace change contemplated, there should be an intentional effect you are seeking, ideally targeting improved productivity and enhanced likelihood of results. Humans tend to find ways to overcome obstacles they face – we find places to meet if there aren’t any available, we adapt to privacy issues with devices and technology. Rarely are organizations willing to be fully engaged with the work environment needs of each employee. An intentional effort will improve performance and lead to an overall more satisfied and engaged workforce.


A comprehensive understanding of the combination of cultural behavior, work habits and future trends is required to fully understand the needs and expectations of your workplace and people who work there. While it may be a challenge, an intentional effort to observe, understand, assess and evaluate these three areas will not only produce a desirable place to work that fosters breakthrough innovation and performance – it will also reflect a concerted effort to create value for your organization, your stakeholders and the occupants of your facilities. There can be no better reason to take action in this regard and there is great potential for the future.

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