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Trust me!

Posted/ 24 July 2013

Findings from recently completed research into the impact of the physical environment on organisational trust have made business owners, and in particularly workplace designers, take note.


The Trust Research Project is the result of a collaborative effort between Geyer, a practice specialising in the development and implementation of strategy and design solutions for corporate, retail, education and hospitality environments, The Swinburne University Faculty of Design, and the Great Place to Work Institute®, a global research consulting and training firm that explores corporate culture in the context of what makes a great place to work. This year's Great Place to Work survey results have recently been published in BRW Magazine.


Many ask, why study trust? Workplace designers point out workplace design does not currently consider trust, and rightly question why another dimension, expectation, and potential yard stick should be added to already challenging briefs. It is true, creating exemplary work environments is more complicated today, particularly given the current competitive climate that results in reduced timeframes and a lowest fee wins mentality.


In many ways, this is the point. Creating good design is more difficult today; we need to engage every tool available to make a difference. Contributing more than an aesthetically beautiful design should be a key motivator for those involved in workplace design. Beauty is the entry point, not the end. Other tangential, but critical factors, like trust, that impact business performance, must be included in the project brief.


Additional motives for understanding the relationship between the physical environment and trust are a consequence of the ever changing landscape of working styles. The emergence of mobile work practices like Activity Based Work (ABW) being implemented by many organisations, and the next evolution of mobility that pushes the boundaries of the workplace beyond buildings and into the precinct, challenge traditional notions of control and management and rely heavily on a high level of organisational trust to be successful.


This makes sense. Regardless of how and where we work, business practices are conducted via personal relationships. Whether it is with your spouse, a co-worker, or the guy you buy your coffee from in the morning, a relationship built on trust will be far more stable than any other.


Another reason to explore is that within organisations, trust is at an all-time low. Naturally, this is cause for concern amongst business leaders who are painfully aware of the negative impacts low trust can have on business performance including toxic cultures, dysfunctional environments, redundant hierarchies, and excessive policies, rules, regulations and procedures.


Today trust is recognised by many organisations as a strategic and critical competence, viewed as an important contributor to personal interactions, and the acceptance of new technologies, work processes and ideas that affect workplace performance. If trust is so important, why is it not considered in workplace design? The answer is simple, because we don't know how.


There is a lack of research exploring the relationship, if any, that exists between the physical environment and organisational trust. This research aims to prove causality between the spatial attributes of a workplace, and the level of organisational trust present, by testing hypotheses relating specifically to space and trust. It begins with the overarching concept that the physical environment affects the building of trust in organisations.


This Trust Research has two objectives: to develop a model that includes space as a contributing factor in developing organisational trust models and secondly, it explores the relationship between space attributes and organisational trust to establish an understanding of the impact of office design on trust.


Data supporting this research was collected in 2012 through surveys, physical observations and an analysis of participating companies' floor plans. The research uses the results of the 2012 Great Place to Work survey, which provides a measurement of the level of organisation trust using five ‘dimensions’, that determine whether a company is a 'great place to work'. Three of the five dimensions - credibility, fairness and respect - relate directly to trust


The research findings have been compiled into three stories to provide the greatest meaning to business leaders and other concerned with workplace design.


Space and Time.

Traditional definitions of the workplace identified work as occurring in a specific place, generally the office, and at a specific time, mostly 9 to 5. In the evolved workplace, it is possible to work anywhere, at any time. This creates a quandary, anywhere and at any time is not useful to business leaders and workplace designers. People need to work somewhere and at sometime.


Two questions pertaining to time and space, and the impact each has on organisational trust, were asked: Do you have the freedom of choosing your work location? Do you have the freedom of choosing your working hours? Those registering high trust in their organisation reported they did not have the freedom to choose where they worked, but did report a qualified yes to having the ability to choose their work time.


What does this mean? Trust appears to be a solvent and glue. We want to be trusted to do our work at any time and place, but recognise that to build that trust we need to come together at specific times and places. Organisational trust is impacted less by time than place; we support flexibly around working hours as long as it suits others in work teams. Our level of trust drops when we allowing employees to work from anywhere. It is clear "The office" provides an anthropological framework that allows people to understand the relationship between time and space.


Size and Quality

This story is about equality, impartiality and justice, and begins with the question: In your organisation, do the workspaces of managers have better ergonomics, finishes and functionality, no difference, or a lower standard?


The amalgamated response indicates 67% report no difference in the workspaces of managers, with 32% reporting managers had a higher quality workspace. A similar question was asked about size: In your organisation. Do managers have bigger, no difference or smaller workspaces? The amalgamated response noted 51% registering no difference and 48% claiming managers had larger workspaces. A similar question about technology indicated there is a greater impact on organisational trust when technology is not equitably allocated.


What this means. When allocating resources the size of one’s space and technology they are offered appears to still be allocated according to hierarchy and this impacts organisational trust; however, size of work setting and technology do not have the same impact on organisational trust as allocating a higher quality of workspace.


Employees understand if the boss has a larger work setting and perhaps a stronger computer, but organisational trust will be jeopardised if he is given a higher quality workspace. In this case quality is defined as ergonomics, good lighting, etc. and is not a factor of materials used. This makes sense, why would a manager's back or eyesight be more important than an employee's



The final story deals with an evolving definition of trust. Older styles of ‘dictatorship type’ models where trust was earned by subordinates following rules have been replaced by models of leadership. Today, trust is created by people's understanding of the rules, not the following of them.


It is no surprise that the Trust Research indicates, how a leader implements an initiative is as important as what he implements. That is to say, strong leadership is a powerful space activator, and a leader endorsing change by doing it himself, has even greater impact.


As workplace designers we would love to steal the quote from the movie Field of Dreams and tell you “build it, they will come.” But unfortunately the best workplace strategies and outstanding workplace designs will fall flat without leadership endorsement.


The Trust Research has been a collaborative effort by Laurie Aznavoorian and Alanya Drummond from Geyer, Dr. Agusten Chevez from Swinburne University and Zrinka Lovrencic from Great Place to Work. The full research report will be uploaded in October 2013 with academic papers to follow.