Increasing organizational effectiveness: The role of workspaces in the creation of human and social capital

Our workspaces are not just spaces where we make products and services. Workspaces are also spaces of interaction, engagement, and reflection where we build and develop various types of human and social capital.

This is important as these, and other types of capital, provide key strategic resources for our organizations to utilize as they grow, shift, and adapt over time. Our physical workspaces strongly mediate how these two specific forms of capital – human and social – are created, developed and utilized in an organizational setting. As such, an important strategic focus of every organization ought to be how their workspaces are configured.

Human and social capital are generally defined as:

  • Human capital – the skills, knowledge, and experience possessed by an individual and;
  • Social capital – the networks of relationships among people who work in a particular organization that enable that organization to function effectively.

The production of these two particular types of capital plays out in a number of ways within organizational settings. In terms of corporate culture (and the social capital that this entails), hierarchy can thus be expressed not only through reporting mechanisms and ‘org charts’ but also through spatial distinctions and divisions. As an example, whether or not senior executives work in open plan offices alongside other workers, or are hidden away in private offices does much to signal whether or not executives are seen as being approachable and available to all or, instead, are seen as occupying a higher status level than others.

As another example, the ease with which our workspaces enable workers to meet up with one another can directly impact on their ability, and so too their desire, to work in teams with others. The furniture configuration used in an organization, and the spatial layout of workspaces, therefore influences the performance of not only individual workers but also teams. A poorly laid out workspace – with large distances between meeting rooms, lack of proximity to co-workers, and lack of space for vertical and horizontal work surfaces – can be costly, no matter what the quality of the space utilized, when team members spend large parts of the day covering large distances to get from one-meeting room to the next. This ability to work in teams, let alone work effectively or efficiently in teams, in turn has a direct impact on human and social capital development within the organization.

However, despite this, discussions about the spaces that we occupy and so too the impact of these spaces on the creation, development and functioning of human and social capital are often at best an afterthought in strategic decision-making in organizations. The problem is that organization’s workspaces – the physical environments in which we undertake work – are still generally seen as being a cost to the organization rather than as an investment.

Things have improved somewhat in recent years as the dramatic success of tech companies such Google and Facebook, and their use of more open-style office planning, has at least brought to leaders attention the fact that space matters. That said, the discussion at the senior level still seems often to be more concerned with following what Google and Facebook did, rather than intentionally exploring what is the best use of physical space to maximize the effectiveness, productivity, and happiness of workers for their own organizations.

In respect to these issues, Jacqueline C. Vischern has claimed that there are thus three key ways in which space affects people in organizations:

  • space as an organizational resource, linking accommodation decisions with corporate business objectives;
  • space as a tool for work, providing needed support for employees’ daily tasks; and
  • space as it frames organizational interactions and social network formation, a mediating influence on the creation and operation of intra-organizational relationship

It is the combination of these three approaches that provides a framework for us to create high-functioning workspaces where human and social capital can be successfully created and developed.

Combined, these three aspects demonstrate how our physical workspaces are not just spaces where we make things, but are also the mediators of key organizational activities such as information flow, collaboration, social engagement, and the reinforcement of corporate values. In an environment of seemingly constant change, coupled with ever an increasing demand for highly skilled workers, ignoring the impact that our physical workspaces make in the development of human and social capital is – to put it bluntly – bad business.

Organizational leaders and managers therefore need to take seriously the various design criteria that can help them build effective and efficient workspaces. In their strategic work, leaders and managers need to consider not only the financial costs incurred by the amount of space utilized by their organization but to also begin to take seriously the negative costs incurred through a lack of appropriate space for group interaction, learning, and social capital development to occur.

This realization will help to break down the increasingly false distinction between managing people – traditionally the remit of HR – and managing spaces – traditionally the remit of facilities management. These two aspects of a well-functioning organization are inter-related, and decision makers would be well advised to include discussions of workspaces – and their configuration – seriously in their strategic work and operations if their goal is to create an effective, high-functioning organization.

Images courtesy of: Pixabay