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The Thriving Workplace and the Language of Abundance in Workplace Design

Tags Insight

Modern office space with industrial aesthetic, featuring exposed ductwork and a speckled terrazzo floor. A central wooden table with yellow accents provides a collaborative work area, while a slide in the background adds playful functionality. Mesh room dividers offer privacy without visual obstruction.

Many people, when walking into their organization’s new workspace for the first time following a redesign or relocation process, feel a sense of energy and excitement in seeing their new space.  The best workplace designs reflect the brand, culture, values, and aspirations of the organization, which are typically discovered and articulated at the beginning of the design process.  In fact, the workplace design process affords organizations a literal “blank slate” to re-imagine what the future of work means for them and how a compelling design can move them forward in achieving their aspirations.

The Discovery process, which kicks-off any workplace design engagement, offers an opportunity for architects and design strategists to ask crucial questions that discern larger organizational aspirations from discussions about everyday work practices.  Using the right language during Discovery has a positive ripple effect throughout the rest of design.  For organizations that aspire to achieve a design that helps them to be their best, the language of the Positive Organization school-of-thought can help frame a successful organizational and design vision.

To enrich the broader discussion around design and Positive Organizational practice and research, HLW is teaming up with the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business as well as Colliers International to facilitate a day-long summit on May 23 to build new thematic connections that will inform design practice and research.  The Thriving Workplace Summit will assemble organizational leaders and researchers who share a passion for wrestling with the questions, what characterizes a truly thriving organizationAnd, how can the design process be used as a tool for enhancing thriving at work?

Positive organizational research is framed around the abundance gap in organizational thinking.  More often than not, workplace leaders get stuck with fixing problems.  The result often means taking something that’s broken, and getting it back on track (also known as the “deficit gap”).  An alternative approach based on Positive organizational practice starts with what’s working well, and filling the (abundance) gap between acceptable performance and truly amazing performance.  The thinking doesn’t assume that problems should go ignored.  Instead, it calls for leaders to prioritize so that opportunities to go “from good to great” are explored.  The recent focus on health and wellness in the workplace is an example of applying this way of thinking to design.  Other examples will be explored at the summit. 

Thriving is more than just a buzzword.  It is a central tenet of Positive Organizational research, and it’s a measurable condition.  Researchers have defined it as the “joint experience of vitality and learning” at work.  With vitality, people feel energized and alive at work; they feel passionate about what they do.  It’s contagious; people’s energy creates energy and excitement in others.  With learning, people feel that they are getting better at what they do.  Learners are not satisfied with the status quo.  Rather, they seek opportunities to grow and develop, which is a necessary ingredient for innovation.  People who thrive are more committed to their work and those who do not.  Thriving organizations experience better teamwork and are more resilient when confronted with challenges (and who isn’t in today’s rapidly changing business landscape).  What company wouldn’t want to achieve these qualities?  At the summit, we’ll ask the question, what does a thriving workplace look and feel like?  Participants will be asked to reflect on what it means in their organizations.

Another tenet of Positive Organizational research that we will explore at the summit is reciprocity.  Everyone knows the old saying, “what goes around, comes around.”  Generalized reciprocity is the act of doing a favor for someone with no expectation of getting something directly in return.  Generalized reciprocity is cumulative.  Whenever this value accumulates in a network – either at work in an organization or in an extended network of suppliers, customers, and the wider professional community – everyone benefits.  Reciprocity is a value that strengthens trust and goodwill, and it contributes to team functioning and collaborative practices.  Instead of accumulating a list of individuals favors (“this for that”), generalized reciprocity contributes to the strength of the team (“this for us”).

An organizational network with a strong, measured web of reciprocity, can expect to experience better functioning teams and a collective willingness to contribute toward shared results.

For a designer, speaking the language of reciprocity helps manage workplace change when new ways of working are being addressed.  Sometimes a workplace redesign project requires getting people to give up a personal benefit (maybe a private office, or an assigned seat) for the good of the team so that everyone gains things like more amenities and shared spaces.  The task of change management can be framed as a discussion around how to strengthen a shared sense of reciprocity by first identifying where it already exists and then leveraging certain people in the network (change agents) to lead by example by demonstrating positive, prosocial behaviors.

The Positive Organization school-of-thought offers many strategies and frameworks for creating a truly thriving work environment.  The upcoming Thriving Workplace summit promises to bring some of the best minds to the table in co-creating a toolkit of strategies for achieving this result.  We look forward to sharing more following the conclusion of the summit.