Opinions - 16.12.2015 - 00:00 

Work in motion

The transcultural environment of an enterprise and of society has an impact on the design of physical working spaces. The benefits and drawbacks of the analogy between the increase in mobility to be observed in society as a whole on the one hand, and increasingly mobile working environments on the other hand, have to be weighed up says Professor Yvette Sánchez.
Source: HSG Newsroom
Bild: Fotolia/Rawpixel


11 December 2015. In a flight of active interdisciplinarity, fifteen HSG professors from several Schools (SOM, SHSS, LS and SEPS) clubbed together and set up the Transcultural Workspaces node. Together with another seven representatives from the non-tenured faculty, they explore transcultural working worlds from the perspectives of very different disciplines.

Exchange across the borders

Turning their backs on customary research formats, members want to open up a new experimental space in which an exchange across the borders between their disciplines is intensified and which allows for new forms of cooperation. Methods used and insights achieved by cultural sciences are linked with the core subjects’ insights and methods in order to improve an understanding of culturally sensitive questions in enterprises, such as family ties, from a legal and business administrative angle. After the stage in which the overall node constitutes itself as a whole, it is expected that smaller nodes with two to four members will be formed, which will focus on clearly outlined research objects.

Notes on transcultural working conditions

In spring 2016, subsequent to several closed meetings, the whole group will venture on an outing to a big international corporation based in Switzerland. On the strength of a whole day’s observations in the ethnographic style of dense description, participants will note down what they perceive from the perspectives of their respective disciplines, and doubtless also what baffles them. These notes on transcultural working conditions will then be compiled, compared and submitted to the company. This peaceful invasion of a considerable troop of HSG professors will require the corporation to be open and have the courage to experiment.

In the run-up to this, a shared road map will be drawn up on the basis of a catalogue of criteria such as body language, space, time, communication, language codes, symbols, power/hierarchy, displayed vs. actual culture, error culture and conflict culture, innovation and clothing. In a first step, the focus will be on room culture, as will the proposition that the transcultural environment of an organisation and of society has an impact on the design of physical working spaces. We conceive of transculturality as cultural processes which have to be constantly renegotiated. This, then, is about complex, highly dynamic, fluid circuits and networks in cultural spaces above and beyond territorial borders.

Open team spaces
The analogies between the increase in mobility to be observed in society as a whole and global interconnectedness on the one hand, and increasingly mobile working environments on the other hand, will have to be examined. Are interrelations of cultural affiliations reflected in the way in which a company divides up its space? Are flexible working space programmes progressively gaining ground? Private offices or classic cubicle and open-plan concepts are increasingly being replaced by offices and desks that are not territorial, not personalised and not dedicated and can be freely chosen every day, as well as by open team spaces. It must be emphasised in this context that in contrast to the working conditions in open-plan offices, possibilities of withdrawing to closed rooms are guaranteed.

Boost innovative power
IT-based forms of working independently of specific locations such as desk-sharing and desk-switching undoubtedly favour informal encounters in casual networks. How does the Hoteling booking system, launched by IBM as early as 1994, influence working patterns with its flexible furniture? Research conducted to date has revealed that decision-making processes have accelerated by 25 per cent and internal e-mail traffic has decreased by 50 per cent. Furthermore, agility and flexibility should boost innovative power, and multiple team memberships should encourage experiments. Both managers and staff are becoming more accessible, more cooperative and more capable of empathy; hierarchies are flattening out. The better utilisation of working spaces saves real estate costs and results in sustainable environmental management – right down to the reduction of paper consumption owing to a lack of filing space in an office of one’s own.

More organic structures

Working environments and processes are changing. Networks and flexibilisation requirements in space and time (fluid offices) generate more adhocracy and thus reduce bureaucracy, which results in more organic, less formalised or standardised structures.

Yet even if technological innovations and global interconnectedness have subjected work models to radical change and brought out a flexibilisation of space and time, the question may still be asked as to whether those creatures of habit, human beings, are indeed prepared to leave their container offices. The calls for interlinkage and flexible structures in working processes in order to lift borders, as well as multiple team memberships, may well encourage people to experiment. However, these relaxed structures and routines might also lead to a certain degree of detachment, distraction and an impairment of concentration. Members of staff cannot simply just be found, inadequate rules may generate stress. Are we wasting an opportunity if we fail to introduce the experiment of multiple working locations, desk reservation and casual encounters in free meeting rooms?

Transcultural Workspaces may provide the HSG with an opportunity to generate and develop ideas for the future design of its own concepts of working space.