Here’s why trust is key when embracing a flexible workplace

Employees perform at their best when companies empower them to work when, where, and how they want to

Space is a powerful tool to foster engagement, inspire innovation, and drive productivity. But what exactly does an optimal space look like? In the Science of Space, we explore how the science of intentional design can turn any work environment into a holistic experience.

Employees today value finding purpose and fulfillment in their work above all else—even over pay and other benefits. Part of the feeling of fulfillment comes from the bond of trust between employee and employer. Employers often wonder how they can make their business vision clear to their employees—and how they can show their teams that they are valued and entrusted with carrying out that vision. 

Employees are sensors to everything around them, drawing meaning from explicit and implicit signals. Through an employer’s actions, signals are sent to their employees that either reinforce or shake a base level of trust. 

While purpose and fulfillment are multifaceted, bringing together the type of work, pathways to advancement within an individual’s career, relationship-building, and much more, the places in which we work play a role in reinforcing this: by signaling organizational values, prompting behavior, and reinforcing expectations.

That’s because today’s management styles are built on trust and autonomy rather than on command and control. Physical space, then, can reinforce or contradict these efforts. For example, if your employees feel pressure to sit (or stand) in one location all day, every day, they may start to wonder, “Does my employer value me based on my performance or my presence in the office?” 

The way we work is changing. The traditional office layout, in which a desk is expected to provide an employee with everything they need—visible by their whole team at all times—no longer makes sense. We have the technology to work from any location, whether in an office building or around the world.

At WeWork, we consider flexibility and autonomy in the workplace experience. Why? Because when individuals feel trusted enough to work when and how they want, as well as trusting the surroundings they inhabit, it benefits both the individual and the employer. Let’s take a look at more ways in which physical space can send signals of trust, and how to make sure those signals aren’t getting lost in translation.

A workspace that supports trust and autonomy

Trust starts with autonomy; in other words, to be your true self, you must be able to choose where, when, and how you work. Next, there should be a level of physical and mental comfort to support that autonomy: physical being the temperature, seating, access to daylight; and mental being the ability to voice your opinions, debate, support, and challenge one another openly.

There are two key factors that support the feeling of autonomy and comfort in the workspace:

  1. You are able to move around: in the workplace, across workplaces.
  2. You are able to move things around: aka reconfigure space to meet your needs.

Supporting autonomy in the workplace for WeWork means providing a layout with diverse space types and then encouraging employees to utilize them when, and how, they’d like. (This design lays the groundwork for “activity-based working.”) For example, instead of everyone having their own desk in an office, staffers share a workspace that features a variety of options that are accessible by anyone at any time. These options can include common areas with comfortable seating, café-style tables for informal meetings, phone booths for private calls, and quiet areas for focusing. 

But comfort goes two ways; employees need to feel empowered to work how and where they want, and the employer needs to design the signals and systems to empower employees through trust and autonomy. 

Flexible workspace requires leadership support

Flexible workspace on its own is not enough—managers within that space need to act as change agents when encouraging flexible workplace behaviors, both by communicating these behaviors to their employees and by adopting these behaviors themselves. 

When leaders in the office say that their teams can be flexible in work style yet continue themselves to work in a traditional way, it disincentivizes their employees to try something new. Research shows that when management actions are supportive and in line with a more flexible workplace concept, employees more positively adopt these actions as well.

Here are some trust signals employers can show employees in the workplace:

  1. There should be a sense of equality within your workspace. Everyone feels like an equal partner through your office space size, location, and number of leadership team members who work there. The space given to leaders versus staff shows who an organization values and, in turn, affects the way people within the organization communicate with one another. Research has shown that differences in the amount of actual, or even perceived, space offered by an organization to different employees can symbolically represent differences in status, and can subsequently affect the way people behave and interact. 

  2. Similarly, technology must support the many ways in which people work. Remote work, for example, often results in unequal meeting experiences in terms of who is in person and who is not. An equal playing field (supported by technology) should exist between mobile and nonmobile workers. Before individuals and teams can embrace remote or distributed meeting rhythms, they must first build trust. One way to do this is to provide a few weeks of in-person onboarding for remote team members. Research shows that when we make in-person connections, digital interactions become easier.

  3. The workspace should feel intuitive. You should be able to count on consistent and familiar conditions. This allows you to focus on your tasks rather than fretting over the basics. For example, when you sit down, is there an outlet nearby for your computer and phone? Can you easily find the kitchen and restroom? You should also count on your workspace to make work easier rather than more complex, building your muscle memory and recall.
     
  4. The ability to move around the workspace when and how you want also helps keep your brain active and imaginative (think walking meetings). A recent neuropsychiatry study showed that when your body starts moving, almost all regions of your brain “light up,” signaling improved creativity and problem-solving ability. In this way, you’re finding a “new perspective” (literally!). 

The future of work is here and now. When employers support workplace flexibility with their own actions, providing a framework for employees to feel supported, valued, and heard, both employees and employers can truly thrive. For more on our core philosophy of creating a life, not just a living, discover how energy plays another key role in elevating the workplace experience for all.

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