Workplace anthropology will help us make sense of the now and anticipate what’s next

workplace anthropologyWe are scarcely nine months into the Covid-19 pandemic, after a long spring and harsh summer. Social distancing has led to remote working becoming widespread, leading to doubts regarding the office’s long-term relevance. However, Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) argues in a recent report that the office’s traditional domain will expand, with new functions including fostering collaboration, facilitating company culture, and promoting human experience. Similarly, experts increasingly characterise the workplace as a hybrid ecosystem combining virtual and physical elements with geographically-dispersed campuses.

In response, companies must re-design the workplace for their employees. They face numerous tasks, from creating spaces for collaboration, incorporating technology to support the demands of dispersed workforces, and maintaining company culture across remote and physical teams. Companies require insight into how employees work, collaborate, and co-produce company culture to accomplish these objectives.

However, companies cannot afford to focus on present realities. Instead, they need to seize the opportunities brought by the pandemic to reimagine how they work.


Emerging culture

Anthropologists provide robust tools for navigating workplace futures and identifying avenues for innovation. They see culture as a shared set of concepts and practices that groups reproduce through social interactions. Because people and their actions create culture, it is contextual and varies from place to place. Consequently, anthropologists discover how forms of culture develop within social spaces, thereby uncovering new concepts and practices that can take hold over time.

To explore how culture emerges, anthropologists utilize ethnographic research methods. These tools include qualitative techniques like participant observation and interviewing alongside surveys and other quantitative tools in mixed-methods frameworks. Their methods enable anthropologists to immerse themselves within environments, observe patterns of behaviour, and probe respondents’ perspectives. By focusing not just on what people say and do but also what their words and actions mean, anthropologists unearth the changing structures that compose culture and encounter new trends.


Future Workplace

For the workplace, anthropologists’ culture-focused perspective and methods mean that they do not produce insights that are only valid for the present. Instead, they construct windows into future workplaces.

However, while strategy teams routinely harness qualitative and quantitative data, the focus often remains on the present rather than the workplace-to-be. An anthropological study could highlight the workarounds that workers utilize when meeting rooms lack necessary features while exploring how the rooms are being used and considering how workers view collaboration. By delving into workarounds and collaboration concepts, anthropologists explore emergent uses of the environment and forms of culture that represent potential trends in workplace behaviour. As informal ‘shortcuts,’ these patterns represent how the workplace may be used in the future and are prime avenues for innovation.

As part of strategy teams, anthropologists uncover routes for co-creating workplaces. Embracing these opportunities will produce lasting transformations that navigate the future.

This also appears in the current issue of IN Magazine. The author expands on the subject in a major new feature in the journal Work&Place.

Main image: A fired clay sculpture found in a grave at the Hamangia necropolis of Cernavod in Romania, dating back 7,000 years. Dubbed  ‘The Thinker’, it is now an exhibit at the National History Museum in Bucharest