14 May Psychology for facility managers: “How to use the environment to change minds when getting back to the office?”
In psychology, the focus is humans; how they feel, what they want, how they deal with problems, and what kind of personality they have. You can assess this with questionnaires or with isolated experiments in the laboratory. However, there is one very important thing we forget here: the environment. As humans, we are strongly connected to and situated in our own environment. We behave and feel different when we are at home, in the park or at work.
We use (our environment) phones, cars, and buildings to extend our capabilities. While the paths we take are strongly influenced by the paths which are already there: a path makes us take this path, a hallway makes us walk through this hallway. Understanding humans in a retrospective questionnaire or isolated lab experiment gives only a limited view of who we really are and how we behave. We are humans who are immersed in our own environment and use it to survive and improve ourselves. We are amazingly good at interacting with the objects, buildings and people around us. Through interacting with our environment, we learn, adapt and change ourselves.
Your environment might be just as strong a predictor for your behaviour, as your own intentions are. For example, you might choose to go outside through the door, but the door (and especially the walls) give you these choices and guide your behaviour. If you think about it from this angle, our behavioural freedom is quite limited unfortunately; we all have to “agree” with the environment to get what we want. This view of looking at the psychology of a human from an environmental perspective comes from ecological psychology. But don’t worry, it’s not that depressing.
Ecological psychology states that we are strongly situated in our environment and use our environment to develop and be ourselves. Through action-perception loops, we perceive things, take actions and change our environment, and then perceive feedback again whether that works out or not. Through these interactions, we are continuously learning and changing ourselves. But we are also changing our environment to create a relationship that works for ourselves and for our environment. We use thus objects, buildings, and people in our environment to sustain ourselves.
Through this intense relationship between ourselves and our environment we can thrive. Our environment provides us opportunities to take these actions, known as affordances, which basically means that objects are shaped in such a way that we can do stuff with them. For example, a chair is made to sit on and a door is made to open it. To comply with an affordance, we “shape ourselves” to fit with the environment. And if we effectively do this, we become successful at these activities. For example, we need to understand the ball, the grass, our teammates, and our opponents to be good at playing football. But you could show creativity and change the environment in such a way that is not directly provided for us, like playing with LEGO-bricks.
The extended mind
When we are doing our daily activities, we use our environment without thinking about it. We use tools, buildings and machines to do work for us. In fact, our brain is so smart that it re-organises itself when we use a tool, it starts to “see” the tool as an extension of ourselves. This seems a bit odd, but I guess you haven’t really felt your clothes consciously for the past half hour, did you? According to the extended mind theory, the borders between our own body and our physical environment kind of dissolve when we get used to our environment and are able to predict its behaviour. When this happens, your environment becomes a part of you, and you feel that the environment becomes an extension that actually does not need attention by itself. For example, one also perceives to be a causal agent over the car when driving it, and are able to “feel” the road with it while making very accurate movements through the wheels. When driving, we don’t focus that much on our own car (when it works) but extend our senses to the road, where things become unpredictable. Altogether, we strongly use our environment to “extend” ourselves. If you think about it from this direction, it means that we can also (literally) express ourselves in our environment through the things we do to our environment. But it also means that changing someone’s environment influences themselves as well.
Facilitating humans in the workplace
The workplace is such an environment that shapes the humans and is shaped by the humans who work there. The spaces and tools you facilitate makes your employees use them and express themselves. If you place a big computer on each desk, people will start working on these computers. Of course, it’s a feedback loop that goes both sides, but you have a strong effect. Employees who have an intrinsic need to shape their environment in ways that will improve your company and themselves, will not always agree with what is handed to them but they are the ones’ who get you that extra mile.
As a facility manager, it is (literally) your job to facilitate the needs of your employees and extend their capabilities in such a way that is beneficial for your organisation. You might provide facilities which perfectly fit with your employees. But you might also provide facilities which change your employees towards an improved version of themselves. Either way, communication (perception-action) is key to understanding the needs and struggles of your employees. Through exchanging feedback, you can find ways to make your employees flourish.
Getting back to the office
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, our relationship with the environment has changed. We spend our days now surrounded by a similar environment during the day and in the evenings; our home. Because of these changed relationships, we learned new ways to interact with our environment and loosened our connection to the office workplace. This loosened connection makes this moment, when employees re-enter the office, the perfect time to make new plans and arrangements to the office (adjacent to the Corona-related policies). These (forced) new environments might have changed people, giving them different needs. Getting to the bottom of their needs when re-entering the office could have a strong advantage in smoothening the process and continuing your business. For example, in our other blog we showed that people like remote working but miss the facilities for effective communication. It is quite probable that your own employees have these needs too.
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