The emerging state of healthy and productive workplaces: converging technologies & disciplines

Published in the June / July 2015 issue of Facility Management (FM) Magazine

This article is the first in a series that critically reviews the current but rapidly changing state of the ‘workplace’ – in all its physical, virtual and connected forms. Of particular interest is the make-up of both the psycho-socially healthy and productive environment, given the impact of a constant drive for cost-effective physical and virtual spaces that must simultaneously marry with usability issues and employee attraction for more flexible and healthier working conditions.

How do organisations successfully engage employees to embrace the increasing use of the flexible workplace with real-time reporting and feedback, so they actively and equally benefit? Clearly, technology is playing an ever-increasing role in providing the necessary reporting tools. To evaluate this terrain from the perspective of performance I have been in discussion with major space users and worked in concert with Guardian Global Systems who provide both technology and systems that can be deployed to manage and report on space use and efficiency in the workplace.

Finally, who maintains and evaluates these monitoring and feedback tools to optimise performance with costs and promote employee health, if not social capital more generally?[i] This article flags these critical issues for further exploration and discussion.

Increasing workforce agency, mobility and flexibility

Even in highly structured factory environments with specific quotas there is a growing recognition that ‘worker agency’ is vital. Building upon an organisation’s established policies and procedures, flexible and skilled interpersonal staff responses to emerging employee issues and short-term personal commitments (such as family or health issues) are crucial for achieving worker satisfaction and continued commitment to productivity[ii]. Moreover, just as organisations have various means of linking output to people and units, they are also capable of inferring pain-points, staff burn-out trends (including unplanned leave and stress injury claims), churn and opinion trends, via periodic employee engagement surveys[iii].

Where organisations use digitally based content – which must be the vast majority – there is a blurring between physical and virtual workspace activities, as there is between the workstation and its location[iv]. We also have a heady mix of workforce variables, building upon the rise of worker agency with numerous options for worker flexibility together with technological mobility. These softening boundaries are demanding more from organisations – particularly their responsibilities protecting if not promoting employee health and wellbeing, alongside maintaining competitiveness for attracting and retaining talent in an increasingly mobile and interconnected world [v].

New management issues

How are these shifting arrangements effectively managed? The more flexibility staff gain to work in various on and off-site locations, the less managers are able to use traditional ‘manage by sight’ approaches. How effectively does your organisation know how its staff uses the workspaces and resources? When staff moves across a number of floors and sites, working across multiple projects, how suitable is each environment? How useful is the line manager’s approach? Certainly, the oft-referenced ‘micro-manager’ has a major problem when he cannot constantly monitor the minutiae of activities and behaviours of his more flexible, mobile and potentially empowered team[vi].

It is fair to say that most organisations are invested in utilising new technologies to improve efficiencies, to be cost-effective yet competitive. Interestingly, this focus increasingly synchronises with staff-driven enthusiasm for more flexible working arrangements and more conducive work environments[vii]. But allowing if not promoting increased staff mobility creates a new set of challenges. Despite various electronic means of communication people still need to meet with each other: When are they in the office? Which building are they in and how readily can they be located? Requirements for resource allocation become more dynamic: when and how can staff find desks or spaces? When is a ‘neighbourhood’ at capacity? What kinds of office setups and workstations are most in demand and when? Companies requiring cross-functional projects and/or innovation require breakout areas and collaborative spaces[viii]. So how do managers and team leaders know whether (and when) their facilities are providing the optimal level of support to meet the demands of this more demanding and dynamic workforce?

With the rise in paperless offices, plug-play printing, collaboration and cloud solutions, organisations and their staff are rapidly adapting to new tools without completely solving pre-existing problems. For example, virtual teamwork has been found to improve individual innovations under certain circumstances (by reducing personal inhibitions, time-intensive turn-taking and social hierarchies). Yet there is also a long-standing concern for ensuring cross-functional interactions, warding off silos through co-locating staff and co-working offices[ix]. Likewise, the other long-standing problem of open-plan offices distracting and even stressing staff still exists[x].

Balancing health and efficiency with productivity

Since organisations need to know how new and shifting workflow and workplace activities affect performance, employee engagement necessarily moves centre stage, rather than being a lower priority to the ‘bottom line’ – an epiphenomena mainly considered during strategic reviews[xi]. With the pressing demand for flexible approaches to workplaces, a more interdisciplinary focus is therefore required to explore a range of tensions beyond traditional cost-result matrices: employee performance-engagement and workforce health-sustainability dimensions are jockeying for attention.

Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) legislation has developed internationally and moves beyond tracking and responding to environmental risks, such as fire and occupancy hazards, as well as addressing occupational health hazards (such as ergonomic factors and manual lifting education). Since 2011 Australian legislation has progressively mandated that managers and supervisors control environmental and occupational health hazards alongside psychological factors[xii]. Drawing on the International Labour Organisation’s 1986 definitions, the Australian Safety and Compensation Council (2006) has built upon key conditions that must be monitored and addressed as swiftly as possible: interpersonal support and clear communications; minimisation of role conflicts and career uncertainties; participation in decision-making; appropriate work environments and equipment; an optimal task-stress mix; and ensuring a balance that averts work over-load or under-load.

Good design, baseline data, clear guidelines and regular auditing are the common elements found across these dimensions, from preventing an escalation in psycho-social risks through to promoting higher performance teams and functional WHS systems. Workforce design is central in the composition of successful teams[xiii], as it is for organisations protecting staff from psycho-social hazards by regularly auditing job roles and their tasks so they can support and develop the abilities and diversity of their position holders.  The impact of office space configuration upon performance outcomes is likewise considered in terms of key design continuums, from assigned seating to hot-desking on the one axis, and due consideration for private offices through to open-plan facilities on the other[xiv].

Critical convergences

As well as a constantly developing interaction between more flexible workplace/space processes, it is also necessary to consider the burgeoning array of data outputs and the tools required for tracking and evaluating them. Organisations have at their disposal social network mapping tools, sociometric badges and geo-location tags, together with room occupancy sensors. Behavioural trends can be tabulated and visualised using activity heat maps, as well as via algorithmic modelling predictions[xv]. This ever-expanding mix of measures and methods is clearly not driven by altruistic interest but necessity. To manage expenditure and remain competitive companies must review cost-benefit mixes more frequently than ever. Moreover, tracking and evaluating workgroups and workspaces parallels the need to constantly evaluate costs/benefits of software integration, alongside online behaviours[xvi].

Real-time workforce evaluation goes beyond periodic employee engagement surveys and facility usage reports. These new sources offer immediate feedback on the quality and quantity of workplace interactions, enabling heightened awareness of trends such as psycho-social distance and engagement – both within and between workgroups. It is now possible to track, visualise and evaluate behavioural activities and trends across online activities, physical environments and the psycho-social dimensions. I have not even mentioned the rising concern for physical health vying for attention, following decades of sedentary living, snowballing healthcare costs and consumer interest[xvii].

A balancing act beckons: how can these inputs and tools benefit both organisation and employees? When does physical, virtual and psycho-social tracking create a negative surveillance culture, and how can these systems be promoted to employees as part of their cost/benefits mix? For example, physical movement tracking can be seen from the WHS perspective: we can safeguard whether more ‘open’ workplace arrangements lead to over-occupancy problems or resource underutilisation. Employees benefit from increased agency to self-determine work locations by accepting movement tracking to operationally locate them when required; employees accept – and even gamify, as with physical health activities – being regularly polled by unobtrusive Vibe (Mood/Resource/Stress) apps to anonymously rate the work environment[xviii]. Receiving dashboard feedback may reward participation, as well as assure staff that psycho-social, workplace and resource issues are being addressed.

Another convergence point is also apparent: this new mix of workplace arrangements and their real-time data outputs must be actively managed and evaluated within the organisation, beyond the cadres of external consultants, architects and specialists. Whose responsibility is it to maintain, promote and utilise these tools and outputs? How do we foster interdisciplinary collaboration and workforce capabilities to meaningfully and productively use them? Some commentators borrow the multi-media marketing concept of the “community managers” to optimise workspace operations that bridge facility management, technology, human resources and corporate communications[xix].

Conclusions

These workplace trends require a visible and committed dialogue within the workforce in order for them to be embraced and optimised, otherwise we risk rapidly descending into Big Brother paranoia and joining the ranks of the ever-increasing job insecurity epidemic[xx]. Indeed, from a psycho-social health perspective, further levels of potential communication breakdown, interpersonal conflicts or isolation may be unleashed, as well as the promotion of counter-productive cultures. For example, transparency has long been found to promote open communication and increase accountability. But there is a threshold where the erosion of workplace privacy makes employees feel too exposed and stifles innovation – especially when combined with intense tracking. Likewise and once again flagging the need for employee participation, the use of social mapping tools can backfire: quick-fix managerial temptations to solve complex interpersonal and inter-group dilemmas can ignore emotional responses within an organisation. Revealing both positive and negative network maps can have significant and unexpected psychological repercussions[xxi].

In sum, we can stabilise the potential tightropes by consciously empowering the workforce with these self-regulating and personal-professional development tools. To collectively navigate this new era, we therefore need a shared commitment to realising a critical management theory approach – one that actively prioritises a more holistic balance between workforce health and its productivity, just as our concept of the workplace continues to evolve.

Marko Turner is a workforce health & workplace development specialist. Linkedin: https://au.linkedin.com/pub/marko-turner/9/8a4/b9a  and contact via markoturner@icloud.com

This article was commissioned by Guardian Global Systems.

As with the above point concerning the shifting state of workplace/space boundaries, also see Goffee & Jones’ (2013) examples of attracting and retaining talent within an increasingly mobile and interconnected world. We can also note the themes of radical experimentation and changing recruitment practices across each year’s Best Places to Work in Australia (Smith: 2014).

Notes

[i] There are currently three levels of workplace/workforce activity reporting tools based upon three levels of sensor technology: room and desk sensors, geo-tracking person tags and sociometer badges. All of them require an organisational and human resource capability to operationalise, but only the latter goes several steps further by attempting to use statistical algorithms to infer and predict employee behaviours and even employment qualities. The question of who oversees, manages and responds to these new reporting tools is raised by Waber, Magnolfi & Lindsay (2014). Waber and his MIT colleagues have spent a considerable amount of time and academic research developing sociometric badge technologies and especially their algorithms intended to statistically infer and predict the psycho-social dimensions (for a detailed example, see Kim, McFee, Olguin, Waber & Pentland: 2012). Parallel to the long-standing critical psychology tide challenging this inferential statistics aspiration for administratively ‘solving’ social psychology conundrums, see Hackman’s (2012) implied warning that sociometer technologies are potentially misleading when based upon brief observations of interdependence, due to the insight that social groups often unfold in non-obvious ways. It is therefore doubly advisable to tread carefully with some of these inferential and computational technologies, especially when we add to the equation the exponential rise of the mobilised and digitally connected workforce/place. Administratively automating the management of groups of people is doubly worrying when organisations do not seem to factor the labour-intensive nature of continually interpreting the data. Hence the recommendation from the sociometric providers Waber, Magnolfi & Lindsay (2014) that careful consideration must be given as to who manages and utilises this sociometric badge technology within everyday workplace operations.

[ii] Certainly, organisations are structured from the outset by key performance indicators, staff deliverables, departmental metrics and scorecard results. Likewise, it is safe to assume “flexibility in most jobs is a function of the nature of work processes and protocols, values of management, and needs of workers” (Root & Alford: 2011: 87).  However, studies such as Root & Alford (2011) reinforce the conclusion that flexibility should no longer be a privilege of the relatively higher-paid occupations, the information/technology-based sectors or the more ‘open’ corporate cultures. Neither are flexible work arrangements completely inaccessible to lower paid, more production-based, process-driven and repetitive jobs. Whilst flexibility within and between personal-work interfaces may be more exceptional than the everyday norm in the latter forms of workplace, they are nevertheless required in order to maintain and sustain a healthy and engaged workforce (Root & Alford: 2011). The theme of improving ‘agency’ can be seen across many corporate and public campaigns, such as the one sited in the employee engagement promotion found at www.engageforsuccess.org

[iii] From the perspective of establishing psychological workplace stress trends, see the work of Cotton using employee opinion surveys derived from several hundred thousand employees (Cotton: 1996, 2005, 2008; Cotton & Hart: 2002, 2003).

[iv] Commentaries on the modern-day blurring of boundaries between the workstation and its location are ubiquitous, although it could be said that there is far less available in terms of rigorous research and evaluation about its benefits and psycho-social effects. Harvard Business Review regularly summarises case studies on the ‘ideal workplace’, with a particular emphasis on these technologically based shifts. For example, see Goffee & Jones’ (2013) review: “With no fixed offices or rigid job descriptions, Rabobank’s employees are, like Arup’s, responsible for the results of their work. But they are free to choose how, where, when, and with whom to carry it out” (p.9).

[v] As with the above point concerning the shifting state of workplace/space boundaries, also see Goffee & Jones’ (2013) examples of attracting and retaining talent within an increasingly mobile and interconnected world. We can also note the themes of radical experimentation and changing recruitment practices across each year’s Best Places to Work in Australia (Smith: 2014).

[vi] See the sociological analysis by Furedi (2012) and his detailed review of the ubiquitous and pervasive effects of process-driven cultures resulting in widespread ‘micro-management’ that have eroded many forms of cooperation and discretionary workplace effort in particular. The stultifying effects of micromanagement can be found in workplace research across countless settings. For example, the negative impact upon physicians and their workforce leadership role was identified in a study by Snell, Briscoe & Dickson (2011).

[vii] The employee-driven enthusiasm for more flexible working arrangements and more conducive work environments has been consistently identified across numerous surveys. Most if not all of the reports exploring the requirements of the modern workforce cover an array of pressing and recurring issues, such as: health improvement; transport/commuting; global competition/economy;  employees with caring responsibilities (e.g., child care, elder care); varying needs of the different generations in the workplace (e.g., employees under 35 years of age tend to value greater workplace flexibility); and sustainability. It would be very difficult to negate these trends as anything but the increasing empowerment of the workforce. It is a trend that employers clearly recognise for their own cost-benefit savings, despite the significant increase in complexity also involved. For examples, see HR-driven surveys like SHRM’s (2008) reports and national policy recommendations plus Safe Work Australia’s (2012a) recommendations for flexible work environments to improve work-family conflicts.

[viii] Much has been written about the value of cross-functional project work. Many popular and diverse examples are industry and application specific, such as infrastructure Alliance Contracting, outsourcing and Agile software development (for a critical review of Alliances and Outsourcing see Milgate: 2001; for a review of the burgeoning Agile perspective, see Gower: 2013). The recurring theme across management and organisational literature is the not wholly unexpected focus upon cost reduction, innovation and collaboration. However, management literature also praises the cross-functional topic in regards to addressing lower-performance as much as it does promoting high-performance teamwork, not least in order salvage talent, services and products (Heimbouch: 2001).

[ix] For a comprehensive review of the unique affordances of using and uniting the virtual workforce, see Lojeski & Reilly’s (2008) book of the same name. Other research suggests a correlation between leader-prescribed top-down planned value change and the formation of silos. Michael, Neubert & Michael’s (2012 ) study of organisational value change identified two other organisational types which reduced the silo effect: Spontaneous Decentralised and Interactive Dialogical value change.

[x] There are numerous surveys, blogs and journalist commentaries on the distracting and potentially harmful effects of open-plan offices. For one instance, see “Talkative co-workers tops list of biggest distractions at work, survey says” (Perkins: July, 2014) in which one employee survey found open-offices and their peers caused the main disruption to their work. From a combined background in architecture and organisational psychology the interview with consultant Fiona Duggan also flags patently obvious problems, such as being “..noisy, distracting and totally unsuited to concentrated work such as marking and writing. It reduces communication because people are reluctant to talk to each other for fear of disturbing others. It compromises confidentiality” (Frances: 2014).

[xi] Whilst snapshot/one-off employee opinion surveys can be valuable in identifying factors across organisations and populations, they are far less useful when not rigorously tested, repeated and applied. For an example of the questionable effectiveness (if not counter-productiveness) of occasional employee surveys see the report by Osney-HR (2014).

[xii] For summary reports on the emergence, progress and strategic vision of Australian workplace health, see Safe Work Australia (2012a; 2012b). For an up to date overview on psycho-social health see the latest guidelines in Preventing Psychological Injury under Work Health and Safety Laws (2014).

[xiii] On what could be considered seminal works highlighting the importance of necessary design and sufficient conditions when developing high-performance workplace teams, see Katzenbach & Smith (1993) and Hackman (2012).

[xiv] Waber, Magnolfi & Lindsay (2014) offer a useful matrix representation of the two key continuums for office space design, in terms of seating arrangements on one axis and open-plan versus private offices on the other.

[xv] This conclusion builds upon the previous footnote #1 discussion on workplace and workforce activity reporting, particularly the cautionary note regarding sociometric badges and their incumbent computational models and the data mining required to make sense of their interpersonal ‘collision’ outputs. Whether we observe the reservations implied by Hackman (2012) and flagged by others (discussed below see Jones: 2006), there is a groundswell of interest riding off the back of Big Data: Pecknov (2013) is one example (mainly) commending the rise of Human Resource staff dedicated to making sense of ‘workforce analytics’ – not least the vast tracts of data that arise from ‘monitoring the entire life cycle of a worker at any given company’. We can see numerous consulting groups and professions converging and vested in this area. Notable professional groups should also be mentioned for their unique contributions to workplace/force reporting. Building Information Modelling (BIM) melds Building Analytics with People Analytics for behavioural profiling. Out of consulting psychology field there is a plethora of online team diagnostic tools available. The long-standing and well-established workplace research led by Hackman (2012) offers a key example of this tradition, developing tools to measure and intentionally influence workplace team functioning (i.e. the Team Diagnostic Survey detailed by Wageman, Hackman & Lehman: 2005). The perennial issue of communication in the workplace – together with online surveying and computer-generated visualisations – move us into the world of mapping social networks. Sociomapping is one notable example of evaluating and visually-reporting the psycho-social dimensions of teams – one approach that the tool’s author fully accepts as requiring the conscious and direct engagement and full participation of its participants to be safely utilised (Bahbough: 2012).

[xvi] The commonplace act of monitoring employees’ I.T. activities – more often than not without employee awareness or explicit consent – is summarised by Schulman (n.d.) in terms of privacy laws and new technologies that allow employers to essentially check whether employees are ”wasting time” online. What is not discussed by Schulman or rarely elsewhere is who could or should be involved in this workplace monitoring. Certainly, you would expect I.T. departments to be setting up and maintaining these employee monitoring systems. But what levels of control are there to ensure the system administrators as well as the line managers do not exploit these powers? What are the policies and procedures being used and under what conditions are they abused? Much more needs to be discussed, not least the potential parallels and differences between employee activity monitoring online and within the physical workplace.

[xvii] There appears to be a heightened and collective concern from ethically based corporations, government bodies, workplace insurers and healthcare agencies to evaluate and promote employee physical health factors. Intersecting from the corporate, healthcare and community sectors there is the recent popularisation of what has been called Active Working, as illustrated by thewww.getbritainstanding.org campaign.  The theme of flexible workspaces/forces and their possible ramifications for physical health will be explored in a future paper in this series. Indeed, see also Hurrell (2014) on the importance of establishing physical and physiologically healthy workplaces before we even consider actively promoting and enforcing the psychological safety dimensions.

[xviii] It is important to diligently and transparently work with employees on issues related to their constant personal connectivity, on how organisations monitor their workflows, and on critical matters concerning personal privacy. Being unobtrusive and anonymous when soliciting real-time workplace opinions is suggested in this article as a key employee engagement factor, especially when we consider that public awareness of being profiled is now an ever-present privacy and risk issue (Gadzheva: 2008). Personal connectivity in this ‘third wave of computing’ is intertwined within an era in which many smart and mobile devices serve each user alongside their employers. Moreover, we should recognise it is still a legislative issue being worked through and debated by most national states and governments worldwide (Gadzheva: 2008). Many organisations are exploring real-time employee feedback, such as Starbuck’s ‘happiness survey’ where partners are asked to select smiley, neutral or frowning faces to rate how each week has gone (Osney-HR: 2014). Gamification is another aspect of this convergence – physical health being of increasing interest as employers finally recognise that heightened employee engagement and improved workforce physical health hold many potential productivity and sustainability benefits. As an example akin to those emerging initiatives that gamify workplace physical health activities, the obvious step is to regularly poll staff on their psycho-social dimensions: brief  interactions with ‘vibe’ apps (key factors such as mood, resources, and stress) can invite staff to anonymously rate their workplace/force for real-time feedback. As an example, see Sharma’s (2014) argument for the gamification of corporate UK’s health, following the lead of various USA initiatives and their need to reduce healthcare insurance premiums.

[xix] See Waber, Magnolfi & Lindsay (2014) for their conclusion that these new workplace designs and reporting tools, enabled by technological advancements in mobility and connectivity, necessarily require dedicated but multi-skilled staff to manage and maintain. This conclusion mirrors Pecknov (2013) and his review, although Pecknov does not focus upon potential changes in facility management or design. His interest is the predictive power of employee profiling and data mining from the use of sociometer tracking devices. He has no qualms about corporations stockpiling employee data to make sense of in terms of career trajectory and the like (i.e. using correlational evidence that the badges and their algorithms can accurately predict creative and high performance staff). Pecknov (2013) notes that organisations with this focus have already found they require Human Resource staff dedicated to making sense of ‘workforce analytics’

[xx] Beyond the previously discussed and internationally recognised conditions for occupational stress (see also ILO: 1986) there are regularly occurring surveys reporting large scale employment insecurities and continual workforce anxieties around the globe. In one recent example concerning the rise in workplace anxiety found in a number of large-scale employee surveys, Armitage (2015) does not address any of the major technological changes in workplace arrangements. However, he does acknowledge the role of ‘fear’ across occupational history as a short-term motivator and, more specifically, the escalation in the number of public sector workers reporting significant distress. Given the post Global Financial Crisis austerity policies being driven through many countries, such as Armitage’s (2015) UK focus, these results are not too surprising.

[xxi] For the researchers and purveyors of sociometric badges the psycho-social consequences of employees receiving this kind of personal feedback (complete or partial) appears glaringly unproblematic, other than the question of who should manage them. Jones (2006) reinforces the author’s concerns, arguing that ‘revealing’ data and visualisations of a person’s social network can have significant and unexpected emotional and thereby psycho-social consequences. Already discussed, other researchers have voiced their reservations about distributing snapshots of team functioning because such practices would ignore a key group process insight that social groups often unfold in non-obvious and dynamic ways (e.g. Hackman: 2012) – hence the pivotal requirement for participant engagement (and therefore labour-intensity) required when using team diagnostics and visualisation tools like Sociomapping tools (Bahbough: 2012).  Given our emerging recognition for the importance of promoting psycho-socially healthy work environments we must therefore conclude that a more de-identified form of activity monitoring is the most appropriate approach – at least while we are at the current level of evaluating and optimising workplace environments.  We need more sensitive workplace systems and skilled staff to readily detect if WHS warning flags are raised. Likewise, we need such a capacity to instantly alert organisations whenever specific workgroups require increased support and/or resources. Once the organisation has the capacity to track these needs we can then work with the relevant workgroups, using the more labour intensive tools such as Sociomapping and team diagnostic processes in more structured and participatory ways. Likewise, we can more swiftly run useful audits and investigate WHS concerns through direct interventions, consultation, training and the like.

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