The need for transdisciplinary workplace research

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By Rianne Appel-Meulenbroek

Edition 9 – December 2017 Pages 52-53

Tags: professional• workplace

Workplace research is performed within many different disciplinary fields both in academia and in practice. This has the advantage that it is studied from many different angles with many different methodologies, which is helpful to get a grip on such a diverse and multi-disciplinary topic. However, a disadvantage is the fragmentation that has resulted from this, especially regarding academic workplace research and its transfer to practitioners.

We academics tend to publish in our ‘own’ journals that represent the disciplinary field of the department we are working at. I once performed a review of a sample with published empirical studies on the added value of physical office environment aspects for employee outcomes, together with the real estate group at the TU Darmstadt. We identified the results of 111 scientific studies which were published in 50 different scientific journals. Besides the number of different journals, it was also visible that the real estate academics published mainly in real estate and FM related journals, the psychologists in journals related to psychology and behavior, and those working in health departments in journals on medicine and health. As the university and department that we work for also determines which journals we have access to, this is likely to hamper knowledge transfer between disciplinary fields. The same is true for academic conferences which also have a strong disciplinary focus, and where generally workplace is not the main topic of the conference but only addressed during one or two sessions. So workplace academics from different disciplines also have a poor chance to exchange thoughts face-to-face.

Besides this breach in knowledge transfer between academics, the transfer of academic knowledge to practitioners generally is also somewhat troublesome. The increased workload of academics, combined with the pressure in universities to publish in the best scientific journals only, is further confining the conversion of scientific knowledge into tools that are ready to use in practice. In a time where the question how to manage the workplace is discussed in more board rooms than ever before, this is very undesirable. Now that we have the attention, we need to show our strategic value.

However, to convince general management to allocate costs to workplace in order to achieve optimal benefits, it is necessary to support your business case with evidence for effects of physical workplace aspects on organizational/employee outcomes.

But over the years doing research in this field and visiting both scientific and practitioner conferences, I noticed that several common struggles of corporate real estate (CRE) and facility managers (FM) in making their case have remained unchanged over the past decade.

Therefore, I started to brainstorm with practitioners and workplace academics about which topics are the most important struggles in practice at this time, and how future research could provide insight into these topics. Important questions that came forward were: How can the use of the office environment be steered towards both employee effectiveness and a positive attitude toward the offered workplace? What does an integral business case comprise on the short and long term, with a balanced interest of different stakeholders? How can the workplace increase productivity of knowledge workers and better support their health and wellbeing? Not only are these topics not new on many agendas, they also showed up in the review I mentioned earlier as not receiving much attention from academics from any research discipline.

A consecutive brainstorm with 19 academic workplace researchers last June confirmed my thoughts why this was the case. After discussing how they could approach these topics in future research, I asked them to write down who they would need for performing such studies. They agreed that for all topics both researchers from several different disciplinary backgrounds, and users and experts in practice would be essential. So if we want to tackle such long existing workplace management issues once and for all, we need to cross bridges and start more transdisciplinary studies.

As breaking boundaries is not always easy or self-evident for researchers, I felt the necessity to make them meet face-to-face in order to exchange thoughts and experience and to be able to form new alliances. Therefore, I created the Transdisciplinary Workplace Research (TWR) network, with the intention to organize transdisciplinary conferences dedicated entirely to workplace research. It was great to see that many workplace academics shared my enthusiasm and it thus was easy to create a TWR board with researchers from all kind of different fields (among which real estate, FM, health, psychology, sociology, business administration, management, architecture) and working for universities on several different continents. And it also did not take me long to find a willing and capable host for the 1st TWR conference in Tampere University of Technology (TUT; see the conference website TUT has composed a multi-disciplinary organizing team with representatives from different departments, also including practitioners.

From 19-21 September 2018, this conference will bring together work environment researchers from all relevant disciplines, both from academia and practice. As TWR network we believe that this includes, but is not limited to, physical work environment (e.g. facilities management, real estate, architecture and design, building physics (HVCSE),bio-technology ), social work environment (e.g. HRM, behavioral sciences, organizational science, business, health, environmental psychology), digital work environment (e.g. ICT, virtual reality), and work environment management (management, economics, FM, CREM).

During two days, we will be discussing workplace research from all these perspectives, with researchers from around the world in parallel sessions. Delegates can attend by listening to the latest research findings in these sessions and joining us in special workshops aimed at jointly identifying future roadmaps for related sub-themes; this in order to provide the opportunity to form and join transdisciplinary, international research initiatives involving academics and practitioners. Over 30 different workplace studies will be presented, with diverse topics. We will offer you presentations about research findings ranging from social issues, like workplace culture, leadership and work patterns & activities to physical issues, like distributed and collaborative workplaces, to technology issues, like workplace sensors and other smart building technology. And we also want this to be the place to present management issues, such as determining workplace KPI’s, dealing with the sharing economy and workplace and employer branding. You are all very much invited to attend and lay your own issues on the future workplace research table W&P

Rianne Appel-Meulenbroek

Rianne Appel-Meulenbroek is an assistant professor of Corporate Real Estate Management and workplace at the Eindhoven University of Technology. She is editor of the Journal of CRE, sits on the editorial board of CRE journal. Also, she is a board member of the European Real Estate Society (ERES) and the Dutch Society for RE researchers (VOGON). Her research focuses on the way building design can support organizations, through productivity of employees, innovation, knowledge sharing etc. and how this is best managed..
Twitter: @R_Appel_Meul


…We academics tend to publish in our ‘own’ journals that represent the disciplinary field of the department we are working at…


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