The transdisciplinary focus of modern workplace thinking
This is a first-person report on an important new workplace conference held in Tampere, Finland, in early September 2018.
By Nigel Oseland
Issue 11 – Spring 2019 pages 28 – 29
Tags: workplace • future office • cross-functional
I was fortunate to present the closing keynote address at the first Transdisciplinary Workplace Research conference (#TWR18) held recently in Tampere, Finland.
Around fifty researchers, mostly academics with a few practitioners, gathered to discuss their latest workplace research on topics such as wellbeing, productivity, change management, agile working, co-working, and similar themes.
I can honestly say that TWR18 was the first academic conference I’ve been to where every paper was relevant and interesting. It was great to see the academic perspective of my favourite topics and, unlike many conference presentations, the papers were grounded in solid research with evidence-based and people-centred findings and recommendations. The organisers of TWR18 have created a great community of like-minded people and I felt very much that I belonged to that community.
So, what exactly is transdisciplinary research (or a transdisciplinary project), and how does it differ from multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research? From what I gathered there are three key elements to transdisciplinary research:
- It is a collaboration between the disciplines with the sharing and application of tools, skills, approaches and philosophies of the different disciplines;
- The research and/or project is organised and coordinated under a real-world theme or problem (e.g. workplace wellbeing) that benefits from being addressed by multiple disciplines; and
- The research/project includes input from stakeholders outside of the academic disciplines, for example sponsors, practitioners, planners and policy makers; this input helps prevent groupthink.
TWR18 ticked all the above boxes, but I would have liked to have seen more practitioners present. I also made the point that the researchers must publish in the trade journals as well as the peer-reviewed academic ones that I suspect most practitioners do not even see, never mind read.
As a psychologist, I feel that it is only over the last few years that we have been considered to have a relevant part to play in workplace design. When I worked in architecture in the early 2000s, I was often asked why an architectural practice needed to employ a psychologist. As an environmental psychologist, I have mostly felt interdisciplinary but falling between and outside of the disciplines rather than at the intersection.
With the wellness and wellbeing agenda in full flow, there is more need than ever for a transdisciplinary approach to workplace, including architects, engineers, psychologists, biochemists, biologists, and other professions such as health practitioners.
My favourite emerging transdisciplinary field is that of biomimicry – studying nature’s best ideas and imitating them in designs and processes to solve human problems. Engineers, biologists and biochemists are working together. For example, the structure of sharkskin has been applied to performance yachts to improve streamlining, and one university is looking at how spiders’ silk can be replicated in engineering, as it is super strong and produced with minimal energy and waste.
I’ve been wondering how to apply biomimicry learnings to the workplace, which I consider a biological system. See, for example, my blog “Beware the workplace parasites”[i].
I finished my keynote presentation by applauding the conference organisers (Rianne Appel-Meulenbroek and Suvi Nenonen) and suggesting they not only invite more practitioners but also the views of specialists from less-obvious disciplines like philosophers and mathematicians. But most importantly I urged them to continue to build a diverse TWR community.[ii]
About the Author
Dr. Nigel Oseland is a workplace strategist, change manager, environmental psychologist, researcher, international speaker and published author with eleven years research and nineteen years consulting experience. Nigel is also an active researcher, speaker, lecturer and author. He specialises in strategic briefing and change management to help create workplaces that improve collaboration, enhance creativity, facilitate concentration, meet psychological needs, and respond to changing organisational structures. His current topics of interest include psychological needs, psychophysics, productivity, personality factors, remote working, collaboration, creativity, wellbeing, biophilic design, and post-occupancy evaluation. Nigel founded the Workplace Change Organisation and is the programme advisor for the biannual Workplace Trends conferences.
[i] Oseland, Nigel. “Beware the Workplace Parasites” (http://workplaceunlimited.blogspot.com/2018/02/beware-workplace-parasite.html, accessed 15 October 2018).
[ii] Note that an earlier version of this summary report was published on the Work&Place blog, at https://www.workandplace.com/the-transdisciplinary-workplace/