The demanding, conditional challenge of "performative well-being"

October 2023


Expert - Jean-Pierre Bouchez

Jean-Pierre Bouchez

Research Director at the University of Paris-Saclay
President at Planet S@voir
Author, Advisor and International Keynote Speaker.

We propose here to mobilize the notion of "performative well-being" with regard to open spaces. In order to fully grasp this legitimate but, in some respects, paradoxical temptation, we first need to succinctly define these two protean terms, well-being and performance, in order to highlight their compatibility and dependence in terms of academic work. But in our view, it is important to go further, by highlighting two complementary conditions: organizational maturity and spatial attractiveness.

Well-established links between well-being at work and performance

Well-being at work refers both to the perceived quality of working conditions, in terms of physical characteristics, and to the perceived appreciation of the working environment, based on affective, social, relational and cognitive elements. In a similar way, overall performance refers to a form of aggregation of financial, social and environmental performance. Yet, particularly since the 2000s, a large body of academic research, mostly from the English-speaking world, has shown a well-established positive association between these two variables, which are themselves closely related to the notions of trust and autonomy.

Necessarily complementary conditions associated with "performative well-being": organizational maturity and spatial attractiveness

Organizational maturity expresses the willingness and ability of enlightened managers to significantly evolve the organization of work and its environment, in all its combined cultural, managerial, technological and organizational components. In particular, this means lowering the levels of responsibility and initiative of managers and their staff as much as possible, and increasing cross-functional and networked cooperation, beyond mere rhetoric.

With regard to the spatial attractiveness of Activity Based Working (ABW) and spaces associated with "cities in miniature", we will trace the most promising episode, leading to the most innovative contemporary spatial forms.

IBM's promising innovation.
It originated in a relatively confidential but particularly promising innovative experiment carried out in 1970. Its aim was to assess the impact of a radical reorganization of office space on the work behavior, communication and performance of a group of fifteen engineers who were frequently on the move. To this end, she designed a new spatial configuration, described as "non-territorial", installed in place of the old offices. It took the form of a workspace, with no partitioned desks or permanently assigned workstations, and was precisely designed to encourage the sharing of problems in order to improve their resolution. In this configuration, external symbols of power were destined to disappear. From the user's point of view, the results were largely positive in terms of comfort and satisfaction, particularly with regard to the ease of communication and, consequently, more evenly distributed and increasing coordination. However, this experience was not generalized, either within IBM or beyond, notably due to the cumbersome nature of the fixed IT equipment at the time. Nonetheless, in our opinion, it remains particularly innovative, and will largely inspire spaces described as dynamic, particularly through the concept of Activity Based Working, especially from the 2010s onwards.

Diversified spaces based on activity (Activity Based Working), akin to "mini-towns".
Curiously, this concept, which originated in Anglo-Saxon literature, remains little known and little used in France. Based on principles similar to those of the flex office (notably the non-allocation of workstations), it differs from it in its combined qualitative and socio-collaborative enrichment. The key word is "activity", in the sense that, throughout the day, users make use of a variety of spaces dedicated precisely to their activities, according to their needs. In other words, ABW is based on people's choice of the environment in which they wish to work, the one that suits them best according to their different daily activities.

These configurations are not unlike those associated with the "mini-towns" developed in the 2000s by firms such as Rabobank (its center, its neighborhoods, its suburbs, its lobby). What they also have in common, for our purposes, is that they promote well-being (physical comfort, diversified spaces on a human scale, the possibility of a certain territorialization, etc.). The openness advocated to local residents for certain uses (catering, auditorium) seems promising.

A potentially realistic bet, but relatively selective

This temptation to focus on the dynamic construction of a "performative well-being" ultimately appears to be both a gamble and a relevant strategic challenge, particularly from a post-Covid perspective. However, only enlightened, avant-garde (large) firms are likely to deploy this type of configuration, whose beneficiaries are mainly qualified white-collar workers...

Release date: October 2023

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