Associate Professor Sanchen Henning at the Unisa Graduate School of Business Leadership (SBL) reflects on whether the drive for sustainable and optimal workspaces might overshadow a greater issue of staff wellness.

A famous chiro-practitioner, BJ Palmer, stated that the healing of the world is an inside job. This may also be true for individuals, teams and organisations in corporate South Africa today.

Developing green buildings and optimal workspace areas for ‘wellness’ are commendable practices, but to what extent do they perhaps deflect the issue of “unwell” organisational cultures and interpersonal dynamics?

We cannot reflect on healing without also reflecting on illness, as these are two sides of the same coin.  Which brings us to the next question: what is the ‘poor health’ below the surface, hidden within sustainable green architectural workspace designs?  We cannot assume a ‘healthy office building’ equals ‘healthy employees’.

In finding answers, a systems view of individuals, teams and organisations may be useful. Healthy or well-functioning organisations are dense networks of interdependent relationships where nobody works in isolation.

A systems view recognises that employees need to be connected to the fundamental identity of the organisation to be corporately well.  Employees need to be connected to each other, to new information and be able to agree on questions such as who they are, who they we want to become and how they we work together in the best ways.

Organisational expert and academic, Margaret Wheatley, wrote that employees need to be able to reach past traditional boundaries and develop relationships with people anywhere in the organisation.  Wellness in this sense emerges from the domains of identity, information and relationships, thereby becoming more self-aware, as individuals, as teams and also as an organisation.

While an organisation becomes more connected to the truth of who it is, it also becomes more connected to its environment within; that is, employees and their relationships with each other.  And this eventually extends beyond the internal to the external environment, that is to the organisation’s clients or customers; understanding their needs and expectations and how to fulfill these.  In this rich and interconnected environment where unified energy resides, innovative ideas and ways of thinking become more prevalent.

Stronger connections within an organisation enhance its capacity to adopt new strategies.  Once the link between professional purpose and the value of each employee in the value chain has been established, change becomes a less frightening thought and easier to implement and sustain.

In an ever-changing competitive landscape, flexibility to retain and grow market-share is a sign of a healthy organisation, despite buildings that may not be so “green” and workspaces that may look a little less than “optimal”.   Undoubtedly, the first prize would be to have both – healthy, optimal work spaces in which healthy employees can thrive, connect and respond positively to their work requirements.  But the former is more often considered evidence of having achieved a ‘healthy’ work environment, with less regard for the latter.

Academics at the Unisa Graduate School of Business Leadership (SBL) initiated a recent community project with youth in the Cape flats.  The developmental interventions aimed to strengthen the personal leadership skills of the teenagers.   The research that was conducted afterwards to evaluate the effectiveness of the programme yielded interesting findings. The participants reported how they experienced a renewed and unified sense of patriotism, a sense of ‘belonging’ and empowerment.

All of the findings reflected relational characteristics of healthy living systems; in other words, a strong and expanded network or web of relationships. The youth described the value of embracing diversity where crossing those boundaries of differences amongst us are evident.

Whether as corporate leaders, employees or young community members, as individuals, each one of us has an inside job to do and should understand that we lose capacity and “wellness” when we resist integration with others, insist on a personal “no change” policy, fuelled by a command and control leadership style.

In South Africa, during these politically and economically turbulent times, we need to consider what we are learning about leadership.  This hopefully includes a growing potential to trust each other and rely on colleagues as “bundles of potential” to act creatively, take risks, inspire, console and produce together to reconstruct the inner chambers first and then optimise the outer chambers of our working environments.

In sum, the healing of organisations may well be an inside job, as Palmer stated.  To ensure and restore employee wellness, organisations should commit to a goal of “Just connect”.