The Transdisciplinary Workplace

Nigel Oseland reports from a seminal workplace conference in Finland

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I was fortunate to present a keynote address at the first Transdisciplinary Workplace Research conference (#TWR18) last week in Tampere. Around fifty researchers, mostly academic with a few practitioners, gathered to discuss their latest workplace research on topics such as wellbeing, productivity, change management, agile working, co-working etc.

I can honestly say that TWR18 was the first 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. TWR18 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) that benefits from being tackled by multiple disciplines.

The research/project includes input from stakeholders outside of the academic disciplines, for example sponsors, practitioners, planners and policy makers; this 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 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 noughties, I was often asked why an architectural practice would 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, doctors and other health practitioners etc. 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. 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 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 beware the workplace parasites).

I finished my keynote presentation by applauding the conference organisers and suggesting they not only invite more practitioners but also the views of the less obvious disciplines like philosophers and mathematicians. But most importantly I urged them to continue to build the TWR community.

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Nigel OselandNigel Oseland is an environmental psychologist, workplace strategist, change manager, author, and founder of the Workplace Consulting Organisation and Workplace Unlimited and one of Europe’s leading writers on workplace issues. This comment was originally posted on his own blog which you can find here along with a wealth of other ideas, information and thought leadership. 

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