Multiple actors, one shared workplace

Shared workplaces take place widely in industries, such as construction, manufacturing and mining.

By Päivi Kekkonen, University of Oulu

There are many advantages to having multiple organisations or companies working under one roof. This type of work environment has many benefits, but what are the opportunities and risks from an ergonomics and human factors perspective?

From lobby services and cleaning staff to caterers and outsourced IT teams, we may be dependent on others working under the same roof. Furthermore, our actions can have an impact on the health and safety of others. Shared workplaces take place widely in industries, such as construction, manufacturing and mining.

In addition to shared workplaces, there are workplaces of mutual hazards that lack an employer exercising the main authority, but in which there are also risks to the wellbeing of employees by other employees. Due to the nature of work in these workplaces, occupational health and safety is an important issue.

Furthermore, there are also situations which do not fit under either the definition of a shared workplace or a workplace of mutual hazards, but where the actions of another actor - who comes from, for example, another team, unit or other organisational entity - can influence the work of an employee in ways that impact both productivity and wellbeing.

As the concept of a shared workplace itself is not very widely known, the situations that also share similarities with it, but do not fill its legislative definition, are often not identified. This is also reflected in the limited volume of the research that has been carried out to date regarding these types of situations.

The emergence of organisational networks

Due to the increased networking of organisations during the last couple of decades, both shared workplaces and situations that share similarities with them, have become more and more common. Outsourcing of support functions, for example, has become widespread as it enables organisations to focus on their core expertise. This has enforced the emergence of organisational networks, with various modes of joint-operation and collaboration between organisations.

These situations are often characterised by organisational complexity. Today, situations in which there are several actors working together in one workplace can be found in fields like healthcare, where several support services – which can be either internal or outsourced - are needed to enable the work of the medical and nursing staff. Another notable example is the municipal sector, where many service functions are provided by separate internal subdivisions, business units, shared service centres or external service providers.

In the previously depicted situations, a variety of both physical and psychosocial load factors can take place on which the employees working in these systems themselves cannot necessarily influence. These can include challenges, for example, related to premises and furnishing, such as tidiness or use of materials, or simultaneous actions taking place in the workplace.

There might also be a lack of communication between the employees of different units, such as the core process and a support service. This is often due to the employees not meeting directly during everyday work or a lack of time for communication. These load factors can have a negative impact on both the wellbeing and productivity of these employees.

Defining ergonomics

The perspective provided by ergonomics and human factors (E/HF or HF/E) can aid in identifying and finding solutions to diminish these load factors in order to enhance wellbeing and productivity. The International Ergonomics Association (IEA, 2000) defines ergonomics (or human factors) as “The scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data, and methods to design in order to optimise human wellbeing and overall system performance.”

In addition to the most well-known area of ergonomics, physical ergonomics – which deals with physical characteristics of humans and their relation to physical activity – the discipline also includes cognitive, and organisational ergonomics. Cognitive ergonomics concentrates on the mental processes of humans, and organisational ergonomics concerns the optimisation of sociotechnical systems in terms of their organisational structures, policies and processes. Organisational ergonomics provides a view that is especially beneficial in the examination of the increasingly complex networks that permeate today’s work life.

Through its design-driven nature and its ambition to fit different kinds of systems, technologies and environments to a human workspace, ergonomics and human factors offer a variety of methods to examine and (re)design work systems. Participatory ergonomics can be an aid in bringing together the views, knowledge, and experiences of the various actors in the system through collaboration. Involving the actors in participatory design and development actions, such as participatory workshops, can help deliver solutions to challenges related to both physical and psychosocial factors. Furthermore, good practices and opportunities can be identified and examined.

Creating the shared workplaces framework

Enhancing wellbeing and productivity in shared workplaces, or other workplaces where there are several actors working together, is possible through participatory development. The following process was formed based on empirical research carried out in case studies of organisations in the healthcare and municipal sectors.

At the outset, the decision to start the development process, based on the need for change and the defining of an actor to lead the process, must be made.

Secondly, all the relevant actors need to be identified and engaged in the development process. This can be aided by the categorisation by Dul et al. (2012), which divides the different stakeholders of the system into system actors (e.g., employees), system experts (e.g., engineers, designers), system decision-makers (e.g., managers) and system influencers (e.g., governments, insurers).

Thirdly, information on the current situation at the workplace needs to be gathered and analysed to reveal possible challenges, as well as identify the elements that have already been implemented correctly. Good practices that have been identified can be shared among different actors.

Subsequently, a comprehensive, holistic view of the situation in the workplace can then be created. The framework of the work system (Carayon 2009), which considers the employee, their work task, work environment, the tools and technologies they use, and the surrounding organisation, is useful for the categorisation of the different aspects of work and the interactions between them.

Engage and follow-up

Next, all the relevant actors need to be engaged and brought together for the participatory development process in order to find solutions to identified challenges and share already existing good practices.

Finally, the implementation of new solutions and practices calls for the definition of responsibilities and resources. To achieve lasting change, attention needs to be paid also to the follow-up. The engagement of management has a key role to play in terms of a successful outcome for the process.

The article is based on the doctoral thesis of the author entitled “Several actors, one workplace — Development of collaboration of several actors inside and between the organisations,” which is available at

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