A simplified workplace is more than a simple way of doing things. Research describes it as ‘having right number of essential components and connections to achieve a successful result’. (2) The outcome being improved mental health, creativity and productivity. But not all workplaces can be ‘simple’. Sometimes complexity is an essential by-product where operations need to respond to complex environments, such as the use of sophisticated technologies in healthcare. Yet organisations almost always develop layers of unnecessary complexity, such as complex procedures, contradictory business rules, duplicated roles, and complicated structures. Simplification places the user at the centre within an organisational system and designs the workplace so that the minimum level of complexity is introduced to deliver benefits. (2)
Research shows a link between workplace factors related to simplification and mental health. For example, lack of role clarity leads to greater stress at work. When individuals are exposed to heightened and prolonged uncertainty, they often report elevated levels of anxiety and stress from the cognitive load.(1) Furthermore, when individuals are concerned about their immediate needs, they are less open to future improvements.
In contrast, employee mental health, wellbeing, creativity, and productivity is nurtured in environments where leaders provide greater certainty, role clarity, offer support, and facilitate effective job design.(7) Such environments act to prevent mental health related issues at work. Using our Simplify framework we plan to explore all eight factors of simplification with two partner organisations (Jemena and MTM) to improve workplace practices, culture and environment.
Based on extensive research, we have adopted an 8-factor framework that examines excessive workplace complexity. By exploring and examining these factors with our partner organisations, we seek to identify potential areas to apply simplification principles to improve workplace mental health and wellbeing.
Policies and procedures determine how the organisation does what it does. With emerging advances in technology, there is an opportunity to simplify the execution and use of policies and procedures with increasingly better tools.
Policies and procedures relevant to my work role are clear and simple
Employees immediate environment can help or hinder productivity. Distractions and information overload can make it hard to focus, while an agile workspace enables wellbeing and efficiency.
My immediate work environment makes it easy for me to complete my work
Flow of work is reflective of the experience of workplace processes and priorities. When they are complex, they can cause confusion and inefficiencies, while simple processes enable effective action.
At work, it is clear to me what my priorities are
Communication protocols refer to the manner and method of communication. For example, some 15% of managers in the study by Collinson and Jay (2) reported that responding to email communications took up 30% or more of their time at work.
I find communication within our division to be productive.
Organisations that involve dealing with uncertain events (e.g. emergencies), and conflicting demands are more complex, and require greater efforts at simplification for efficient response and employee mental health.
My work involves responding to uncertain events or emergencies
Managers have reported that convoluted management structures have a direct impact on increased complexity.(2)
Our division has a relatively simple organisational structure where it is clear who does what
Types of products and services that are offered and the extent of diversification into multiple markets impacts on organisational complexity, in terms of the expertise required in the organization as well as cross-division collaboration.
In my work area it is clear what we do and what services we provide the organisation
The day-to-day requirements of an employee’s role (i.e., job design) has also been identified as a potential source of confusion for employees, and other research has found links between job design and job satisfaction.(4); (5); (6)
I am involved in making decisions about my work tasks
Research indicates that complexity comes down to an interaction between the individual and their work environment.
The individual needs to be able to organise and make sense of their surroundings. Even in less complex situations, the individual may perceive a situation as complex, if they cannot organise and coordinate an appropriate response. For example, when an individual is inexperienced.
Our immediate environment can have its own imposed complexity, called internal complexity. Organisations often impose internal complexity through excessive or complicated business processes, procedures and rules, and structural characteristics. (2)
External complexity, on the other hand, are those factors imposed by changes outside the organisation, including regulations, changes to society and culture, and pandemics!
Internal and external factors are intertwined. Internal complexity often shifts in response to the demands of the external environment. The researchers call this contingency theory.
Research has also suggested that there are both positive and negative impacts of complexity on organisational performance and employee engagement.
For example, when workplaces are too basic, individuals do not feel challenged. It is can also remove opportunities to encourage improvement and innovations. Conversely, too much complexity can overwhelm individuals and lower their productivity and job satisfaction (2);(3). It can also lower motivation and engagement, waste resources, and reduce organisational agility and profit. (2)