Shouldn't we be shaping our buildings around our work?
Oh. Yeah. Not everybody works in projects mode
Our work is not a day-in and day-out repetition of specifically defined tasks. Instead, we work for varying lengths of time and at varying intensities in contexts in which we have defined a problem, developed a method of uncovering and evaluating new approaches to resolve the it, and then delivered a solution (usually by generating something that has not existed before). Our work is projects, in other words, not tasks.
We have lived for so long in the projects mode that it is easy to overlook the reality that this form or organization of work is not the pattern in many industries. When we find ourselves confused by the resistance to certain ideas that we believe will more satisfyingly support the ways that people work, we are reminded of the differences in the way that work is managed.
Most of the companies we engage with are makers of some sort and in their cultural genes are the modes and manners of managing manual work. That management style generated the organizations and the processes, protocols and policies that shaped the internal cultures of those organizations.
Clothes do not make the man
We become engaged them at the front edges of a transformation process when those older modes of working are in flux and there is then an investigation of the potential in new ways. As we arrive, we notice that all around these organizations are the usual readings about innovation and collaboration, and conversations reflecting awareness of the spatial transformations that others have made as they, too, sought a cultural transformation. So, for our clients, a "refresh" of the places and spaces of work seems warranted.
Not long after we are engaged, we begin to respond to their interest in the "fresh" but detect their resistance to the "new." We begin to see a problematic misalignment. The essential association of culture and structure, between organization and environment is broken.
What we've learned from Roger Martin
This is a subject that Roger Martin touches on in a recent HBR article, "Rethinking the Decision Factory." He identifies what he calls "two big mistakes" that companies make in struggling to manage knowledge workers –
- Structuring the work as if it is manual labor
- Believing that knowledge is bundled with the worker and cannot be transferred
People performing knowledge work in these older industries, he notes, work more productively when they work as people in professional serves firms do – in projects. But projects are almost always unevenly allocated. "Knowledge workers, therefore, experience big swings between peaks and valleys of decision-making intensity." Traditional management, however, has little tolerance for the appearance of lag, so the knowledge workers learn how to "look busy" when they are not. "There is always a report to write, a memo to generate, a consultation to run, a new idea to explore."
That behavior, developed for self-preservation, then leads to the second problem. Experience and judgment are important factors for productivity, differentiation and value in a knowledge-based business. Trading this information with others in a culture where insights can get passed on to lower-paid workers who can then be trained to do your job has hazards. The benefits from learning from the work of others is lost, and people leaving the organization take their knowledge with them.
The workplace is a national strategic priority
There has been a mantra in our business about the essential participation of Human Resources, Real Estate, and Information Technology in any workplace transformation project. Too many times this evokes participation in the implementation of executive direction and not in the messy front-end of deep exploration into how work is actually done now.
But our work in shaping the spaces for what an organization does would be inauthentic without the insights from examining how people do their work and how they are managed. In a nice codification, one of our clients recently said, "It is time to shape our buildings around our work."
Making this shift may become a national strategic priority. Martin notes that –
"as China and other low-cost jurisdictions bring more and more manual workers onstream, the developed economies will become ever more reliant on knowledge workers, whose productivity may therefore be the management challenge of our times."
In meeting that challenge, the design of the workspace will either help or hurt. Understanding how work is actually done and then shaping our buildings around it may be the best first step.