MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

2 initial solutions to 2 core problems in getting the right "attitude" in workspace design

*Illustration by Harry Campbell, from Wired

This article at Wired on the evolution of office space and many of the comments it received affirmed for me again that the workplace is shackled by policies and practices that continue to interfere with the growth and achievement of American organizations.

There are many reasons for this, but I think these two are dominant:

  • The workspace is planned and managed by a group of people who are measured by the cost of their operation to the organization.
  • Organizational hierarchies, exhibited in workspace footprints, perpetuate the desire for and the demand for personal space that has nothing to do with the work we do.

I remember the first time I acted as an agent, of sorts, for a facilities group. Designing a major corporate headquarters facility a couple of decades ago, we engaged in a discussion of concepts and approaches to the design of the staff workspaces. The "breakthrough" idea promoted by the client's facilities leadership was "one size fits all." With legacy information about the hassles and costs of moving staff in an increasingly dynamic business context, thy argued that all workstations should be the same size, enabling "box moves" whenever relocating staff, and therefore saving considerable dollars in the management of the physical workplace.

What is interesting in looking back on this is the realization that we were being uniquely thoughtful about the spaces and places where the technical work of the organization was being done, but designing the places where people did most of their work without consideration of the nature of that work. The organization, like almost any modern corporation, had a significant diversity of staff disciplines and roles. The space we planned for them were, however, homogenous and generalized, failing to account for differences between accounting and engineering, between design and project management, between concept development and purchasing.

In another aspect of current practice, it is difficult to recall organizations whose workplace planning standards do not have at least a dozen different space allocations and other considerations associated with title. While these standards have some consideration for the differences in work modes between different classifications of people, they make no differentiation for different disciplines in those classifications. So again, if I am of a rank in an organization my workstation is assigned without consideration of my role as a designer, accountant, manager, engineer, code writer, etc.

And, since space is associated with hierarchy, and space and place are the most visible manifestations of recognition in the workplace, then I tend to make advancement my objective and use the tools and techniques of advancement as my guide to the work that i do. In other words, the key mission and goals of the organization may be sacrificed to mediocre achievement as the employees of the organization work to individual goals before the good of customers and clients of the organization.

So the illustration and categorization that appeared in the Wired article is a reminder of the issues and considerations in modern office planning and design. The title, referencing how the form of the workplace "reflects changing attitudes toward work," might more accurately be titled, "how work attitudes are shaped by the form of the office." I think that where form is a given before the work of the organization is deeply understood, then the design of the workspace may have the implication of expressing the organization's purpose and values incorrectly and diverting the attention of those who work there from the achievement of better things.

I offer a couple of suggestions on the way to better approaches to planning and design---

  1. There is now a very good body of research, information and evidence to empower in-house facilities managers to engage the C-suite in a discussion and exploration of the positive and direct impact that good workplace design can have on the performance of the organization and the people in the organization. This can then lead to the use of better planning tools, identification of better measurables in planning and implementation, the development of better programs and the achievement of design that motivates and support performance.
  2. Try aligning the formal lexicon of the workspace with the values lexicon of the organization. Inversely, if your objective is "innovation," how does a space assignment to "vice president" make sense? Observe what effective people in the organization do, and generate space typologies around those activities. What for example, are the typologies that support "collaborating" or "socializing" or "focusing"? Develop some initial concepts based on observations and analysis, try them out in a pilot project, adjust them from what you learn. Then start measuring the growth of the organization.

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