MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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

What do cars, environmental policy and industrial policy have to do with alternative workplace design concepts?

The photograph accompanying today's news of the new national fuel economy standards for vehicles was extraordinary. Standing behind the President were the leadership of the American car industry – both management and labor – as well as some representatives of the global industry. Most of them, having fought fuel economy standards for the past decade or more, and having contended that the technology for more fuel efficient vehicles was just not developable for even incremental improvements over a decade, now stood in unified support of a dramatic and catalytic change in both policy and performance. The future is suddenly here.

This of course, has nothing direct to do with the way we design buildings or configure the places where we work. Or does it? I choose to read it as thematic, influential and compelling.

We are currently stuck in an extraordinarily tough recession economy initiated by easy credit and sustained by no credit. Prior to the compression caused by the crisis, we had been on a slow path to realizing the benefits of the technology boom of an earlier decade and the recognition of the unique, agile and mobile aspects of the knowledge economy of the last decade. Work behaviors, workstyles and workmodes were evolving, enabled by the increasing lightness of technology, encouraged by a growing enlightenment in integrated workplace policy, and accelerated by the very high costs of real estate brought by increasing urbanism in most of the world's leading cities. The credit crisis has temporarily changed the underlying basis as well as the fuel for this movement.

That change was, however, also consistently resisted. The emerging shape of the workplace was, when effective, the physical manifestation of social, corporate, and demographic change, as well. Becoming light and agile – and collaborative and effective, and innovative and productive – meant going with the flow, a stream that included a recognition that work looks different now. Transparency, accessibility, spontaneity, mobility, were all essential factors in the the exchange of information, speed and accuracy of response, and orientation to purpose and innovation that yielded leadership, performance and growth.

But achieving these actions and benefits meant giving up paradigms of place that had become the hallmarks of individual and corporate progress for decades. One of the most telling illustrations of the resistance came in work I was doing for my own organization more than a decade ago. An executive colleague was representative of the company at the time when he said, "I've worked all my life to get a wood paneled office along this row, and now you're taking it away?!?" Well, yes. The change was coming because the object of our work, and the purpose and benefits of our work, needed to be, and to be perceived as, more than that office.

I understand, but am surprised by the resistance to invest at this moment in workplace evolution. I certainly understand and accept the essential need for cost cutting. However, I also believe that testing, developing, and implementing the best practice in workplace change that had been achieved prior to the crisis may be a significant asset in getting out of the crisis, or at least being positioned for growth once things begin to flow again. Without this complementary action, the path to recovery and renewed competitive leadership will be very long.

That's why I see that photograph as relevant here. Values identified and promoted by a movement for improvement, clearly important and beneficial to the environment and the economy, long resisted strenuously by people in wood-paneled offices, and theoretically derailed by an economy leading to bankruptcy and incapacity, are now enthusiastically embraced as the driving business value for the transformation of an industry and substantial contribution to the restoration of an economy.

I want to believe that this industrial change is the indicator of an essential tipping point for reorientation of business everywhere. It seems the symbol of an acceptance that there is a new reality out there, that a  foundation has been laid for a new way of thinking, acting and developing. Things will not, and should not, return to what existed before September of last year. Putting our energy and investment in the emerging concepts that we saw and accepted only at a promising periphery could now be the engine for growth.
(photo by Doug Mills, The New York Times)

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