MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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

How workplace design can increase interactions and significantly boost organizational performance

As you know by now, I've been greatly concerned about this fact – Everything about work has changed, but very little about the workplace has. It seemed improbable that the extraordinary productivity promise in technology and the resultant changes in the locations, times and modes of work would not be affected by a workplace that did not reflect them. New research and new research methods are now consistently confirming what intuition and observation told us – that certain conditions of physical space increase interactions between people and, as a result, significantly boost organizational  performance.

Over the past decade, business conditions and the influence of workplace planning trends have meant that corporate real estate and facilities departments have consistently measured the wrong things. The persistent corporate focus on space metrics overlooks the tide of research reinforcing the importance of interactions and the role of place and space in those interactions.

By continuing to use the lexicon of separation (cubicle, office, department, space per person, and even mobility), those responsible for the planning and design of space are slowly eroding organizational performance which depends on connection (interaction, innovation, collaboration, integration).

Although organizations increase spending on communications technologies, it appears that this has limited returns. It may well be more important to understand what it is in the work environment that supports interaction and to place your company's resources in the places and spaces that ignite it.

Knowledge workers – managers, scientists, architects, salesmen, lawyers – depend on interactions for their effectiveness. Those connections with clients and customer, staff and suppliers, vendors and competitors provide them and the people they work with the knowledge they need to perform.

Recent research from the Babson College Working Knowledge Research Center shows that more than 80% of knowledge workers' time is spent in seeking and eliciting knowledge from experts and adapting that knowledge to current and emerging contexts. Yet, the researchers found, fully 50% of those interactions are constrained by physical conditions or by other factors that are physically influenced.

Imagine that – up to 50% of the performance of your organization could be constrained by the spaces where your employees try to do their work. Organizational performance is greatly enhanced simply, for example, by creating more opportunities for employees to be in the same space with each other and socialize. The impact is huge. According to clever research done at MIT, increasing the opportunities for employees to mingle and mix and talk amongst themselves delivered $15 million in otherwise unrealized performance benefits at a single AT&T site.

There are five barriers to organizational performance identified in the Babson study. Here are some suggestions for how the design of place can break those barriers down –

Although the subject in a recent article by JWT was about social networking, I think it is a good theme in this context as well –

"We’re at a turning point in the global workplace: Open communication is here to stay, but many employers remain threatened by it. Businesses will have to learn how to adapt to the virtual watercooler and, just as important, how to leverage social networking within the enterprise so that employees spend as much time forging internal ties as attending to external ones."

What are your thoughts?