Most projects start with the furniture...but the furniture may be the biggest constraint
At the start of almost every workplace design project intended to align place and space with an objective for higher performance, our clients begin the conversation with the furniture. But the furniture is actually their biggest constraint.
When I say they start with the furniture, I mean that at the inception of the project we are usually presented with some form of legacy space standards or a quest to establish a new space standard as the first data driving planning and decisions about the workplace.
Furniture dealers are frequently the first of the client's consultants to show up in project planning. Naturally, then, the design brief presents space needs as multiples of workstation configurations. Then, the test fits for site selection present the space as a collection of blocks representing those workstations. No conversation about how work is done or will be done has been part of the process yet, but major decisions about the required amount of space, the budget for the project, and the place where the company will move will get made simply on graphics and metrics about furniture configurations.
The ubiquity of the "standard" is based on assumptions about the individual workstation as the foundation of all planning – the assumption that people want or need a "home base." This is the more friendly translation of the old management demand for presence as the base metric of work. In under-performing companies, it is the comfort provided to staff anxious about exposure in the new world of work. In most forward-moving organizations, however, we know that the workstation is empty most of the day.
Most top-performing people now seek a home base that is in the problem, the project, the team. They collect where the action is, not where they have been traditionally assigned. They configure presence dynamically, occupy places flexibly, and shape their spaces and toolsets for best application to the matter at hand.
The next decisions that leading companies will make about the workspace reflect the reality that "mobile is eating the world." The desk is already dead. The iPad is the individual workstation, and the 100-inch display is the team workstation.
These are signals that the start of the workplace planning and design project ought now to have a foundation in the purpose of the organization and the work of its teams. Get out of the way and give them a place that makes them effective.
If you start with the furniture, in the conventional sense, you are already in the past.