MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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

Filtering by Tag: design principles

How the design of your workplace blocks strategic thinking

Supporting and sustaining a long-term perspective is a high priority for most executives and boards. Yet, as reported in a recent McKinsey study, their inability to hold and respond to variable and varying time frames became a significant factor influencing stress and a loss of the strategic focus essential for innovation.

A surprising finding was that the greatest pressure on executives for evidence of short-term performance came not from their customers, competitors or investors, but from inside the organization from other executives and managers. Much of this pressure appeared to come from uncertainty about the future and the economy, but much of it also formed in the financial metrics the companies used.

The report recommended structural and cultural adjustments, and also a change in performance metrics. A key recommendation was to move to to narrative reports on strategic objectives and a longer period in financial reporting.

Looking toward the long term | McKinsey Global Survey 2013

We like the McKinsey recommendations but find them too focused on the needs of executives and boards. The reports around the board table will be much more satisfying if companies and organizations seeking higher performance and strategic differentiation also consider how the planning of the workplace is a more important asset. These companies should design a workplace that has the settings and the artifacts to support near-term work and provide a view of the longer strategic horizon.

Time and workplace design are misaligned.

Even though the cycles and patterns of work are changing continuously, the workplace remains a static environment – we have to work around a fixed set of conditions rather than shape our settings to the work that we do. What would happen to the workplace, what would happen to our work, if time were a factor in design?

We are increasing fascinated with the challenge to address time in the design of the workplace. That is, we see time cycles in work as increasingly varied – fast, slow, and spiky in character. In the course of any conventional metric of time – hour, day, week, month – our work is constantly shifting between projects that take a long time and modules of projects that need resolution before moving on. There are the tasks that take focus and separation, and there are the things that distract or attract us and grab our attention for a short period. There are things that become urgent and must be done now, overtaking things that are important but that have a different time frame.

It seems that a work culture with different and variable time horizons might become a higher performing culture if the workplace were designed to support it. If time were a factor influencing the design of the workspace, how might we respond?

Organizations with a more strategic time frame look different than organizations limited to short-term thinking

When we look at a conventional workplace, one planned and designed around entitlements relating to organizational design, we see a workplace in which the variable cycles and perspectives of innovation and performance are absent.

Workstations are designed for individuals doing repetitive production tasks, an increasingly rare job type. The gathering clutter in workstations might be signs of an increasing individual responsibility becoming overtaken by the tasks and artifacts of multiple projects, committee work, team work, periodic reporting, get-it-done-now tasks and other evidences of  roles with different time frames but the inability of the workplace to accommodate this asynchronicity.

When we make observations in those workplaces and reflect on survey data regarding occupancy and utilization, we see a workforce that nonetheless marks time in daily increments. Their inability to accommodate work flux seems to default people back to clock time. That is, we see a consistent pattern of an eight-to-five occupancy of the workplace, a perception of work and business that is shaped in day-to-day chunks, putting in time. Performance is weak. Innovation, perhaps not expected, is absent.

When we look at a more strategically-oriented and innovative workplace, one planned and designed around projects, we see an entirely different occupancy and utilization pattern. We see a more extended utilization of the work day and an improved responsiveness supporting the kinds of work that cannot be turned on and off like the task-based work of the conventional organization.

People in these organizations move from place to place to utilize the settings and tools that best support their work. Around them are a set of accessibly-located and well-designed amenities that allow them to maintain nutrition, fitness, social connections, and private pursuits while extending their work, as one executive told us, "to both ends of the day." Flow, in other words, is enhanced.  

Most significant is the experiential differentiation in these workplaces. Since their work is implemented in projects, the visible artifacts of those projects – products in development, timelines, process maps, customer and cultural data, and other visually expressed information – are everywhere. People gather around them, discuss them, and move off to other settings to apply what they’ve learned. These artifacts assure that their work has at least a project-long time frame. And, since they are set in a context of information and knowledge about customer and culture, they also have an inherent long-range and strategic frame.

How should we respond?

Here are a few questions that might help you as you try to accommodate the new ways of working that come from the increasing variability of job and task time in your work –

  • Look at key processes and chart their time frames Uncover the asynchronicity that constrains flow, reduces individual and team effectiveness, and that needs support.
  • Consider the artifacts and toolsets that are required for each type of work in each time pattern or cycle. How can settings better support the use of those artifacts?
  • Consider different ways of assigning space. Might ii be better for people to move to the settings that best accommodate their work as they move through a day or week rather than be assigned to a common workstation?

When people have the settings that allow them to dynamically adjust to the varying demands and time frames of modern work, they may then have the ability to consider both long-term and short-term objectives, design their day to fit, find places to contribute as needed, become more engaged in their work, and enhance both personal and organization performance and satisfaction.

Or, as a mentor of ours once said, "You can’t think big thoughts in small spaces."


What is "workplace" design?

Among our offerings to clients through our consulting practice is a bundle of services under the heading of “Workplace.” Among our friends and others who look at our portfolio of great workspaces is a general perception that these are “corporate interiors” services – selecting and specifying finishes and furniture for spaces designed by project architects. While this is descriptive of a portion of what we do, it is a substantial understatement of the services we perform and the value we bring to clients. I thought I’d offer, then, a brief primer on “workplace” design by telling a story about a current client.

The client’s strategic context

Our client works in one of the most dynamic and unpredictable businesses of our time. Delivering health care insurance and other services to its customers, the company operates in a context that is at the top of the national agenda. The national political discourse, the state of the economy, demographic trends, lifestyle trends and other factors generate an uncertain, unpredictable, and highly dynamic set of conditions for business performance.

Looking into the mysteries of the future, this company has set a strategic direction to define its future purpose and performance, and shape its evolution from a claims processing business to a health and lifestyle consulting business.

It has now also formulated a set of initiatives intended to attract customers and grow the business. These initiatives have influence on the company’s entire corporate culture and specific impacts on its organizational design, its human resources policies and practices, its information technology systems in both operations and customer-facing domains, and its business processes.

The company has also generated an initiative for the design of new workspaces wherever it works. This program is influenced by the other operational initiatives, and is also recognized as having a significant potential impact o the success and benefits of those other projects.

Strategy Design – Design Strategy

In a recent letter to the company’s employees, the COO clearly signaled the importance of the design of the workplace to the performance of the company by defining the goals for the workspace initiative.

He explained that the design initiative would play a “vital role” in the success of the company and enable everyone who worked there to live its brand attributes every day. He defined these goals for the design –

▪          Shape the corporate culture ▪          Secure the brand’s sustainability for future generations ▪          Stimulate creativity and collaboration ▪          Improve the ability to provide the highest quality of customer service

So that is the beginning framework for a “workplace” project – linking the  business’s strategy design to our design strategy and developing a workspace that enhances the quality and benefits of the company’s work.

Let’s take a quick look at how we’ve embraced this mission and what we’ve been up to so far. This might give you a better understanding of what “workplace” projects are all about.

Brand Repositioning

As we entered the project, the company had just complete a “brand repositioning” initiative. This was a first step in shaping their strategies for success in this dynamic business context. This involved an exploration of the potential needs of their customers and developing a deep understanding of their experiences as they sought resolution of their healthcare objectives.

With the insight that the customer experience is driven by the employee experience, the brand repositioning defined key differentiating behaviors of the company’s employees and the impacts they would have on customer experience.

Employee experience

We’ve long believed that the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “own” the experience of work. That is, as business success increasingly demands innovation in processes, services and products, there is an increasing competition for the top talent necessary to deliver innovation. Attracting those people increasingly means providing the contexts where top talent can engage with others inside and outside the organization and experience the pleasure of accomplishing great things.

We were therefore pleased to enter the discussion with the company’s leadership around this subject of employee “behaviors.” We began to speculate on the working experiences that could be associated with those behavioral objectives and, in turn, the characteristics of the working environments that would provide those experiences and nurture those behaviors.

Design principles

Workplace design has long been characterized by a very limited “lexicon” of form. Dilbert was the perfect outgrowth of the corporate workplace typology in which two forms – offices and high-walled cubicles – defined the nature of work and the culture of companies. Almost all of our clients come to us knowing nothing other than this lexicon, and expecting only a stylistic variant on that tired theme.

It was therefore very important for us to help our client visualize other possibilities and to have other goals for the design of their next workspaces. We formulated a set of “Design Principles” that made a direct linkage between their brand differentiators and the innovative concepts we might propose. These principles allow us to move into a much more robust engagement with the client and a much richer conversation about design, experience and performance.

Design vocabulary

The Design Principles then had two influences, backwards and forwards in the process – they began to influence our client’s development of “company values” aligned with the brand and strategic initiatives, and they informed our development of a “Design Vocabulary” for the project.

The Design Vocabulary consists of a number of concepts for “work settings” including all physical and infrastructural components of the environment in which people would work. This has helped us bring an largely new approach to workplace design and policies for the company.

We are developing concepts around teams, not individuals; around work activities, not titles; and around a future state for the company, not current conditions.

Prototype templates

Among the challenges given us by the leadership of the company was to develop a design that could be implemented wherever they were and wherever they would go. This, of course, is both about place and also about time – how to design in a way that would be relevant over the next 10-20 years of the company’s development and growth.

The Design Vocabulary was a core component of this approach. The settings are team platforms that can be plugged in or pulled out of any specific project as the scale or organizational mix required.

We then tested this approach through the development of prototypical “templates.” These were illustrations of the application of the work settings to both “greenfield” and specific local contexts. We tested alternative floor configurations, alternative scales of occupancy and alternative mixes of organizational functions as a way of “proving” the relevance of the Design Vocabulary, its authenticity to the Design Principles,  and how it would affect employee experience and deliver on the goals of the initiative.

The developed concepts will then form a set of workspace design guidelines that can be adapted to the specific conditions of location and time. We are now about to start the implementation of the design for a phased development of the company’s 1,000 person headquarters.

Turning point

This is now a significant turning point in the initiative. Up to now, the company’s strategy has been influencing our design strategy. As the company begins to occupy its new workspaces however, it will be our designs that influence the successful accomplishment of the company’s strategies.

Our workspace designs will affect the experiences of the employees, in turn affecting their behaviors and, through their interactions with customers and development of new and innovative solutions, affecting the experiences of customers and the success of the company.

Stay tuned.

I hope this story-in-progress gives you a better understanding of what “workplace” strategy and design is all about.

Remember a couple of core ideas as you look around and talk with your own clients and friends –

Work looks different now – The technologies we use, the ways that we work, the challenges we face all beg for a radically different approach to the design of the spaces and places where we work.

It’s about the experience, stupid – The leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “own” the experience of working – top talent will choose where they go and who they work with based on how the organization provides the innovative resources of place and space to nurture differential purpose and achievement.