MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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

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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."