MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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

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New ways of working | Apple store, Tokyo | image by -nathan on flickr.com

Everything about work has changed, but nothing of the workplace has.

Work looks different, now.

Major forces in technology, the economy, society and culture have combined in such a way that  even the near future will be dramatically different from what we’ve experienced over the past several decades.

A casual recitation of the trends we’ve seen in new ways of working – mobility, agility, globalization, collaboration, crowd-sourcing, innovation imperatives, networked organizations, creative class, work anywhere, etc. – reveals the early components of massive and accelerating change.

And the lexicon of the current and emerging future – work swarms, hyperconnectivity, augmented reality, gaming, simulations, spontaneous work, the collective, etc. – is language that does not yet have counterparts in the world where the design of the workspace takes place.

We are very surprised by the slow pace of change in the planning and design of places for working. We believe that beyond our ability to see and comprehend what the future of work looks like, there are significant forces that constrain our ability to get to where we need to be.

The failure of the discipline of design to match the pace of the emergence of new ways of working will certainly mean frustration and, more importantly, restraint on the ability of organizations to capitalize on the promise of the future.

We think that new institutions and new approaches are necessary to resolve this issue.

The existing paradigms of the workplace are very strong and limit the ability to achieve rapid change.

At the core of this dilemma is the heavily embedded practice of looking to the future from the past. We have spoken before of our resistance to the terms and the articulations of workplace “trends” because we believe that the change taking place in society is so substantial that the future can no longer be extrapolated from the experience of the past or the components of the lagging present.

There has been and, until the Great Recession, continued to be significant investment in the physical infrastructure supporting the way that work used to be done. The office building in best practice, for example, is a form based on past organizational designs and management practices that uses components, modules and metrics to reinforce a conformity to hierarchy, entitlement, and a cellular array of assigned workspaces. Over time, these have generated a well-developed and applied template of core design and placement, floorplate size and dimension, and floor-to-floor heights that shape the organization of work, and even influences the size and displacement of organizations. Form does not follow function anymore; rather function fits form.

Those components, what we call the lexicon of workplace form, also represent a mature economy that has been well developed by furniture and equipment manufacturers, ceiling and wall component manufacturers, and the technologies of energy and communications distribution. This has also bred a generation of workplace design specialists, increasingly constrained by time and fees, who have developed an aura of market and practice area expertise that reinforces the incremental extrapolation and application of "best practice" templates rather than real workspace innovation.

And the embedded resistance to change in the corporation suppresses the mandate for change

Even while accepting the logic for new ways of working, management education and practice has been unable to adapt to and keep up with the extraordinary speed of change in the way that work is actually being performed.

In recent years, even the growing awareness of generational differences has generated merely stylistic differentiation in the accommodation of different ways of working without understanding the substantial emergence of entirely new forms of organization and execution.

The "trend" to make the workplace more "social" by introducing a Starbucks style into the lunch room is but one example of the misunderstanding of the emerging social nature of work, communication, networks and innovation.

The existing institutions are powerless

While the corporation correctly senses that the current form of the workplace is worthless, it has not yet formed an understanding of what form of workplace has value. Workplace design consultants have illustrated that whether through layoffs or through mobility programs or through otherwise unrecognized shifts in how and where work is done, you can walk through the corporate offices these days and not see anybody there.

As the economy continues to press on corporate performance, most companies cannot shed real estate fast enough. The relentless purge is based, at least in part, on the traditional alignment of the corporate real estate function with the finance organization. Human resources, marketing, R&D and the value-generating portions of the organization have not yet assembled the point-of-view, position and power to influence the real estate momentum.

And, of course, the supply side of real estate, for a long time afraid of change, has led the design and delivery of the corporate workplace based on "exit strategies" – the generalization, commonization and commoditization of corporate offices to assure rapid turnover of occupancies even as the demand for a high level of customization and agility begins to emerge.

New institutions are necessary

The sense that the conventional designers and providers of the spaces and places where work is done can not adapt to provide a new model has led some from outside of the domain of "best" practice to attempt to innovate and create.

The Kauffman Foundation, for example, deeply concerned about the pace, volume and success of the entrepreneurial endeavors that power job creation and economic growth, have developed the Kauffman Labs for Enterprise Creation. They have commissioned a prototype space to act as a "test-bed" for the development and application of new modes of organizational design and development under the belief that space matters to people's performance.

Similarly, Jeff DeGraf at the University of Michigan, has generate the Innovatrium concept. In his work with major corporations, he has found that great strides can be made with executives in an off-site, non-corporate context, but the pace and success of change is lost when they return to the conventional corporate space. The Innovatrium is a prototype to find a physical mode to implant in the corporate office to assure greater success in innovation initiatives.

These are early, small scale models, and there is a lot still missing.

So...I am looking for a developer

Our specifications are still in development and, in any case, we want this to be a mutual and multidisciplinary endeavor. Our model will evolve from design and development, from research and insight, from analysis and innovation, from prototypes and testing, and from new “metrics” around the experience of working.

We’ll return to this subject periodically. In the meantime, here is a very brief review of only some of the things we are thinking about.

The new model will use a new language of workspace design, a new lexicon of form. Since the leading edge of new ways of working is evolving so fast, and since older ways of working are moving so slowly, event the current language of work and design is losing value fast. “Collaboration,” for example, already has the weight of workforce skepticism, and everybody knows that the little table out in the open is not the supporting device. The new language must not carry any burden from inadequate responses from the past.

The new model is one of service, not control. Corporate real estate and facility management have provided things. The metrics of their performance and the limits on their resources have meant that the efficiency of the management of things and the minimization of the cost and amount of things have been their focus. “Standards” and “mobility” are a couple of the ways this is done, and “performance” became a financial, not an achievement, metric. The new model will instead understand and appreciate the importance of the way that people will get things done, and will provide the most effective resources for accomplishing the purposes of the organization.

The new model will be a sustainable model. Stocks and flows may be the underlying concept for the provision of space, not assignment and entitlement. This is at the core of our thinking. Corporate ownership and the long-term implications of real estate investment have combined to generate an inflexible and over-supplied model of space for work. We think a third party approach with a different model of supply is worthy of development and promotion.

The new model will seek talent centers, not cost centers. People will find and deliver success through their expertise and mastery in combination with a context-specific network of other experts and masters. These people will have the choice of being where they want to be, and that choice is increasingly an urban choice, in globally-connected, resource-rich centers. Workspace will come to be comprehended as a community, not a finite workplace.

The new model will focus on the experience of working. We believe that the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “own” the experience of working. The measures and pleasures of performance will be determined by the people who fulfill the purpose of the organization, and not by the organization. Top talent will move to where they can be most effective, where the constraints on achievement have been removed, and where the available resources activate, augment and amplify their contributions and achievements.

Contact us if you’d like to explore with us how to develop the workspaces of the future.

[Image by -nathan on flickr.com]

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A new value equation for organizational real estate

Emerging opportunities in organizational real estate and workplace programs – and how to capture their value

I have become considerably optimistic about the future of our practice from the evidence of disruption that had been latently present and now is increasing activating our economy. What had been a slowly emerging awareness of the need for doing things in new ways is now attaining greater momentum through the recognition that a fundamental shift has taken place, and that new strategies and designs are essential to successfully get in the flow of new achievement.

I sketched a diagram, an emergent equation of sorts, that begins to express some of the shift and its potential in a couple of domains of interest for me.

It tries to express that the content of the institutions and organizations of the recent past, which had still been bound up in closed and constrained systems, is breaking out and finding new value through more open and innovative systems. The impacts of this change of state include the collapsing value of the services and infrastructures that sustained the older systems in the first decade of the millennium, and the emergent power and potential residing in the transitional white space between the recent now and the yet-unformed next.

Some familiar recitations

Corporations, as individually competitive entities, were essentially closed systems where not being number one or two meant death. They were administrated by hierarchies enclosed in towers expressive of stature, status, and power. The value in these towers was attained through internal controls like efficiency of utilization, and external influences like financial instruments.

These real estate values were achieved through a set of services, equipment and standards managed separately from the core purposes of the organization, and yet influenced the shape of buildings and cities. People sat in policy-defined cubes. Furniture manufacturers fabricated responsive and dimensionally-confined systems. And architects and designers influenced site selection and lease negotiations based on "test fits" measuring the efficiency of the ratio of space enclosed in cubes versus the amount of space left over. Developers achieved "investment grade" ratings on their buildings by, among other things, reducing the inches of building constructed between the module of the furniture systems proscribed by the corporate standards and the minimum dimensions of aisles defined by code. Geometric precision defined economic value.

Then, a confluence of global comic development, financial meltdown, technology acceleration and the innovation imperative scrambled the value set. Rising real (and artificial) estate costs initiated a quest to squeeze, and "footprint hierarchy" disappeared. Technology enabled a work-anywhere potential, and realistic real estate utilization metrics proved the case for dramatic reduction in real estate demand. Innovation, the key to competitive differentiation and precious growth, was now believed to arise from a culture of creative and cross-disciplinary collaboration for which the cube was an enemy. Even after economic collapse and the disappearance of price pressure on real estate decisions, the demand for space may now be felt more by the coffee shop than the corporation.

Leading organizations are now trying to find ways to operate as networked clusters of competencies rather than closed corporations. The concept of work "stations" now only has value if you believe that if you have one you will not get laid off; instead, quality of place and attraction of space get attention. Work, in any case, is no longer contained in a company's buildings, nor by the clock, and is progressively becoming part of a seamlessly networked, diversely urban lifestyle. People now much more agile in place and time, choose places and spaces that are the most effective, or can be made more effective, for whatever activity is part of their workstream.

So, what might this mean?

Our clients regularly ask us about trends. Understanding what is happening in workplace planning and design, for example, allows them to become current, test their status against industry and competitors, and make more informed choices about their own programs. Trends, a term borrowed from the world of style, may however be evidence more of group-think and less a valid tool for decision-making. The trend-setter may actually have been the only one in the chain who made an authentic move, creatively adapting and innovating their workspace to meet the unique and differential needs of their organization's purpose. His followers may now be experiencing the frustration of trying to fit function to form.

In a recently posted video of his presentation at a TED conference, Simon Sinek offers a diagram – "the Golden Circle" – of the path to influential leadership, and a simple formulation that people want what you believe, not what you are. Individuals and organizations with a well-formulated and articulated belief system ("why" – their purpose for being) develop aligned and authentic means to deliver on their promise ("how"). In order for the "how" of their organization to be effective, they shape their presence in place and space in the character of their culture ("what" – the tangible and physical expression of their unique DNA).

Trends in organizational real estate and workplace design

In their real estate and workplace design programs, aspirational organizations may see the impact and influence of others' space moves and, sensing "trend," may choose a similar approach for themselves, believing they, too, may benefit from the concepts.

The trend-setting organization may say – we are relentless in our quest to understand the needs of our clients and their customers. To get this understanding we do our work standing next to them, enabled by technology and support policies that allow our people to work in our client's places. We've developed an agile workplace with all of the tools to support and nurture our highly committed and recognized staff.

The trend-following organization sees a "trend" to shed real estate costs through a reduced space inventory and minimized allocations. They initiate a mobile work "policy" and measure their success with a 40% reduction in occupancy costs, which, they believe, enhances their competitive position in the market. Their people begin to experience a high level of stress, make  harmful decisions based on the celebrated internal metrics, and cling to a cubicle as an entitlement and an assumed job insurance.

If I could apply Simon Sinek's principles to our advice to our clients, I would always propose that we design from the inside out. Developing a deep understanding of the purpose and goals of the organization (the why), we would then begin to shape with them a strategy design (the how) to meet their goals and then begin to uncover, test and develop concepts to shape a design strategy for place and space (the what) to enhance the performance of people and to achieve and sustain leadership in their mission.

In other words, I'd try this new formula with them–

  • Articulate why you are in business and let that purpose be the principle drive of real estate programs and decisions
  • Define how you uniquely do what you do, first without reference to space
  • Shape space and place around the how

This is a great time for corporations and other forms of organizations to reassess the purposes and power of place for their own goals and objectives, whether considering new initiatives or reviewing the impacts of past or recent programs.

What do you think?

© Jim Meredith