MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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

Filtering by Tag: transformation

Narrow the Information Gap to capture higher value in design for workplace transformation

A continuing subject in the work we do is the concept of knowledge creation. It seems to be a subject that is rarely in an architect's or designer's commission. It may reside implicitly in the background of a design project, or may not ever be part of the conversation. It seems, however, that for the role that the workplace itself, and workplace transformation projects play, it should come more to the forefront. We've talked before about how a change in the place or space of work is frequently a key component of an organization's transformation agenda. These workplace strategy programs have a wide spectrum of objectives, with cost-cutting/space saving at the bottom of the achievement graph, and authentic interest in contribution and accomplishment higher on the scale.

Any project's place on the scale is generally determined by its origin. Workplace and workspace matters lie in different silos of organizations. Projects arising out of finance may have cost savings as a primary success metric. We've had some projects arising out of a grassroots interest in advancing the creative output of an an organization, so the primary success measure there has been transition to a different shade of operations culture.

"Change management" is a discipline that is frequently evoked in these programs and here, again, there is a significant range of content, influence and impact. We have seen some programs in which the sum of content is a directory for day-one occupation of the new place – how to find a printer in the new layout, for example. More robust programs establish web sites and other communications programs to provide information over a sustained period of time from the initiation of the project to or through its occupancy many months later.

We reflect on this because the proximity, content and communication of information is a key component in evoking the engagement with intention that is at the core of achieving the real benefits of change, especially where knowledge creation, innovation capability and creative capacity are among the intended goals of the program.

Below is a nice introduction (from Jeff Monday) to the "Information Gap" theory of George Loewenstein. I cite it both for its general relevance and also as a guide to initial thinking about change management programs and their role in achieving the intended purposes of transformation programs, and beyond.

Understanding the information gap in the design, communication and implementation of workplace transformation programs can significantly contribute to the engagement of those affected by them, and through that to significant enhancement of the performance – the knowledge creation – of the organization overall.


Workspace "activation" – emerging concepts to move beyond workplace "branding"

activation0001_blogactivation0002_blogactivation0003_blog I’ve spoken frequently of my appreciation of the “white space” of the workplace. I appreciate most the power of these spaces that lie between function and interaction to energize and activate the workspace.

These places are rare in the normal allocation of space in organizational real estate, especially in times of constrained spending. Yet, perhaps because they may more authentically represent the culture of the organization, we’ve found that these are the places and spaces that evoke the commitment and engagement of staff and enhance their performance. These are places, in other words – normally cut from organizational space allocations – that allow people to more rapidly and effectively comprehend, support and achieve the organizational mission.

We are preparing proposals for an organization who sought a dramatic transformation of its culture as an essential factor in its sustainability and its ability to contribute effectively to the sustainability of its partner organizations and the communities where they do their work.

Their new “offices” – in a formerly mistreated and largely abandoned high-rise – has a model proportion of “white spaces.” These spaces – unnamed in the functional program but provided through “net-to-gross” conversion factors – support several cultural and behavioral shifts:

  • From closed to open
  • From assigned to free
  • From entitlement to activity
  • From formal to casual
  • From secure to invitational

Most importantly, these spaces provide places for the staff to meet with members of partner organizations in extended occupancy – a few days or a few weeks – to work on problems and develop programs to benefit a constituency or community. What had previously been scheduled, agenda-driven and formal now can accommodate a project timeline and become appropriately and effectively extended, adaptable, resource-rich, collaborative, and focused on impact rather than time.

Now, in the last phase of their implementation and move, we are transforming our commission – develop and implement an identity and wayfinding signage program – toward a program for what we’re calling “workspace activation.”

We have generally moved away from more conventional, and commercial, concepts of “workplace branding.” We believe that the best expression of the brand of a company or organization is its work, and that the visible display of its work is much more effective than the display of corporate identity or communication of motto. We also believe that this “workspace activation” resonates into the effectiveness, influence and impact of the organization and its people.

Some emerging guiding principles include –

  • You are your brand – make your work visible; display what you do and how you do it
  • Make the workplace a canvas for discovery – "collaboration" so many times references production, yet a key culture of leading organizations is creating knowledge, as well; encourage communication and experience sharing
  • Design for experience – allow adaptation of the workspace to enable immersion in the work by shaping the space to meet the needs of the project

We are therefore developing a palette of graphic and other resources to animate the space with color, movement, image, information, invitation and hospitality. Neither “wayfinding,” nor “branding,” nor “signage,”  our program proposes a set of cues, clues, samples and examples to encourage a culture of information openness, collaborative participation, and continuous communication.

We hope to provide a canvas for uncovering potential, giving coherence to capabilities, and initiating sustaining transformation.

© Jim Meredith/MEREDITH Strategy & Design LLC

4 places for transformation – not recovery – of the architectural profession

The demand for corporate real estate is down dramatically and the vacancy being counted and reported now does not yet represent the depth of the problem. Corporations are either not willing to take losses in disposition of real estate, or are holding property and leases for an imagined future and are yet to confront the real scale of recovery. Landlords, believing that vacancies harm them especially when leases to some companies represent property status, are not yet reporting the actual scale of occupancies. Historically, rising employment and a traditionally aligned increase in real estate demand lags the trajectory of recovery by months. And credit supply, certainly, has a different relationship to real estate demand now.

Business recovery, no matter how robust, will never absorb the current building supply.

Many architectural firms whose fortune and fame were built on corporate space are still in denial. Past indices of architectural revenues had a relatively direct relationship between white collar employment and services demand, so most firms are wishing and waiting for "recovery." I think that the wait for new architectural commissions is going to be very long.

The growth of real estate demand and the resultant rewards to the profession over the early portions of the past decade had foundations that were both real and virtual. Actual business growth was part of the mix, as was a need for smart infrastructure to support the momentum of technology implementation in the workplace. Lagging commitments to corporate standards, including a surprisingly tenacious hold on the office as perk, also fueled a demand for space that was larger than the effective working need. And the attractiveness of debt – that is, the availability of cheap credit – was, as we all now know, a driver of global construction without a real market supporting it.

As things began to collapse, we already had an abnormally high ratio of space to real and emerging demand. It's all dynamically correcting now, and the current metrics of the issue are not yet balanced.

So what is the future for architects, and for their clients?

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First, a quick review. I believe that the actual emerging demand at the front edge of the recovery (when it happens) will be a small fraction of current supply. If this block represents 100 square feet of pre-collapse space, the crisis could finally reconcile demand at 50% of current supply, if not still significantly less.

The reductions in demand come from –

  • Rightsizing Corporate layoffs now represent not just a temporary alignment with an economic downturn, but will also ultimately reflect a permanent change in the scale of business. This permanency will come from a new conservatism (corporations, like shoppers, realize that bling is dead, and sustainability as a value looks real), a lag of response to demand, and new ways of doing things brought by the operating discipline imposed by the Great Recession.
  • Utilizing As the recession was beginning, we began to deploy new analytical tools and metrics  in workplace planning to more effectively align our design practice with business strategy. We were able to show that the typical workplace was unoccupied for much, if not most, of the workday. It appeared that the (finally) lighter and more ubiquitous technology, and collaborative workstyles generated by the innovation agenda, meant that the fix on individual and assigned workstations was beginning to wane. Corporations were rapidly learning that adherence to traditional and even recently updated standards meant a 40-60% competitive disadvantage when measured in real estate costs.
  • Mobilizing Corporate globalization, technology improvements, wifi infrastructures and new workstyles also contributed to global, local and internal mobility. This mobility not only directly revised the demand on real estate, but the managerial and HR tolerance of work done anywhere meant that home, Starbucks, and the airport replaced the office.
  • Standardizing I actually consider this a bad word, but there is at last a move in corporate facilities departments, and among us as planners, to institutionalize revolutionary new metrics for office and real estate occupancy. Square feet per person and dollars per square foot are not measures of the work that people do. The proportional alignment of space to an individual and not to the mission perpetuated higher costs and barriers to competitive differentiation. In other words, previous methods of forecasting and planning for real estate demand overlooked a concept of real estate as a tool for business performance.

So if corporations, and cities, are already overbuilt (and they are), and the reconciliation of demand and supply will mean that there will be even more vacant space going begging soon, and if the drivers of corporate demand are easing, then what are the opportunities for architects and designers in this New Normal?

As with any transformation program, an examination of the business model is an important discipline. Conventional architectural fees are based on consumption, not performance. Fees are typically expressed as percentages of construction cost, or as dollars per square foot of project size. Bigger and more complex is better. As clients seek to do more with less, however, and if architects can respond effectively, the relationship shifts from the amount and cost of space to the effectiveness of place to deliver positive influences in the achievement of the organizational mission.

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I'd suggest that as architects have been embracing sustainability as a key value informing practice, conventional metrics and methods of practice, now reinforced by the New Normal, provide the platform for rich opportunity in at least 4 newly defined areas in the emerging business landscape –

It's about place, not space – Some of our past clients have been occupying space at up to a 30:1 seating ratio. That is, their mobility practices and other workstyles have led to such a reduction in space demand that they need space only for the equivalent of one person where they used to provide individual assigned space for 30. So the role of the office changes from where I do my work to where I connect with my brand, culture and colleagues. The making of a compelling place to be, a place where employees want to go, is the new role of the architect, rather than the design of a standards-driven container of cubes.

Work looks different, now – The new values of work are about innovation, speed, opportunity, service, and differentiation. These require continuous learning, managerial transparency, visual and verbal connectivity, dynamic collaboration, and organizational agility. Architects have a great opportunity to remake the workplace based on a new formal lexicon in support of the enabling workmodes of socialization, learning, and collaboration.

These two concepts may represent the entire domain of practice measured by the level of reoccupation of corporate space in an emerging economic restoration. What happens with the rest of the space? Do we bulldoze the city?

I'd offer a couple of more optimistic suggestions –

New metrics, new typologies - Floorplate size, dimensions, configurations, volume, infrastructure, building image, location and other metrics all have an influence on corporate (people) performance. Previous planning, if aligned, has been a denominator strategy, delivering cost reduction. New approaches, built on our awareness of beneficial associations of place and performance, enable us to evaluate properties for their contribution to numerator strategies – direct relationships of place to performance. Buildings that fit our template have the potential for longer term sustainability. Re-profiling these buildings to gain attention in corporate expansion may be the most beneficial and rewarding planning and design service in the recovery transformation.

New markets (and Squelettes) - If all of the above is achieved, there remains a large portfolio of property that may be considered obsolete for corporate purposes. What about this surplus? In the ongoing, maybe increasing, competition between city and suburb, obsolete urban corporate properties have re-use potential that can yield highly attractive options. This is a very challenging domain, but seems to have a place in conversations even in unlikely places. Wired magazine, for example, has proposed a term form these properties and begun a discussion about what to do about them. A great illustration of spirit, thought and potential is in this example from Brazil in which a group of artists and architects intends to occupy and transform a 20-story tower in Sao Paolo as a cultural and civic laboratory.

Overlaid on all this is sustainable design, of course, which has some momentum moving from using less to occupying less to building less to reusing.

It feels as if we are at one of those historical/cultural/social inflection points and doing things in new ways feels more rewarding and productive than waiting for "recovery."

© Jim Meredith, 2009

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