MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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

Filtering by Tag: workplace design

B2B2B2C – How should we design for the emerging business models in the health insurance industry?

The design of the insurers workplace will become one of the most effective devices in the strategic toolbox of breakout industry leaders.

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The disaster of Yahoo's return-to-the-office mandate...

Yahoo should find a space and time in the near future and do the kind of internal reflection and research into the power of the design of the workplace that could yield something more valuable for them, and more valuable and liberating for the rest of us.

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Where architects may fail – and how to avoid it

When we instead describe the space by articulating the activities and interactions of the representative avatars and how we can respond to their needs, we then design more openly and completely. We design, in other words, in thoughtful connection with the experiences of the users of the building. The result for us, and for our client, was a new type of space designed to foster a transformation in the culture, behaviors, interactions and performance of the organization and its people.

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Can an unexpected ending make for a stronger beginning?

I think that the moves this client was making, perceived by them to be big moves up until now and that took a certain bravery in the risk of the previously unknown, may have become familiar and comfortable to them along the way. Taking a breath to resolve other clutter may have them return to the project with a sense that one step in their evolution may already have been taken, virtually, and they may now be ready for a bolder move.

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How can criteria for ranking the world's 10 most livable cities inform other places?

Monocle magazine periodically publishes city rankings. Reflecting on the way to developing a list of the world's 10 most livable cities, Tyler Brule came up with an unexpected list of criteria (presented here). The introduction to his column in the Financial Times offers the context –

Sometime between writing last week’s column and settling down to tap out today’s I had a slight change of heart about the essential ingredients regarding quality of life. While cities get high marks if they have low crime rates, good public schools, smooth-running buses, trams and subways, and if they offer a healthy climate for starting up a small business, my daily holiday regime on the coast of Tuscany had me questioning whether there should be simpler measures to judge whether a city is delightfully liveable.

On Brule's "simple measures" list are things such as sufficient water pressure to get a good blast in the shower, great orange juice, public seating, and good windows.

It is very rare, it seems, that we reflect on the simple things that can improve our own environments and those we design for others. Most frequently, the dominant criteria are abstract metrics imposed by the providers of space rather than the experiential metrics of those who live and work in the spaces we design.

Consider Brule's point of view, your daily regime when in your favorite vacation spot – How can these experiences overcome your typical demands of the workplace and influence a different approach to its design?

The Power of Place, part 2 – How a design strategy powered a global strategy design

Jim Meredith enjoys a chat in the "Creative Lobby" of Team Detroit headquarters As you all know, we put ideas into operation with the hope that they will have lasting impact. Despite our purpose and intentions, most architecture and design projects have a finite conclusion – the doors open, the client moves in, and they and we are off to our other business. What we've done exists on the landscape for its and our lifetimes, yet it seems relatively rare that we get insight into how what we've done affects the lives of those who experience the places we've designed.

I was pleased, then, to find this story in the New York Times this week. Ostensibly about the promotion of a key creative person at an ad agency, key pieces of the article told a story about the resonating beneficial influence on the business performance of a company for whom I, in a former position, led a team to design a regional headquarters. The article is a great testimonial to the power of what we do in advancing strategies that help design resonate with business benefit well beyond the project itself.

Uncovering what "job" the client actually wants to do

I've probably talked too much about the Detroit WPP project, but I like it as a clear example of a great way to practice. I was Principal-in-Charge of the Detroit project which was conceived by WPP as a relatively simple collocation project. WPP had grown through acquisitions and, as a result, in major markets, came to hold a number of different agencies who had leases in different buildings in different locations with different terms. Bringing different agencies from different locations together into their own suites in one building would simplify lease terms and CRE complexity.

But I was interested in a different approach. Our mission is to link workplace design strategy to our client's business strategy design. At the time of the project, about 2005, the advertising and media businesses were experiencing a revolutionary fragmentation of the Mad Men model of business and were challenged by internal competition among advertising, media, planning and other disciplines seeking relevance, influence and dominance of the marketing agenda. So I was deeply interested in working with WPP executives to take advantage of this "collocation" project in Detroit to actually generate and test a new business model, and one that could be facilitated by a radical new approach to workplace design.

A window into the process

Almost every day during the site search and design phases of the project, I would join an executive of one of the agencies in his office, or he in mine, and we'd scribble diagrams on a whiteboard. We began by discussing the concept that bringing the agencies under one roof was an opportunity to "tear down the walls" between the businesses and develop a "new lexicon" for both the business and the places and spaces where it would operate. The objective was to find ways to enhance the creative output of the companies and deliver higher value at lower cost to its clients.

Each of the agencies was, in a sense, complete. Each had a full palette of administrative, creative and production functions. There was, however, a great range in the size of the agencies, from 65 to 650 people (the companies under consideration for collocation collectively employed more than 1300 people), so the strengths of these functions in each of the agencies varied as well.

Collocation could, it seemed, easily allow an integrated concept of back office functions like HR, finance and IT to enable greater strength and improved efficiency for all. But we also quickly began looking at integrating other functions like research, media and others, and eventually creative as well to test the potential of an integrated approach to deliver higher creative value. As this developed, we began to also challenge approaches taken in earlier projects in other cities where collocation simply meant each agency having its own suite but together in a single building with a single lease.

Linking strategy design with design strategy

Eventually, we had an emerging new business concept in mind, as well as the realization that the extraordinarily dynamic business conditions meant that the shape of organizations that moved in to the building would not be the same as the ones with whom we began the project. The design, then, had to accommodate ongoing organizational redesign and continuing rapid evolution defined by market and business conditions.

We began to work with a radically open concept that would adhere to certain guiding metrics of the WPP CRE program as well as the lingering cultural and identity concerns of the agencies. I developed, nonetheless, a "two seats for every employee" design program. Visualizing that the emerging design of the business – my client began to call it "integrated creative communications" – would find success only through a (then non-existent) collaboration between agency teams, I reasoned that only through an agile physical place that enabled the socialization that would nurture a sense of shared values and the development of a shared culture would this success be achieved. So in addition to a home base for 1350 people, there were also 1350 seats in a variety of different kinds of settings for the combined staff to get to know, and trust, each other and start to combine disciplines and expertise and begin to work together.

Allowing time to activate

Although initially resisted by the executives of the agencies for logical arguments about brand identity, interagency competition and proprietary information, they nonetheless agreed to let the design concept develop to reflect the emerging business concept, even as it was developing.

“I think I was pretty skeptical” of the Team Detroit concept at first, Mr. Barlow said. “You’d walk in a room and say, ‘He’s with Y&R; he’s with Ogilvy,’ and you’re all sitting together. It was weird.”

As results were achieved, Mr. Barlow said, it became clear that “the whole would be equal to more than the sum of the parts.”

Within 3 months of moving into the building, the agencies dropped all resistance to the business concept and rebranded themselves as an integrated operation named "Team Detroit." The business concept (and the spatial concept) is now the model for WPP's work globally, as the article discusses.

The project has won design awards and has been published in various places before. But this article from the New York Times today is a better testimony to the power of what we do when we help organizations develop and articulate strategy designs better, and then develop design strategies that deliver measurable business results.

[Quote from "Selling Ford Around the World, From Detroit" by Stuart Elliott in the New York Times, November 12, 2010]

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The power of place – how shared physical place trumps virtual networks!/archizoo/status/3056586054438913 We've always been interested in how physical place contributes to the development of organizations. We have a portfolio full of examples from our own work, and it is always delightful to find affirmations in other places.

This article in today's New York Times is a great primer in the power of place. Twitter's choice of a location for its operations has generated a feeding frenzy among other tech companies who what to be in the suite – or on the elevator – next to them to capture real measurable benefits in the proximity. Among those benefits are these –

  • Contact learning – "by hanging around with executives at one of the hottest tech companies today, some of the magic could rub off"
  • Network expansion – "There, he has been stalking executives on — where else? — Twitter, to see who is to visit Twitter’s offices. When he finds out, he pounces and “hijacks the meeting,” he said, by asking them to swing by his company"
  • Influence sharing – "Through elevator and lobby run-ins, he has also forged a close enough relationship with Twitter’s chief executive, Dick Costolo, that Mr. Costolo is helping Klout raise venture capital."
  • Serendipitous resonance – "they are hoping that proximity to Twitter will lead to chance encounters in the elevator, partnerships or an acquisition — or simply that some of Twitter’s fairy dust will land on them."
  • Opportunity amplification – "physical proximity — as close as working in the same building — leads to increased knowledge, productivity, income and employment."
  • Technical support – "he frequently hops in the elevator to visit Twitter to ask technical questions about the company’s changes to its tools for software developers"
  • The power of pull – “It’s certainly something that adds to the credibility of the address when you have people coming to see you, and you can say it’s the Twitter building.”
  • Motivation and energy – “It’s a very energetic spot. It makes you feel charged up when you walk in.”
  • Property value – "the vacancy rate for big buildings in the area has decreased to 21 percent from 26 percent, and average rent has increased to $32 from $29 a square foot"

There is, of course, a delightful poetry in all of this. As the article reflects, "Mr. Fernandez and other Twitter admirers see the irony in their desire for personal interactions with Twitter executives when their business is focused on building virtual relationships. 'Even though it’s all about tech and the Internet, the real magic of Silicon Valley comes from people being in the same space,' said Burt Herman, co-founder of Storify."

“For certain early-stage insights and design matters in a very fast-moving, hot industry, the proximity, even at the room level and the elevator level, is important,” he said.

There is also another great lesson in the story –

  • Link design strategy to business strategy design – “We spent more money than we probably should have as a start-up to make everything feel as cool and pretty as we could, so people wake up in the morning and want to come to work,” Mr. Stone said. “I’m not surprised other companies want to take advantage of all the mojo we put into the place. I would do the same thing.”

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The Death of the Desk



I have frequently spoken over the past several years about what I call "the death of the desk." I think I've frightened a lot of people with this concept, yet it seems as if the direction of the development of the ways that we work makes the conventional configuration and assignment of the workstation – the desk – something that becomes more of a barrier to effective work than a facilitator.

This short video seems, initially, to take a countering position. After opening with a challenge to early notions of a "nomadic" workspace, several creative people speak of the importance of the desk to their work processes. It is interesting to see the variety of working spaces, the reflections on the nature of the desk depending on where it is and, in general, how each of these is a surface for working, and none of them the "desk" of the typical office of the last half century of work.

I like its conclusion – In the future, the desk will be a state of mind, and not a physical place.

Here's a link to the video at my Posterous site.

And here's a link to the source of this and other videos at Imaginary Forces.

Honest signals

I made a passing reference in an earlier post to work being done by MIT in the domain of non-verbal communication in the business context, now presented in a book by Alexander Pentland, Honest Signals. It seems worthwhile to return to that for a minute.

Pentland defines "honest signals" as certain non-verbal cues that can be seen in the interactions between people, typically in face-to-face communications. Falling generally into four classes – activity, interest, mimicry and consistency – they are subtle behavior patterns that we pay little attention to but that can be observed and measured.

Through what he calls "reality mining" Pentland has discovered and studied this "second channel of communication" – important components of communication that revolve around social relationships and that significantly influence our decisions, even though we may be unaware of their influence at the time.

He cites the counter-intuitive evidence of the destructive nature of certain policies related to socialization in the workplace. AT&T, assuming that the efficiency of one of its call centers would be higher if its staff took lunch breaks at different times found, instead, through Pentland's research, $15 million in performance improvements when they let everybody go to lunch at the same time. Those breaks allowed employees to informally talk out problems and find solutions that reduced stress and improved their performance.

He also likes to cite one component of their study involving entrepreneurs and investors. Investors who were present at the personal pitch of the ideas supported an entirely different set of business plans than those they had selected only through reading.

That understanding of the role of tacit knowledge and the influence of interpersonal dynamics is significant. We are unaware of these behavioral cues in our interactions with others, yet the decisions we make as a result of those conversations are profoundly affected by them. Again: visible behavioral patterns that we don't notice influence, without our knowing it, the decisions we make.

Now, go into your workplace and look around. Do you see high-walled cubicles where individuals scrunch down out of view of others? Do you see long walls of offices with doors creating a kind of "threshold resistance" to connection and communication? Are you a manager resisting socialization in your workplace?

If this is the form of your workplace, now imagine all that is being lost by missing the opportunities for those "honest signals." Is your company struggling to stay in place in your industry? Does this research suggest a different approach?

According to Pentland, "It turns out that those sorts of unconscious signaling behaviors are enormously important in determining the functioning of an organization. In organizations, most of the communication that’s complicated, that’s really important, still happens’s person-to-person; it’s not by email, it’s not by memo. And yet all of that face-to-face stuff never makes it into the digital record. There may be a memo summarizing a meeting later, or an agenda, but what actually happened never shows up. And all the interactions in the hall or around the water cooler are not even in the org chart. And yet that’s where everything happens."

Has the quality of the experience brought by mobile technology become so satisfying that it is no longer satisfying to work in a fixed place?

Whether in our professional work, in online discussion groups, or in our readings, it seems that the subject of workplace transformation is itself in a transformational state. People still cite statistics justifying one side or the other of the ongoing open versus closed debate, and others are counting the amounts of corporate real estate savings delivered through alternative work and mobility programs as supportive data to expand them. Certainly there is an evolution, a progression taking place, and perhaps all of this data buzz is the signal that the subject is finding traction, but the metrics are still about consumption, and not yet about production. That is, "performance" seems defined in terms of a space/cost metric and not sufficiently in terms of organizational achievement.

In the meantime, as the design of the workplace lags, the design of technology that initially enabled alternative workplace programs never sleeps. Today, the 2 millionth iPad has been sold as more and more people discover the delights of the latest technology that lightens the load and allows almost access to almost any type of information in progressively more satisfying form, anywhere and at any time, and sharable.

In relatively rapid development we've gone from bulky laptop to lighter notebook to Blackberry to iPhone to iPad. We've fretted about work/life balance yet now go mostly with the flow. We've gone from traveling salesman to knowledge worker to worrying about how to accommodate the socially-connected gaming generation in the workplace.

We are learning that the old institutions are dying, as well. Leadership in commerce is increasingly being achieved through collaborative insight and breakthrough development, much of it achieved from relationships established after serendipitous contact at the peripheries of our core pursuits. These connections are, in a large part, the products of technologies that have made us lighter, more agile, more networked, more aware.

So this is what I am wondering: As the pleasures of these technologies have enabled the increasing satisfaction of connecting, developing ideas and achieving the good things that come from interaction in or from places other than the office, but since only a portion of those experiences are shared by people working in assigned space in offices – is it getting lonely in a conventional office?

What is the impact, in other words, of the experiential gap between the design of virtual and physical work space? Are there barriers to achievement, organizationally or personally, presented by working in assigned office space when the activities of others are being augmented and amplified by the ability to get out and move around?

Has the quality of the experience brought by mobile technology become so satisfying that it is no longer satisfying to work in a fixed place?

The latest workplace design trends

Among the most common expressions of advice as anxiety turns to optimism in the economy relates to the preparedness and actions of leaders. "You must rapidly move from the status quo," so many advisers say, "and establish and consistently articulate a vision for moving forward." It may be this vision quest that so many organizations are going through that makes the request for a review of trends such a frequent agenda item in our conversations with current and potential clients. As I noted in our last post, a review of what others are doing now provides information, a measure of pace, a confidence in direction, and other assurances that you are on the right path. I cautioned, however, that trends, in this sense of "solutions," are more the evidence of what others may have found to be the right move to make, yet may neither connect authentically to your own purposes nor deliver similar or related results.

Redefining trends

I thought I'd return to this subject, with a slightly different skew. Reviewing trends as "solutions" to help shape your path forward begins at the wrong point and may lead to bad results. Understanding and analyzing trends that shape what you do and how you do it is an essential discipline in shaping and communicating vision and purpose, and in shaping and delivering services and products that have value to those you serve.

More specifically, shaping a workplace transformation program based on the trends you see in the actions of others may be more harmful than doing nothing. Shaping a new workspace around the trends and directions driving the value in what you do can be a powerful agent in sustainable leadership.

Transform, and activate

A major social services organization was facing challenges brought by the reduction of resources as a result of the economic collapse, and a corresponding rise in demand for their services. The leader of the organization recognized that they would have to begin to do more with less. He quickly realized that he could never accomplish that mission-rich but resource-spare agenda in the type of workplace where they had been working. Although a generous gift from a financial services company, it was generations out of date, compartmentalized, and walnut-paneled. And it dragged on their energy and purpose.

This leader researched trends in workplace design and spoke with architects, designers and furniture manufacturers. He began to form a vision of the workspace concepts that he believed would characterize the type of organization they would need to become – open, collaborative, agile, responsive. He then embarked on a major program to find and design the right type of space. He included in it all of the elements that he had been advised were the components of a more open and collaborative culture. He then moved his organization in and waited for the culture to take shape.

After several months, this same leader began to shape another program – this time to "activate" the workplace. Even though his organization's workspace was at the leading edge of a typology for action-oriented organizations, the results he expected were not materializing. Returning to the recent reformulation of the organization's mission, he put together a proposal to augment the earlier project with artifacts of the unique work his organization did, and more representative of how work is actually done in the organization. They are now implementing a tuning and amplification of the concept in place.

Touch down, and touch base

A leading consulting organization had an innovation culture and a staff who worked closely with their clients in modes that were highly mobile. They were able to design and implement mobile workstyles that progressively reduced demand for their own corporate real estate. Each iteration of the program brought the ratio of people to seats higher and higher, and the ratio of real estate to people lower and lower.

The people who worked for them had no problem with the evolution of these programs. They did their best work in close contact with their clients, and traveled around the world to deliver their advice. The company became a model and their workplace transformations became benchmarks for others, the influential origin of a trend toward aggressive mobile workforce solutions.

This company however, began to have problems with the results of these programs. They had so successfully supported mobile workstyles that their people rarely had contact anymore with the company or their peers. The knowledge they had when they entered the company was not expanding, and the experience they gained in their work was not being transferred. Their brand power, formed from collective intelligence, experience and expertise, was eroding.

One component of their solution was, oddly, a workplace transformation program. They developed a workplace that was so authentically responsive to the experiences and behaviors of their "road warriors" that it became their preferred place to touch down. These "offices" became the places where they found colleagues and traded stories, where they updated and sustained their sense of the brand, and nourished their intellectual energies before heading off on the next engagement. The company is now making headlines again, and the next wave in its business innovations currently under way.

Envision, and transform

A large creative services organization composed of several advertising and media companies recently began a lease consolidation program to bring all of the companies together in one place. These companies were fiercely independent, proud of their brand legacy and, in some cases, competitive with each other for clients and accounts. And they were very resistive to the program.

They participated, however, in a series of exercises that looked at the changing nature of the business they were in, the drivers of change for themselves and for their clients and customers, and the products and services they would need to develop to survive the change and to achieve and sustain leadership. This analysis led to insights that allowed them to envision the behaviors and experiences that would be essential to how they would frame and deliver those services. They then shaped a workplace and workspace transformation program around those experiences and behaviors.

Within a few months of moving into their new workspace, their principal customer, a global manufacturer, complemented them on the impact he felt to his business from the change that had taken place in theirs. Both the companies and their customers had survived a very challenging business context and today are leaders in their markets.

M-Shaped Strategies – A process inversion

These are the successful stories. In each case, these organizations shifted direction from initial intentions and achieved results from solutions that were original to their purposes. So many other organizations in these times, however, are starting with goals of "cost savings" and embracing workplace transformation trends and implementing programs that shed and minimize real estate but threaten the effectiveness of their mission.

The identification and analysis of trends is very important in the formation of a vision or development of a strategy for a robust and sustainable future. The trends to study in this context are not solutions, however, but problems. These trends are the weaker and stronger signals of emerging change, or of dissatisfaction with the now, or of a shift in value or values that provide the insight shaping the moves you want to make to be effective, or to lead, or to fulfill a purpose and meet a need in the future. They are what Roger Martin calls the "mystery."

These trends define the context for what you will do as an organization. Clayton Christensen calls this the "job" you are asked to do, the root problem your customer wants you to solve, or the result they want to achieve through your products or services. In the examples I cited above, the social services organization's customers wanted advocacy, the consulting organization's customers wanted to trust in and receive the value of the brand, and the media company's customers wanted integrated creative communications.

The role of the workplace in each of these "jobs-to-be-done" was influenced by considerations of functional, emotional and social experiences of both staff and customers in these organizations. People who worked for the social services organization or who had an interest to contribute to its programs could be moved beyond volunteering and donating to active advocacy by becoming immersed in the story of the community they would affect. People who worked for the consulting organization and their clients would progress throughout the exchange of experiences and knowledge gained in a global practice by its members. Customers of the organization composed of the media and advertising organizations would benefit from the creative and coordinated programs developed by in the collaborative and open culture of its agencies.

The jobs-to-be-done and the understanding of the experiences of staff and customers of these organizations were the underlying and salient considerations that then shaped their workplace strategies, programs, and designs. Each of these organizations, achieving and sustaining leadership through what they do are now effectively, trend setters, and have the potential to influence the moves that others make. But the strategies and concepts used by the agencies, for example, which could be seen as representative of a trend in design for "agile" and "collaborative" and "team-based" workplaces, would be inappropriate or insufficient for the jobs that the other organizations were trying to do even though they, too, wanted to support agile, collaborative teams.

A recommendation

I would recommend an inversion in the process and origins of the conversations we've seen as a trend in the quest for trends.

If you are an organization who also believes that the nature of your workspace influences the impact of your work, try inverting the conventional process. Try starting the conversation with your architect or designer by telling him or her about the trends deeply affecting your clients or customers – the "mysteries" in your scan and the "jobs" your clients want done – and how they might affect the direction you feel you need to take as an organization. I assume he or she will then engage with you in a conversation about the experiences that are at the core of your offering, and shelve the conventional presentation of the portfolio and the latest styles of workplace design.

I think you'll be happier.


© MEREDITH Strategy & Design | M-Shaped Strategies ®

Clayton Christensen, The Innovator's Prescription

Roger Martin, The Design of Business

Similar, on best practices

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

How the physical workspace can affect success in product development

Three characteristics of leading performers

McKinsey recently reported on a survey of product development companies. The survey uncovered three characteristics of businesses with the best track records –

  1. They had a clear sense of project goals
  2. They nurtured a strong workplace-based project culture
  3. They maintained close contact with the client throughout the project

Each of these factors have an important underlying component of information communication. In our own work, we’ve found that the design of the physical workspace is a significant partner to the operational best practices for success. The McKinsey study reminds us, for example, that visually open and resource-rich environments can be significant contributors to the communications and cultures that lead to product development speed and innovation success.

Clear sense of project goals

A clear sense of project goals is essential to avoiding false starts and movement along unrewarding paths. Without a clear plan forward, the increasingly spare resources that rightly belong to an efficient and effective pursuit of solutions for the client are consumed in course correction. A design strategy, that is, is essential to achieving the objectives of the business strategy design.

McKinsey points to the importance of understanding goals and thinking through scope early in the project. The right start is certainly important, but we think that a sustained conversation about the project and its scope is also important, especially in the development of complex systems.

Companies seeking effectiveness in establishing team awareness of goals and maintaining team attention to scope should look at the places and spaces where the project work is done. A leading energy company seeking a rapid development of product ideas for their emerging entrepreneurial non-regulated businesses found that dedicated project rooms meant more effective team communications. As a result, the teams in these contexts more quickly contributed to market-leading innovations. These spaces provided the visual memory – posted images and documents – that streamlined operations and made orientation simpler, meetings more efficient, and scope correction unnecessary.

The McKinsey study confirms the importance of information access like this. Only 19% of team members in poor performing companies felt that they had the information they needed to dynamically and efficiently manage performance, cost, time and risk in their projects.

Workplace-based project culture

Interdisciplinary team work becomes much more successful when team members have a sense of shared purpose and values, and trust each other to perform excellently in the development of the project. We have found that the most successful companies understand that innovation is inherently social. They design a workspace as a key vehicle to developing a workplace culture that is itself highly social in nature.

For example, a now leading integrated communications company, making its way from formerly separate disciplines of advertising, planning, communications and media, declared that “work looks different, now.” This mantra was their declaration that market-leading innovation and creativity necessitated new operational and organizational models, and new ways of approaching clients and projects.

In order to achieve the cultural integration they needed, they developed a workplace with a counter-intuitive two-seats-for-every-employee concept. The primary “home-base” seats were in new-generation workstations in team clusters. The second seats were unassigned, and consisted of highly varied settings supportive of planned or spontaneous get-togethers for socialization, project work, idea development, progress reviews, etc. These open “social” environments gave the company a very rapid achievement of their new organizational model because people got to know each other easily, learning each others’ interests and coming to trust in each others’ skills and commitments.

Why does this matter? One of the key success factors uncovered in the McKinsey survey was that leading performers had knowledge of the skills and competencies of team members before they were selected to join a project. None of the project teams in the lower performing companies in their survey had knowledge of their fellow team members’ skill sets before their projects kicked off.

The workplace in our example also did away with the “entitlement” model of space assignment. The McKinsey study found that leading companies in product development minimized the distractions from the project that otherwise come from a focus on “job function.” We consistently find that “footprint status” metrics associated with title and function are among the great distractors in lagging companies.

Talking to the customer

We’ve periodically consulted over an extended period of time with both the winners and the losers in the realignment of the automotive industry that has been taking place. One of the factors we’ve tried to overcome with the underperformers is the sense that design is an ivory tower discipline. In these cases, studios have been closed environments where even exposure to other brands under the same roof is disallowed. Information about the customer and the state of the art in innovations that were attracting them was hard to find, and gained only through individual designer’s outside activities.

Proprietary knowledge, not-quite-ready-for-prime-time creations, and vendor integration all present challenges to more open environments for product design companies. Places and spaces, however, that assure the security of developments and the openness of teams yet allow the easy integration of the client in the process are relatively easy to achieve and are important components of leadership companies.

McKinsey’s study reflects other approaches to customer engagement, as well. The study showed that periodic contact to verify and validate customer preferences was a key and differentiating practice of leadership companies.

Where to go from here?

Conventional, functional descriptors of the spaces and places where creative work is done cannot lead to the kind of workplace that will support the culture and practices characterizing market-leading companies. Planning and design processes that shed corporate paradigms and develop a new spatial lexicon will yield a better understanding how people work and what works for these businesses. Workspace concepts generated in this way will deliver early and sustained success in the transformations that generate leadership.

The McKinsey survey confirms some general design principles and approaches –

  • Always consider designing information-rich dedicated team spaces, but especially when speed is essential and resources are spare. Access to knowledge, speed of communications, self-correcting conditions and project focus delivers differential performance results.
  • Innovation is achieved through an inherently social culture characterized by the open exchange of information and the integration of diverse disciplines. Assure that your workspace has a diversity of settings to support and sustain casual interactions among individuals. Accept that work looks different, now.
  • Invite your clients and customers into your workspace. Make places where they can be comfortable and want to linger, and where you can be comfortable that they and other outsiders who need to be part of the process are not inappropriately intruding.

We’ll come back to this later, to reflect more on research we’ve done on places for innovation and some of our recent work on the start-up phases of innovators.

Work looks different, now

Image from "Playtime" by Jacques Tati One of the mantras we’ve used in developing new workplace designs for organizations dependent on creativity for their differentiation and performance is that “work looks different, now.”

This is a formulation meant primarily for senior executives and for the facilities teams who serve them. We use it to open their eyes and minds to the fact that innovation – whether in the office, the lab, or the shop – is inherently social. Yet, the traditional and conventional lexicon of workplace planning and design does not support a social workplace.

To say it another way, it is our belief that conventional workplace planning and design approaches retard organizational development, inhibit the performance of teams, and so burden the organization that they are effectively surrendering leadership ground in their industry to others.

To say that yet another way, new approaches to workplace planning and design can deliver the commitment, engagement, collaboration and performance that supports competitive differentiation and leadership positioning.

The workplace transformation imperative

This was a consideration of critical importance before this latest Great Compression (our recent economic collapse and its workplace and real estate effects) and much more critical if companies want to rise in it and achieve or sustain leadership out of it.

If companies had not already invested in their workplace to reflect the new world of work before the recession they may, without new action, be left behind in the new and next economy. Investment in a new kind of workplace has already been shown to deliver differential margins in both substantial cost reduction and top line growth.

Professional expertise, surveys and stories about the impacts of new workplace models have already indicated a significant trend toward a new kind of workplace enabled by technology, facilitated by enlightened HR policies, and supported by better concepts for workstyle agility. Where more open and non-territorial environments were once resisted, all generational segments of the workforce, including the critical and essential brainpower and energy at the Boomer and Gen Y "bookends," are now asking for workplace design transformation.

So, “work looks different, now.”

Designing with the social brain in mind

In addition to the developments noted in practice, there is a body of research supporting what we are seeing in these trends.

I appreciated a recent article in Bain & Company’s Strategy + Business publication – “Managing with the Brain in Mind: Neuroscience research is revealing the social nature of the high-performance workplace.” Reflecting on research done at UCLA into the social processes of the brain, David Rock says that “the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system.”

Okay, before going on, look around your workplace. If we experience the workplace first and foremost as a social system, what are the places and spaces in your workplace that support this social system?

Rock makes a key formulation he gives the acronym SCARF. Based on neuroscience research and findings related to key performance factors, he identifies the social factors of the workplace that are significantly influential in differential business performance – status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness –

  • Status, a comparative value, contributes to a sense of survival and is a factor in longevity and health
  • Certainty has the potential of building confidence and dedication
  • Autonomy and the ability to set one's own directions is significant in the reduction of stress
  • Relatedness, or feeling part of a social group, is a key component to collaboration
  • Fairness, and the trust that it nurtures, is essential to engagement and motivation

It would be very interesting to develop a linked design vocabulary – a lexicon of form – to each of these components to study and test the influence of the design of place on workplace performance. We can speculate on what might be successful, and have used certain design concepts in our work in an intuitive approach that has yielded anecdotal confirmation of the research and findings that Rock cites. Some considerations for discussion –

  • Status, or entitlement, has been the principal guiding influence on conventional workplace planning and design standards. The hierarchy of status has been reflected in who gets offices and whose spatial footprint is larger. Status, however, can be corrosive on corporate purpose and value and destructive of the social environment essential to high performance. In our work, we have sought to reduce these footprint entitlements. We have generated corporate standards or, better, guidelines, based on functional requirements rather than title, and have tended to reduce measurable factors of individual title or corporate role. Instead, by designing the overall environment to reflect the values, goals and purposes of the organization, we have generated very unique places that gain their status by comparison to the outside, to competitors. We contribute to the health and longevity of the organization and its people by building a pride and status that is not internally competitive but that supports the socialization that is about teams and teaming and the differential outcomes of their work in their industry.
  • We've seen the development of the functional program of workplace – the allocation, mix and relevance of its spaces – as a potential contributor to the certainty that the research credits with a response in a differential dedication to the organization by its people and teams. We believe that when organizations tell us that what they value includes teamwork, or innovation, or continuous learning, or speed, or transparency, or community engagement, then we need to respond with recommendations of the types of spaces that reflect those cultural attributes and values in authentic and effective ways. In our space programs for creative organizations, it is rare that you'll find a conventional "conference" room, for example, but you'll find lots of places, both closed and open, where teams can dwell and work on projects together. You'll rarely see "training" rooms, but you'll see lots of people working together in informal one-on-one sessions where effective contextual knowledge transfer is taking place.
  • In much of our work, the workplace has become significantly lighter. In order to support autonomy, and agility, we've felt that the arrangement of the workplace should be flexible and adaptable to meet the changing needs of individuals and teams over time as the nature and styles of their work changes. Wireless networks, wheeled furniture, alternative work settings, and a skew to the collective over the individual all contribute to active, agile and responsive teams. We also find that, as a corollary,  internal mobility is perhaps more important than external mobility in the new workplace.
  • We've always believed that development of a shared culture is an essential component to the trust that enables effective collaboration, and the research appears to confirm that. That shared culture seems to develop in unstructured ways. We observe it with staff clustered in dining spaces and we see it with executives chatting in corridors. Incidental, unprogrammed, spontaneous social exchanges about the game, the spouse, or the TV program may be the most effective factors in organizational cohesion. We'll call a space a "cafe" because it needs to be more than a kitchen. And we'll pepper the workplace with open spaces with different furniture settings because this kind of exchange takes place when it needs or wants to and not necessarily over a cup of coffee.
  • We make workplaces that are open and more than metaphorically "transparent." This openness contributes certainly to the socialization of the place. It also contributes to the perception of fairness. When almost all can be seen, and much overheard, a culture of participation and engagement begins to take place. With nothing apparently hidden, and with a high degree of workplace egalite in space allocations, the openness reduces suspicions and anxieties.

Our work has been informed, yet is  intuitive. As more research is done and the implications on the designs of the workplace are more understood, we expect there to be an accelerating evolution in the look and form of offices and labs. With the kind of research cited in the Strategy+Business article and the confidence it can give to companies contemplating an essential workplace transformation, it may provide a timely catalyst to action.

Indeed, the ability to intentionally address the social brain in the service of optimal performance will be a distinguishing leadership capability in the years ahead. David Rock

© Jim Meredith/MEREDITH Strategy & Design LLC

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Five considerations for the places and spaces of the square-shaped organization

02_28_10 I’ve become increasingly interested in the spatial implications of what I’ve been calling the “square shaped organization.” But before getting to space, let me explain this term.

We have for so long tended to think of the classical modern organization as triangular or pyramidal in form. That is, we see them shaped by a relatively small leadership group at the top of the organization, a proportionally larger middle management rank, and employees in various staff roles forming a large base. This organizational design is now more typical of command-and-control enterprises.

Professional and creative services organizations have traditionally and typically had more of a diamond shape. That is, there is still a relatively small leadership composed of partners in the organization, a broad middle band of associated professionals, but then a relatively small number of support staff.

The spatial and formal footprints of each of these organizations have also been different. The pyramidal organization, usually large and spread across many properties in a portfolio, typically centers in a headquarters building and, most classically, this is a high rise. The corporate officers are on the top floors, the middle management fills in the tower, and the staff is mostly out at regional or manufacturing sites. In the more enlightened of these organizations, management ranks have been typified by the higher levels of middle managers getting offices in the interior of the plan, and the others in this processing and production group organized in hierarchically assigned space in an open plan “cube farm.”

Most of the professional firms have also liked the high rise form for their offices. Although smaller in scale and filling only a few floors of the tower, these firms have nonetheless organized hierarchically. Power is reflected in the assignment of corner and perimeter offices as in the form of the top ranks of the pyramid organization. Associates also get offices, but in many cases, these are located to the interior and with the distinction of not having views and natural light. Support staff and support functions fill in the great middle ground of the floor plan.

But this organizational form is changing. Over the past few months there have been stories about layoffs in law firms, architectural firms, advertising agencies and other similar organizations appearing almost every day of the week. Reading into these reports, it is surprising to see how single layered most of these reductions are. That is, the “associate” ranks seem to be the place of the largest portion of change.

With neither a clear command structure nor a significantly measurable support staff, the organization appears flat and non-hierarchical—they’ve become “square shaped.”

Combined with the adoption of more flexible workstyles enabled by technology, places and spaces that have characterized these organizations no longer make much sense. So what are the implications for space planning for square-shaped organizations? I’d offer these:

It’s now about how things get done, not about who does them Well, before getting to that, who does what is certainly much more important in this new organizational form. The thinness of the organization in most cases means that specialists now compose the firm. But the resources available to them to do stuff are now much more limited. The isolation of practice areas, the dedication of administrative support to individuals or small groups, the accessibility of support, and other characteristics of the recent past are no longer sustainable. To get things done, I believe these organizations need to become much more transparent, that is, much more visually connected.

Design for collaboration, not for direction The new composition of the organization means that older modes of production no longer apply. Just as office technology has put more productivity and in the hands of the professional, the thinning of the ranks of the middle ground in these firms also pushes more production responsibility “upward.” Counterintuitively, this also seems to be making work more diverse. Specialization of knowledge and reduction in production support means that work looks different now. In addition to focused work and production, the professional is increasingly engaging, motivating, and innovating with peers. Effective and productive work now includes socialization, collaboration, mentoring and learning, and these activities need appropriate places and spaces to be effective.

It’s now about place, not about power That is, it’s a good idea to reconsider place-making. In a firm, a community, of peers, and with the need to support more diverse workmodes, not only does work look different now, but place can (must?), too. The expressive vocabulary of the workplace is no longer binary, open or closed. The need to communicate, coordinate and collaborate breaks down walls. The office begins to look more like a city, a community of practice, where the articulation of what you do and how you do it shapes the look and feel of where you do what you do.

Express activities and rituals This is a long overlooked opportunity that I think now has greater relevance in the new organizational form. There will be a set of rituals, a cadence of events, that comes to define what differentiates the organization and supports how things get done. The places where these take place now are found by labels on doors—“conference room”—in otherwise undifferentiated space. The activities of the evolving place are about actions—collaborating, integrating, innovating—and not about hierarchy or formal processes. The right spaces for these activities may call for, or certainly accommodate, new forms and expressions. They can be as distinctive as churches, schools and factories in the urban landscape.

It’s a great opportunity to become a brand The design of these firms in the past has been about style, not about substance. That is, the organizational form was so consistent across these professions, that the formal vocabulary used in planning them became common. What differentiated one from the other was essentially the name on the reception walls and the materials used in the office halls. This new form, however—of specialization, collaboration, ritual, and differential place-making—offers the opportunity to professional services firms, and other organizations evolving to look like them, to be read as distinct brands. Whoever walks into these places will see what is different, and walk away with a visual impression that reinforces the unmistakable differences between them.

If there is this opportunity for a shift in the planning and design vocabulary for the evolving square-shaped organization, and if the firms of this new generation take advantage of this opportunity to see the world as fundamentally different, then other things also begin to evolve and change as well. The office building of today becomes obsolete. Where we choose to do work is less centered. Standards are not. Real estate shifts significantly. But more on this later.


A postscript--

Just found this discussion today in Harvard Publishing's HBR Editor's Blog. It seems to be an interesting affirmation of the underlying shift in values and perceptions that might inform this shift in planning I address above.

What will help corporations survive? Here is Handy's prescription:

"....what enables a corporation to succeed in the longer term is a wish for immortality, or at least a long life; a consistent set of values based on an awareness of the organization's own identity; a willingness to change; and a passionate concern for developing the capability and self-confidence of its core inhabitants, whom the company values more than its physical assets. I suggest that those conditions are best met when organizations live up to the literal meaning of the word company--"the sharing of bread"--and regard themselves as communities, not time, the laws governing corporations will change to reflect (this) new reality." ("Looking Ahead," HBR September 1997)

So what does the future of the organization look like? In one of his very first books, Gods of Management: the Changing World of Organizations, Handy advanced the idea that the best organization operates most like a village--a place where people equally contribute their skills for the good of the whole, where culture matters most, where the initiative is bottom-up, where the shareholders are the people who do the work. "Villages are small and personal, and their inhabitants have names, characters and personalities," he wrote. "What more appropriate concept on which to base our institutions of the future than on the ancient organizational social unit whose flexibility and strength sustained human society through millennia?"

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5 key factors guiding workplace investment for a faster, more robust recovery

One of the most prevalent concepts in industrial and corporate management is the concept of “lean” production. After carefully analyzing processes, leading manufacturers and producers find ways to eliminate barriers, increase efficiency, reduce waste and the cost of waste, improve the quality of jobs and the performance of people, and generate products that provide greater satisfaction and value. In this time of great anxiety about the direction of the economy and the search for places to cut costs and make meaningful investment, I am surprised by what seems to be a persistent failure to understand lean principles in knowledge work. Working with some of the largest manufactures, product marketers, and industrial designers, I am amazed by the persistent application of workplace planning standards that have lost relevance, and the refusal to consider investment in approaches that have been proven to deliver higher productivity—that is, engagement, purpose, commitment, satisfaction, innovation and effectiveness.

I understand the resistance to spend. The notion that a more desirable workplace could yield profitable activity is immediately rejected by facilities personnel and project managers whose sole measure these days is (apparent) cost reduction. I believe, however, that this approach, in many cases, actually embeds persistent cost in the organization’s operations and causes repetitive “right-sizing”—the elimination from the portfolio of the knowledge resources that, more appropriately engaged, would yield leadership in the market and in profitability.

I am generally confident that—

  • Most people don’t require more than about 30 square feet to perform 80% of their tasks efficiently—but corporate facilities standards persistently give them 2 to 10 times that amount of space
  • A high partition surrounding an individual means that individual is not effectively engaged in the purpose and work of the company—if I can’t visually connect with you, waste persists; if your behaviors in the openness interrupt me, you are in the wrong place for what you are doing
  • Most valuable work of leading organizations takes place out of the office or cubicle—in my own case, I’ve come to believe that every hour I spend in my office is more than two hours of lost value to my company
  • As a corollary, our research shows that individual workspaces are unoccupied 40% to 60% of the day—let’s see…$X per square foot times the workstation standard allocation times 50% effectiveness times how many employees time an effectiveness quotient equals how many dollars in lost space productivity?
  • If the only spaces in your organization are labeled “office” and “workstation” and “conference room” you are losing ground in your market—these are about separation and formality in a world that is moved by informality, connectivity, and speed
  • If your people are more connected outside of work than in work, you ought to question your management, planning and technology policies—I learn from my colleagues, and then use what I learn to the value of my client and the position of my company

I think that these things matter, measurably—

  1. Work looks different, now—and so must the workplace
  2. Openness generates profits—opacity is a sign of fraud
  3. Socialization yields the majority of corporate innovation
  4. Focus is a selective activity—collaboration is the dominant activity
  5. Training is a waste—the casual mentoring conversation is where value is created

In all of this, a lighter (leaner) workplace may be the most effective tool to an accelerated recovery and a sustainable leadership. Strip your workplace of weight and rise up the charts.

More later.

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