MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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

Filtering by Tag: workspace

What is "workplace" design?

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

The client’s strategic context

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

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

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

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

Strategy Design – Design Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

Brand Repositioning

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

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

Employee experience

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

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

Design principles

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

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

Design vocabulary

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

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

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

Prototype templates

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

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

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

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

Turning point

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

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

Stay tuned.

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

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

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

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

Reactionary work dominates the daily agenda

A well-designed open office is not a simple thing. How visual connections affect disruptive behavior, how sound masking supports attention in the midst of buzz, how a choice of alternative settings also provides places for focus, and other concepts support the interactions of productive team work yet also the solitude and focus of productive individual work should be part of the exploration that creative organizations make before making the error of believing the design of workplace is a binary, open-or-closed choice, or even that the problems of conventional open approaches are a given.

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Everything about the design of the office has just changed

Everything about the design of the office has just changed

Via comes a bit of news that changes everything about the design of the workplace and, I'd offer, everything about conventional corporate real estate.

“Steve Ballmer has an 80-inch tablet in his office. He’s got rid of his phone, he’s got rid of his note paper. It’s touch-enabled and it’s hung on his wall...It’s his whiteboard, his e-mail machine...and it’s a device we’re going to sell.

“The idea that there should be a screen that’s not a computer, we’ll laugh at that in two years.

“Every screen should be touch, every screen should be a computer and should be able to see out as well as see in. That is the way the world is heading [and] those screens are going to be big, small, wall-sized and desk-sized.”

Imagine an "office" with a tool of this scale. Imagine what teamwork looks like with tools like this. Heck, imagine what "individual" work looks like if you don't have tools like this.

What's a desk anymore? Really. Imagine working in a piddling 10' x 15' office with your IT department's standard issue. Imagine being left out as everybody else gathers around the people manipulating the 80" displays. Heck, imagine what "individual" work is, anymore.

Okay. Now imagine work under an 8-foot ceiling.

Everything about work has changed, but very little of the workplace has.

Now, it will.

4 approaches to slowing things down in order to get out front

4 approaches to slowing things down in order to get out front

Weeknotes, May 26, 2012

Yet again this week, considerations about being “ahead” of our clients were in our thinking. This is a relatively complex place to be.

Being ahead of our clients is a condition of being ready to propose concepts and solutions before they have come to an awareness or comprehension of the information that they need in order to make good decisions.

Being ahead of our clients is also an issue of envisioning the concepts and solutions that we are confident will be greatly helpful to them in their enterprise, while they may not yet be ready to accept the “risk” of investing in concepts that leap over the intervening decades of development in workspace thinking since their last workplace design project.

They are typically constrained by a variety of factors – low confidence in making a bold move, perceptions of politics in the organization that may imply risk in bringing new ideas forward, lack of exposure or familiarity with the benefits that could be captured from available concepts and potentials, and other factors. Most of these, it seems, arise from having spent too long in one place managing an existing set of resources without having contact with a world of workplace management thinking and workspace design insight that has moved place-making rapidly forward.

We, however, are generally unconstrained as we enter the situation. We have been working for decades on similar issues. We bring to the current context a cumulative set of investigation, speculation, experimentation, innovation and implementation derived from a succession of clients from a spectrum of domains and with diverse challenges and objectives. This body of experience makes us eager to apply what we’ve learned to each new project.

The challenge, then, is how to reconcile these two very different states of readiness. How do we avoid, as we begin to understand our client’s mindset, adjusting our approach to aim only for the middle or getting stuck in the middle because we must produce while our client learns? How do we, realizing we’ll be unable to achieve the excitement and satisfactions from delivering an advanced concept, avoid disappointment and disinterest in the current context? How does our client avoid disappointment and disillusionment with the eventual realization, on moving in, that they could have aimed further out, should have been carried further out by their designers?

Slowing the process to get out front – 4 approaches

There may be other approaches that can help resolve this dilemma, but here are four to think about and test –

What has your experience been? Have you used these approaches and have they been successful? What other approaches would you suggest? Let us know in the comments, or by email.

Slow the conversation to enrich the solution – In most of our experience, the design team comes to a much more satisfying solution if our client has engaged a creative “consulting” team first. The biggest barrier to breakthrough results is a poorly defined problem. And a poorly defined problem is typically a facilities problem – deliver so much square feet of space for this many people at this budget for this fee in this time. None of that problem definition says anything about what you are trying to do as an organization as you strive to bring value to the world. Start by engaging a curious team who want to know more about your company, your culture, your purpose, and how you are different. Engage a team that is especially interested in your perception of the behaviors of your staff that represent your leadership goals, and the experiences you think they should have that will engage them in achieving your purposes. Develop, and rigorously apply, a set of guiding principles and success metrics – The goal of your project is not to be “on time and on budget.” Goals and objectives like that mean that the project team is working only for themselves. Instead, prepare and present a briefing on the mission of your organization, the values it holds dear, the purpose it fulfills for its customers, and the challenges it faces. Then engage your design team in an extended discussion around those subjects and ask them to generate a set of guiding principles that will lead them to measurable solutions targeted to advance your organization’s purpose. Generate and test a good range of alternative concepts – Allocate sufficient resources inside and outside the organization to explore alternatives. Alternative concepts can help to more rigorously define the problem, significantly clarify intentions and develop metrics that matter, engage more in the process and uncover latent or politically hidden problems that restrain organizational performance, and develop solutions that are more creative and more innovative and that return much more for the investment about to be made. Build a network of inputs around outcomes – I believe that, among the most important disciplines of those who seek to serve their organizational purposes better, one is to build a rich network with others who have done, or who themselves are in the midst of, a workspace transformation project. There can be rich rewards in asking tough questions about what the workspace is intended to do, what link there is between those purposes and what was designed, and what now is taking place in the organization as a result. I have been especially surprised that, in more than two decades of practice, I have never heard of a potential client calling one of references, inviting him or her out to lunch, and asking about how their organization is performing as a result of our work.


As a postscript, there is, in all of this, the inherent problem of corporate purchasing. Inherent in projects solicited by an RFP and awarded through competing proposals are faults of trust and speed. The people who will ultimately occupy the spaces we design will have been, usually, poorly served by an internal function that uses a process that squeezes resources for everybody engaged in the process. The spareness of resource allocation demanded by the procurement process means a speed in execution that, in turn, means that users will not be engaged in the discovery and design process, facility managers will be unable to change direction or enrich the planning and design process as their awareness of the mis-aimed intentions of the RFP become revealed, and we as designers will be unable to do much more than speculate about the real organizational purpose and goal and apply a templated solution and cross our fingers in hopes of the best for all.

The dream setup – getting to a workplace design that supports the way work is done

If you haven't already checked it out, The Setup is a great little site, answering the question of what people use to get things done.

Although a bit on the geeky side, I always find its entries to be an excellent reflection on the workspace. Each of its posts is a single person answering a stock set of questions about who the person is and what they do, what hardware and software they use to do their work, and what their dream setup would be.

In a bit of a delightful mashup today, I found this description of a dream setup below and the [unconnected] photo above.

Someday perhaps I will go around carrying only a book, a change of clothes, a pen, a water bottle, a folding umbrella, and a little capsule that turns into my livelihood when opened. Rollable hi-res screen and keyboard, tiny computer the size of a cell phone or smaller but as light as a pen, with high-speed satellite connectivity anywhere on the globe. In this world, my sleeping bag, pad and windproof hammock weigh only a pound put together. For half of the year I travel the world, alone and with companions, with a small bag slung over my shoulder like Kwai Chang Caine. We sleep outdoors, travel on trains, and a few days of the week sit some place cozy and create beautiful software or solve interesting problems that improve the world.

I had just finished a programming and design workshop today with a client concerned about "going too far" in providing a significantly lighter and more agile environment for its staff, despite a strategic imperative to change its culture, its organizational design, and its operating processes, and to leverage that change to recruit top global talent in service to a mission to improve the world.

Some of what I believe to be the biggest barriers to change in organizations are the organizations that provide the places where the enterprise does its work. The reflective model of The Setup might be a good tool to use to understand the defining workspace interests of the emerging generation of creative and innovative people.

The Space – How Abbey Road informs the workplace

I recently found this truly delightful appreciation of the Abbey Road studios where some of the great music by the Beatles was recorded.

It's a long report on a talk and conversation with the authors of a major book on the Beatles, Recording the Beatles. The conversation rotates around music recording and the relationship of space, place and technology to the sound of a record.

We are, of course, in a time in which technology enables recording almost anywhere, and does not even require musicians to be in the same place or even record at the same time together. Recordings from Abbey Road studios, however, had a certain rich quality of sound that characterized the Beatles and certain other recordings made there by Pink Floyd, The Hollies, The Pretty Things, and others.

Most of this was because in days before digital recording techniques, the space where the music was recorded mattered. One of the authors, commenting on Abbey Road says, "you had to make sure the source material was as good as it could be. So they laboured over making the rooms as sonically pleasing as they could be, and that room is unique – everything sounds good in it.”

That "unique room" at the core of this appreciation is Studio Two at Abbey Road– "The Space."

It's a concept that's almost disappeared from pop recording: the space, the room. Plenty of modern music, of course, has no need for physical space, its sound-world being entirely virtual. But any record which uses traditional instruments, or features ensemble playing, can benefit from a sympathetic room – and not because of any inherent superiority in “organic” recording (much of the best work done at Abbey Road, in fact, specifically aimed to alter or subvert the live sound). It's more that the basic discipline of musicians working together in one clearly-defined space - where things sound good from the off and can be tweaked and enhanced from there - creates a certain mood, a fire which doesn't quite catch when records are pieced together over many months in a chaos of different studios, or in one of those secluded capsules with no ambience, no sound of its own.

What a fantastic reminder about the power of place and space! Most of the spaces where we work are the products of considerations that are very remote and abstract, and far from this kind of sensitivity to the "tuning" of the space and thoughtfulness about people "working together in a clearly-defined space." Imagine what's lost as a result.

Or rather, imagine how Abbey Road informs the workplace. Imagine the potential creativity and output that could be had by "making the source material as good as it could be" and by "laboring over making the rooms as pleasing as they could be."

Imagine a workplace designed for "the basic discipline of people working together in a clearly-defined space."

How car dealers uncovered a surprising key to greater customer satisfaction


One of the more active and heated debates on the value of design to business is over what are called "factory image programs" for car dealerships.

Most car manufacturers, concerned about the alignment of dealership appearance with their product programs, periodically impose or strongly influence updates to the physical quality and character of dealers' facilities. Most dealers resist the programs because they are unable to link a measurable business benefit like increased sales to the high cost of these programs.

So the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) commissioned an independent study to uncover and identify the value in the programs and recommend a resolution to the ongoing conflict between them and the manufacturers. The study was just released at the annual NADA convention a couple of days ago.

I expect I'll return to comment further on the study in the near future. But I did want to offer an initial and very interesting out-take from the study.

After discussing the diverse and complex array of considerations and influences that made solid conclusions almost impossible to derive, and especially after uncovering that the annual costs of billions of dollars spent on dealership facilities meant very little, if anything, to people buying the cars, the study uncovered an unanticipated yet solidly expressed value in the programs.

…dealers expressed pleasant surprise that, after they completed a store upgrade, it became much easier to attract, retain, and motivate good staff. One multi-point dealer even told us that "I modernize as much to attract good staff as to impress the customers." Another pointed out that with improved employee morale came improved CSI scores, which makes sense. The impact seemed especially powerful in the service area: as one interviewee put it: "A dropped ceiling in the service bays will do wonders in attracting and retaining good technicians, who are pretty used otherwise to being ignored."

Despite the experiential evidence that there was this direct link between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction (CSI = Customer Satisfaction Index), there apparently has been no survey by the manufactures or the dealer association to uncover and verify these anecdotal, and logical, findings.

And I think that's where I'll return in future commentary. I have some significant experience in factory image programs and have consistently been surprised with the fact that they align things (store fixtures) with things (car designs) but not the real experiences with and in these things.

That to me is the most important point of this study, affirming what we know from other places. The real power of workplace design lies not in the "brand image" but in the experiences of work. The quality and character of the workplace directly links to attraction, engagement, morale, motivation and performance of good employees, and that directly links to quality and character of the customer's experience with the organization.

The NADA has, in other words, discovered what we've said in so many other places – the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who "own" the experiences of work.

Things we've noticed

How. And why. Not what.

This is a very nice piece on enjoying the "how" and "why" in the process of answering a challenging question rather than rushing to the "what," the answer.

The process of answering a question should be a voyage of discovery, a journey during which you learn something, and one where you enjoy yourself in the process.

The essay made me think about the invisible processes in business, and also how the places of businesses are not designed around the how and why. If the design and planning of workspaces made clearer the purposes of the enterprise, and if the processes people and teams used to get to the what were more transparent and observable, would an organization learn more, create more valuable knowledge, and achieve more?

What innovators share

Somewhat related to the above is this review in the Ottawa Business Journal of a recent book on the "innovator's DNA." The review reflects on the power of "the five whys" while also noting the five distinguishing characteristics of successful innovators.

associating, observing, questioning, experimenting and networking

We'd found our way this week, in the midst of our own annual strategic planning, to a discussion about the uniqueness of the places and spaces where innovation seems most successful. As I carry the images of those spaces, I'm making a resolution to shape our design mission – our client's "program" or "design brief" for their corporate workspace – into a form that links workspace concepts to these 5 attributes.

That is, since most of our clients are engaged in a search for how to generate and support a more entrepreneurial culture, I intend to test a change of the lexicon of workplace design from conventional descriptors of corporate organization and function ("accounting") and conventional workplace form ("conference room") to new terms reflecting these innovation behavior attributes.

I expect that radical transformations in design processes and concepts will emerge.

Augmented reality

There are many things to enjoy and reflect on in this proposal of trends for 2012 from the Smithsonian here and here.

I expect I'll come back to the list for further exploration and comment, since I stopped almost immediately at the first subject, augmented reality.

In a recent project, we found transformative approaches to design through our slogan of "augment, amplify, activate." A client had a new workspace designed by others, but then found it experientially flat. It satisfied the organizations, functions and facility metrics of the enterprise, but did nothing to change their culture and performance, which was the purpose of the project in the first place. Our slogan was a motivator to the occupiers and the designers to explore conceptual modifications to support behavioral change and development.

This sense of "augmentation" seems like a rich territory for exploration in design. A while back I had speculated on "the autoupdating workspace." And more recently, a colleague raised a question about augmented reality which made me think in entirely different terms about the "productivity" of both the principal artifact of our service, digital "drawings," and the activities that take place in the spaces and places we design. I've become increasingly interested in how to build layers on top of our digital design information and capture digital information from the physical spaces we design.

The Race Against the Machine

Related to the above, I've just finished reading Race Against the Machine, and am now both tremendously excited as well as terribly frightened.

The motivation for me is to begin to imagine the role of the workspace in assuring the race with the machine. Finding a strengthening signal in the requests we are getting from clients, there is an accelerating realization that space supports enterprise sustainability, but this is increasingly tied to the changes in the way we work together because of the extraordinary acceleration of technology.

We are now attracted to, and attractive to, clients whose enterprise is shaped around technologies that, yes, automate creativity. These enterprises are now, or soon will be, seeking spatial solutions well beyond the most advanced corporate real estate solutions.

The Singularity

And, of course, this.

Focus groups

I am not sure about this, but can't stop thinking about it. That is, is Facebook a relevant a valuable data source for workspace design? It seems so logical to "crowdsource" criteria and concepts for a satisfying and uniquely productive work do we best do it?

...and, in case you were wondering

Why humans have chins

Have you thought about the design of your workspace in the same way that Steve Jobs must have?

So, imagine that - after transforming computing, communications, music and publishing, what's in the works after 13,000 people go to work in this new building? Have you thought about your workspace in the same way that Steve Jobs must have?

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Why the "office" no longer matters

Metropolis mag had this article today on Going Paperless in med schools. The Yale School of Medicine is giving each of its student an iPad to use in classroom and clinic. They will simultaneously eliminate all paper materials, which have burdened the institution with cost of more than $100,000 per year.

The article reflected on the potential impact on the traditional image of the bookbag toting student. I think the real impact of moves like this will not, however, be on the campus but on the workplace.

After huge numbers of university students spend the next couple of years without paper class materials, they will emerge into and finally fully transform the workplace. Their methods of working, communicating, collaborating and achieving will mean that they will approach the conventional workspace with a look of critical curiosity, wondering what this strange construct called the "modern" office is all about.

What I find especially significant here is that every day major investments are being made by corporations and institutions in workspaces that are losing value at an increasing rate. Designed for individuals processing paperwork, they are already irrelevant to how work is done today.

Those misplaced investments remove employees from access to the resources that really matter, and rob the people who work there of potential to grow their capabilities and contribute greater value to the purpose and achievements of their organizations.

It is shocking that corporate leaders do not recognize and kill this waste, especially in an economy that needs sustainable resource utilization.

It is shocking that everything about work has changed but very little of the workplace has.

The power and potential of platforms and pathways in workspace design

The leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “get” the experiences of working. They will be organizations who understand that the emerging metric of performance, leadership and success is the growth in people’s potential driven by the effectiveness of the environments providing the experiences people seek and through which their organizations thrive.

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Walking cities and work swarms

The concept of "work swarms" and other forms of time-based or project-based collaboration evoked a recall recently of the concepts of the 1960's architectural collaborative known as Archigram.

More appropriately said, the concept for the Walking City devised by Ron Herron, offered a view of the potentials for technology that are only now, 50 years later, being realized.

Herron's concept imagined large ships of collectives of people and technology walking the landscape and applying knowledge, experience, expertise wherever it was needed and then moving off to other problems in other places. Peter Blake, writing in Architectural Forum in 1968, said,

Walking City imagines a future in which borders and boundaries are abandoned in favour of a nomadic lifestyle among groups of people worldwide. ...Walking City anticipated the fast-paced urban lifestyle of a technologically advanced society in which one need not be tied down to a permanent location. The structures are conceived to plug into utilities and information networks at different locations to support the needs and desires of people who work and play, travel and stay put, simultaneously. By means of this nomadic existence, different cultures and information is shared, creating a global information market ... (From the Archigram Archive)

Others have commented on certain similarities of the commercial structures of our more recent times, and the instant cities that enable the globalization of war. In seeking formal or operational similarities to the sketches and descriptions of Archigram, however, many are missing what seems to be the key, yet unrealized vision of the group. The concept of spaces that engage a full spectrum of experience for people who, freed from the bonds of place, are then able to contribute and share knowledge across the world is a concept that is still restrained by the behaviors and practices of management, by the "best practices" of the real estate industry, by the zoning of most cities, by the rise of the culture of security, and by a failure of imagination in the design profession.

I think the vision is not "architectural" in conventional terms, but that it is very much about the experiences that architecture supports and can provide. Archigram's Walking Cities are not battleships for the countryside, but are representations of a full and free set of sustaining experiences that enable people, dedicated to doing good things, to move to a place together that is not their home and and do work together untethered and unfettered by traditional or conventional policies and practices in the provision of place, space and technology. We know how to do this now without the heavy weight of Herron's land cruisers, but even they are much lighter than the physical infrastructure we now have to work with and in.

I am, in other words, still looking for a developer.

I am looking for a developer

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

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.

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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

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