MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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Metrics shmetrics

I am very appreciative of the ongoing shift in the metrics that matter to corporate real estate. I sense that among those responsible for providing work settings there is a growing appreciation of the importance of the variety of settings that people need to fulfill the purpose of the organization.

A good illustration of this value migration is the data presented in this article. Using better terms than the I/we personalization framework of the furniture industry, the data is built around a workplace activities framework of concentration, collaboration, and community.

via Work Design Magazine

via Work Design Magazine

How the design of your workplace blocks strategic thinking

Supporting and sustaining a long-term perspective is a high priority for most executives and boards. Yet, as reported in a recent McKinsey study, their inability to hold and respond to variable and varying time frames became a significant factor influencing stress and a loss of the strategic focus essential for innovation.

A surprising finding was that the greatest pressure on executives for evidence of short-term performance came not from their customers, competitors or investors, but from inside the organization from other executives and managers. Much of this pressure appeared to come from uncertainty about the future and the economy, but much of it also formed in the financial metrics the companies used.

The report recommended structural and cultural adjustments, and also a change in performance metrics. A key recommendation was to move to to narrative reports on strategic objectives and a longer period in financial reporting.

Looking toward the long term | McKinsey Global Survey 2013

We like the McKinsey recommendations but find them too focused on the needs of executives and boards. The reports around the board table will be much more satisfying if companies and organizations seeking higher performance and strategic differentiation also consider how the planning of the workplace is a more important asset. These companies should design a workplace that has the settings and the artifacts to support near-term work and provide a view of the longer strategic horizon.

Time and workplace design are misaligned.

Even though the cycles and patterns of work are changing continuously, the workplace remains a static environment – we have to work around a fixed set of conditions rather than shape our settings to the work that we do. What would happen to the workplace, what would happen to our work, if time were a factor in design?

We are increasing fascinated with the challenge to address time in the design of the workplace. That is, we see time cycles in work as increasingly varied – fast, slow, and spiky in character. In the course of any conventional metric of time – hour, day, week, month – our work is constantly shifting between projects that take a long time and modules of projects that need resolution before moving on. There are the tasks that take focus and separation, and there are the things that distract or attract us and grab our attention for a short period. There are things that become urgent and must be done now, overtaking things that are important but that have a different time frame.

It seems that a work culture with different and variable time horizons might become a higher performing culture if the workplace were designed to support it. If time were a factor influencing the design of the workspace, how might we respond?

Organizations with a more strategic time frame look different than organizations limited to short-term thinking

When we look at a conventional workplace, one planned and designed around entitlements relating to organizational design, we see a workplace in which the variable cycles and perspectives of innovation and performance are absent.

Workstations are designed for individuals doing repetitive production tasks, an increasingly rare job type. The gathering clutter in workstations might be signs of an increasing individual responsibility becoming overtaken by the tasks and artifacts of multiple projects, committee work, team work, periodic reporting, get-it-done-now tasks and other evidences of  roles with different time frames but the inability of the workplace to accommodate this asynchronicity.

When we make observations in those workplaces and reflect on survey data regarding occupancy and utilization, we see a workforce that nonetheless marks time in daily increments. Their inability to accommodate work flux seems to default people back to clock time. That is, we see a consistent pattern of an eight-to-five occupancy of the workplace, a perception of work and business that is shaped in day-to-day chunks, putting in time. Performance is weak. Innovation, perhaps not expected, is absent.

When we look at a more strategically-oriented and innovative workplace, one planned and designed around projects, we see an entirely different occupancy and utilization pattern. We see a more extended utilization of the work day and an improved responsiveness supporting the kinds of work that cannot be turned on and off like the task-based work of the conventional organization.

People in these organizations move from place to place to utilize the settings and tools that best support their work. Around them are a set of accessibly-located and well-designed amenities that allow them to maintain nutrition, fitness, social connections, and private pursuits while extending their work, as one executive told us, "to both ends of the day." Flow, in other words, is enhanced.  

Most significant is the experiential differentiation in these workplaces. Since their work is implemented in projects, the visible artifacts of those projects – products in development, timelines, process maps, customer and cultural data, and other visually expressed information – are everywhere. People gather around them, discuss them, and move off to other settings to apply what they’ve learned. These artifacts assure that their work has at least a project-long time frame. And, since they are set in a context of information and knowledge about customer and culture, they also have an inherent long-range and strategic frame.

How should we respond?

Here are a few questions that might help you as you try to accommodate the new ways of working that come from the increasing variability of job and task time in your work –

  • Look at key processes and chart their time frames Uncover the asynchronicity that constrains flow, reduces individual and team effectiveness, and that needs support.
  • Consider the artifacts and toolsets that are required for each type of work in each time pattern or cycle. How can settings better support the use of those artifacts?
  • Consider different ways of assigning space. Might ii be better for people to move to the settings that best accommodate their work as they move through a day or week rather than be assigned to a common workstation?

When people have the settings that allow them to dynamically adjust to the varying demands and time frames of modern work, they may then have the ability to consider both long-term and short-term objectives, design their day to fit, find places to contribute as needed, become more engaged in their work, and enhance both personal and organization performance and satisfaction.

Or, as a mentor of ours once said, "You can’t think big thoughts in small spaces."


Getting the setting right for success​


The tinge of privilege that infects Tyler Brule's arrogance may divert attention from what I think are some very appropriate observations about the settings where we do our work.

There are things that we all sense immediately about a place, its light, its materials, its people, a chair. Just as immediately, if the feel is not aligned, we feel our attention move off target. Our mood, and no doubt those of the others we are with, shifts. What we eventually accomplish in our meeting seems diminished afterwards.

Brule's whole account about a recent meeting reduced by the wrong chair is delightful to read in its entirety (here). I can't, however, resist offering a portion of his rant –


There’s nothing the Fast Lane likes more than the following: doing things right the first time; discovering cosy, compact neighbourhoods dotted with well-run independent businesses; a good train journey accompanied by a few choice friends or colleagues, a fine bottle of wine and a satchel full of favourite magazines; fine residential architecture that favours function and useful materials; Tokyo, with its winning mix of food, service, retail and general wackiness; an immaculate Italian beach club not yet discovered by boisterous Russians; buttons, dials, knobs and switches; good lighting (dimmers on everything); airlines and hotels that get the basics right and don’t dazzle with unnecessary distractions and fussy details. And, finally, individuals who possess the commonsense gene should be encouraged.
At the same time, this column isn’t terribly fond of “foam”, “mist” and “fog” as descriptions for dishes on the menus of restaurants hoping for a Michelin star – these elements are best left along the coast, where they belong. Supersize prams, and the people who push them while talking on the phone and drinking a bucket of coffee, are generally a public menace. Cafés where people are plugged into headphones and staring at laptop screens rather than flirting with neighbours or watching the world go by are frightening and alienating.
Tech-industry hype is exhausting (was a news alert about the share price of a social media company really necessary at 8am Hong Kong time on Thursday?) and needs to cool down. This column also has little time for hosts who show up to meetings with drinks for themselves but fail to offer anything to their guests; a new generation of workers who aren’t aware that it’s much easier to pick up the phone to resolve a misunderstanding rather than sending 50 emails about it; the colour purple (closely followed by teal); goat’s cheese; watermelon; new socks that sag and shirts that have the second-to-top button in the wrong place so they gape and wilt. And, of course, people who don’t possess the commonsense gene


An autoupdating workspace?

A couple of influences this week evoked once again my great interest in how to conceive of a workplace that is continuously updated and enriched by the actions and adaptations of its users. There were, of course, the many reflections on the culture that Steve Jobs developed at Apple. I found interest in a video we’ve referenced before with this specific observation about the Apple design culture – Every time you present the user with a non-essential decision to make, you have failed as a designer.

It is easy to appreciate the meaning of this in the experience of Apple’s products, and in its retail environments. In architecture in other places, it conjures up Mies van der Rohe, Tadao Ando, Louis Kahn, and others. The work of each is beautiful in its sparseness, in its precision, in its critical attributes, in its reduction. It is also easy to imagine how these environments would be seen as disappointments to those who were not their direct commissioners.

The notion that google's Chrome was developed as a blank platform with an “autoupdater” that progressively enriched the platform is a great inspirational concept, too. An app gets progressively more valuable as the experience of thousands or millions informs its designers, providing the insights for its progressive development and enrichment.

Buildings learn, it seems, but rarely cumulatively. And in between the experience of the users of a building and its learning potential is an authoritarian structure charged with control and armed with the limiting tools of standards. Its role is unidirectional by intention, but even when embracing an interest in more progressive approaches it is under-resourced to effectively and accurately receive and respond to information coming from the direction of the occupier/user. The user is, of course, also under-resourced, without tools or opportunities to experiment or implement what they perceive to be better approaches to environments that might help them do their jobs better.

Designers are unintentional disappointments, as well. That is, the desire for recognition from peers, and for appreciation from users, frequently generates fully-loaded designs perceived as rich environments for their purpose but stripping the user of opportunity for authorship.

Is it possible, in then, to develop a workplace infrastructure in which the initial commission can be the minimally awesome product, and in which the users have resources and authority to make progressive adaptations based on a commitment to purpose and a goal of performance and the insights from ongoing experience?

What do you think?

Jim Meredith

Have you been there? Have you seen it?

I am going to go so far as to suggest that Occupy Wall Street as an anti-establishment movement has offers insights to guide planning and design principles of significant value to the establishment itself.

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