Inspiring the Work Environment by Design


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We have begun to touch on the components of a work environment that enable creativity to flourish and productivity to increase. Each of these components can make a difference, but when brought together with the right skill and intention, the effect is extraordinary. The environment is a holistic element of a complex, adaptive system. Jan Smuts, who coined the term “holism” in 1926, defined it as the “tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts”. What nature does without our intervention, we must do in man-made environments by design.

Yet looking at the actual designs around us today, we still see determined and rigid solutions in which spatial composition has been the main objective. There are many speculative real estate developments, for example, which do not consider any particular client’s needs and aim primarily at a maximum amount of anonymous rental office space. The same thinking often continues inside the company, where ignorance or a wish to save money results in anonymous rooms divided into identical workplaces.

The most common approach to office space still reckons with one workspace per person whilst imposing negotiation and meeting rooms are considered separately. Many of these individual and group spaces are regularly unoccupied. Meanwhile, the budget for furnishing the office is divided between personal workplaces and a representative zone, altogether forgetting the background zone. Yet, it is common knowledge that the coffee machine is the best communication tool and that the most productive moments at conferences are coffee breaks. Why is this forgotten while filling the office plan with desks and chairs?

And let’s think again about who uses modern office space: It is easy to agree that working practices have changed. Today’s office work no longer consists of only data entry and processing; the linear work arrangement has become parallel and serial, meaning we should be able us to use the worker, time, and space much more intensively. In addition, work is more creative, and most of the creative work is done in changing workgroups that require a flexible use of time and space: there is no more need for physically emphasised hierarchy. And of course everyone can see what mobile phones and laptops have done to our working time and workplace. So how do we see through these changes to the new requirements? What is the new model?

In HIVE, each individual performs a fixed task in the production chain – usually from nine to five. The work does not require interaction or autonomy; the space is divided into an endless number of identical working places. Thanks to automation this past typology is disappearing or changing into DEN-type, more intelligence-requiring activity, where teamwork is of primary importance. The space planning in a den-type office is mostly open, but there is still not much personal independence. The CELL-type is used mostly for work requiring concentrated thinking (lawyers, research centres) where workers have great autonomy in using their time and in the content of their work, but few possibilities for interaction.
It is believed that as information technology develops, the independent concentration type of work and project-based teamwork will be combined in most enterprises. In the new “transactional” office, both interaction and independence will be maximised. The metaphoric CLUB is a place where people gather and communicate, while the actual work is done somewhere else. It is predicted that more and more companies will begin to work like Hollywood film teams that are formed separately for each project.

The premise of the activity setting approach is that one place – an all-purpose workstation per person -no longer suffices.  Instead, people need multiple workplaces.  These specialized settings span the variety of -often contradictory – office worker requirements.  As tasks change, people move to various specialized activity settings.  This movement is healthy, it makes jobs more interesting and encourages participation in ad hoc temporary groups and greater use of specialized costly equipment.

Robert Kelley, 1985

Because today’s workspace must be a multi-task environment, serving many clients and many different knowledge tasks at once, and because different tasks have different spatial, emotional and tooling requirements, the contemporary environment should be designed to be both flexible and capable of being divided into specialized zones. Within each zone, there may be different sub-areas, each with its own use and feel. In addition, many of these zones can expand and contract, thus, they can be configured to be larger or smaller, to be part of or totally separate from each other as the work demands.

Looking beyond the allocation of space, remember that as a form of communication our environment can be denoted as being multi-sensory; visual, aural, tactile, spatial and so on: “The will of the epoch translated into space”. An effective working environment should inspire workers, showing them that they are needed, and express the distinctive face and values of the enterprise. An office should be a place with an aura of its own. (Contrast this with the kind of anonymous “non-places”, – planes, ships, airports, supermarkets and indeed offices with which we are increasingly surrounded, where the design aim seems to be to eliminate differentiation altogether).

Several principles and design goals drive the basic layout of an environment that communicates effectively: Its image must include a spatial pattern that relates objects within it, relates the environment to the observer, and to other objects in its surrounding community; it must exhibit an architectural grammar and geometry appropriate to its specific mission and fit within the grammar and style of its location; it must control its boundaries in terms of access, light, sound, sight lines, and it must do this without presenting a defensive posture. The environment must include spatial ambiguity – the high variety that creates interest. It must include sheltered places for quiet reflection as well as open spaces for collaboration and expansive thinking. Paths, boundaries, regions, nodes and landmarks add variety, flexibility, build relationships and communication and facilitate feedback and change. To be psychologically comfortable, an environment must be physically comfortable and allow variation in the colour and texture of the furniture, levels and quality of lighting, and acoustical environment.

The evolution of our working environments is an on-going challenge; neither patchwork fixes nor wholesale redesign will suffice in today’s rapidly changing world. As people expand their horizons, so too must the environment expand its ability to serve. Individual elements must be created which can be replaced when outgrown with new elements that still complement the entire system. Frank Lloyd Wright felt the task of the designer was to design for what people can become–to stretch people to reach their potential. Today’s knowledge workers require an environment that challenges them to reach both their own potential and that of their organization whilst also facilitating that progress. The designer must see and communicate through the environment its conscious ability to evolve.

Complex natural systems are our model for successful, creative, evolving work environments. Our daily workspaces must be engineered to be both organic and cybernetic, adjusting to user requirements minutely and without fanfare. Those of you who have worked with us on an Innovation Arts Design Session will recognize these principles ‘in miniature’ in the temporary, mobile environments that we establish for each session. It is for all the reasons described above that we insist on creating the right environment to support the work we do with you. Our dedicated team designs each environment specifically for each client and each challenge, and over the course of the Session it will shift and evolve to guide, mirror, or lead the participants’ journey as they collaborate on the task in hand.

The Uninspiring Office and the Bored Room


officeThe idea of architecture as a language – a form of communication that affects us – is in itself not new, but brings to our discussions another context for our cycle of understanding; how we observe, reflect and interpret. Architecture is the integration of form and space and those principles that control their organization and these elements are the basis of the experiential pattern language that envelops us in the workplace.

Architecture results from integrated acts of philosophy, art, engineering, craftsmanship and business and – when perfection is sought – allows no compromise between these disciplines. A good piece of architecture directly supports a specific concept of life and work style and acts as a physical, visual, tactile and symbolic guide for its inhabitants. Conversely, bad architecture can work in direct opposition to those inhabitants’ objectives and culture, as per the title of this post. This idea that a work of architecture can also be a productive or counterproductive tool of human economy is relatively new. What is also novel is the idea that the workplace can be an expression of living art, and that this is not only possible but necessary in today’s world.

If we are to design our workspaces with the intent of using the most effective architectural pattern language, we need to get under the skin of how everything speaks. The language of architecture is largely symbolic; specific shapes, forms and textures invoke particular meanings. Just as the expressionist movement in literature gave birth to analysis by metaphor and symbolism, so too has expressionism had its influence over architecture. The early 1920s bore testimony to this architectural influence where buildings were designed and constructed to express or symbolize their use thus aiming to integrate both form and content into a coherent, more meaningful whole, for example the Volkstheatre Project, 1921 or Einstein Tower Observatory, 1920.

In the book ‘Metaphors We Live by’, Lackoff and Johnson build a theory that we live and express ourselves in terms of metaphor. This notion will be examined in greater detail later when I will talk about what we mean by ‘Possibility’. However architecture provides some firm examples of this theory. The Renaissance movement provided this language, its masters drawing the (organic) parallels of buildings as life forms in themselves. A buiding rises up, or it lies in a particular way. It has a front and a back, a face, a silhouette, a profile. It has a heart, a nerve-centre. It has a top, a crown, related to the sky and a base, a foot, related to the ground. Windows look out. Doors open wide. Perhaps no building is more symbolic that Antoni Gaudi’s ‘Casa Batlló’ with its bone-like structure and death mask balconies symbolic of the human experience in Catalonia’s quest for independence.

The power of the metaphor here is great. As the imposing designs of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque all inspire superlative adjectives, so too are the feelings they stir in the soul. Compare this symbolism with that of most modern corporate architecture and it is little surprise they pale in significance, often inhuman, dead, faceless structures.

Intentionally or otherwise we have in recent times ignored the language of architecture in our workplaces, the timeless way of building as Christopher Alexander calls it, at the expense of functionalism. Our offices are uninspiring. That they are a mish-mash of metaphors at best cannot be denied. That they are malapropisms is probably just as correct.

So, back to the Bored Room, and our quest to bring to a powerful and inspiring voice to workspace architecture. Generally speaking, todays offices are boring places, at least from the point of view of art, design and architecture. Yet, they are precisely the places where many of us spend most of our productive time. How did we get here? Many contemporary ideas about the office date from the times of the industrial revolution, when accountants were gathered into office buildings erected next to the factories. The economic strategies that had modernised the industry were directly transferred into the paperwork. It was a simple, clear and very unambiguous procedure that followed the same assembly line principles governing the action in the factory halls. The office was a master class of simultaneity; the system functioned only when all its parts were in place – from nine a.m. to five p.m.

Alvin Toffler said in 1985 that:

“the corporate environment has changed so swiftly and fundamentally in the past two decades that structures designed for success in an industrial environment are almost by definition inappropriate today.”

Over thirty years on, and whilst those changes have done nothing but accelerate our workspaces have barely evolved at all. The time for us to take back control of our surroundings own us is long overdue.

A rich, varied environment, with ample communication, continuous learning, rapid feedback, knowledge management, and readily available tools are key to eliminating the barriers to human creativity and increasing productivity. Flexible space, open areas, new types of furniture and complex technological systems will increase the amount of informal communication that is necessary to develop communities of practice and build networks. There is inherent value in people from all levels of the organization working in close proximity to each other. In designing this new type of environment, we must go beyond incremental or even major changes to existing workplace designs. We need something unique, innovative, and totally new.

Frozen Music (II)


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In the previous post we saw how architecture embodies the dichotomy of holism versus reductionism, and how its ‘messages’ about the way we integrate with our surroundings – or not – surround and influence us.

Of course, the reverse is also true: our relationship with architecture is a dialogue, the communication is two way. Our events – political, cultural, environmental, also clearly shape the direction architecture takes.

Modern architecture

The post war era engendered a new era in architecture. The Modern Movement was borne of our need for rapid, large-scale rebuilding and was founded on a solid base of extensive industrialism and economic growth. Advanced technology enabled machine production of pre-fabricated components allowing mass standardization. Need for function over-ruled the need for form and aesthetic quality; large scale blocks, scientifically designed to functional parameters were hoisted into place, literally, to the delight of governments for these constructions were not only economic in terms of land use but also in terms of construction costs.

The theory was that in order to achieve a planned economic use of land and resources, people would have to abandon their traditional habitats, and government – with the help of architects – would educate them how to live!

Just as the structures Imperial Romans erected in their conquered lands sought to suppress the indigenous population and demonstrate the might of the Empire in direct contravention of local traditions and climate; just as the Gothic Cathedrals of Europe sought to strike fear into the general population as an embodiment of Heaven on Earth; just as Renaissance Palaces sought to mirror the wealth and power of those that lived in them (and so on), so, particularly in the west, the governments, ministries and administrative centres sought to symbolise and express their own power in the new world.

This was not unique to domestic architecture and city and suburban planning, however. Our cities today are festooned with imagery of business empires and consumer capitalism. These are the loud, clear, messages of the ‘modern’ corporate building. A fine example of this is the United Nations building in NYC. The council debating chamber, where representatives of each of the nations could come together and discuss issues with a view to achieving a resolution (despite this being far from collaborative working environments as I know them to be) is completely overshadowed by an administrative tower. The tower itself is a modern day ‘Tower of Babel’, symbolism of the bureaucratic nature of political power.

Let’s step back and look at these monolithic structures – already historical relics in today’s world (even though many are still being built, taller and louder than ever). They have effectively become obsolete. From a technical perspective the Modern Movement has failed us; society is having to support building failures through their repair, renovation or demolition. Similarly, the advanced technology to support these buildings in terms of climate control, lighting and sound for example has failed us. Socio-culturally it has been a disaster. In attempting to define a new language the Modern Movement served to create the antithesis of architecture, alienating human experience and denying the freedom of choice, of individuality and, most importantly, of being alive. Regardless, their legacy messages continue to influence us as they are still a part of our everyday experience.

The wake of Modernism has brought about all sorts of similarly artistic movements; post modern, neo-vernacular, neo (neo) classical, high tech and so on. None of these seem to have evoked the richness of experience that we see, hear and feel in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, with the possible recent exception of biophilic design. Biophilia means the love of life or living systems, and the biophilia hypothesis is that human beings have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. Edward O. Wilson popularised the idea in his 1984 book Biophilia.

In the context of our workplaces, from the corner office drenched in light to the plant-filled lobby, this is not a new idea, but biophilic design, whilst still nascent, is a growing discipline that takes the concept much further. It adopts a holistic approach, looking at whole systems, and evokes the idea of a biophilic space that facilitates our work – making everything easier and, in the way it communicates with us, actively improving our physical, emotional and mental health.

Anyone who has ever worked in a cubicle will understand that there is a lot to be said for this approach, and it’s a principle that we take forward with us as we look at the workspaces we build today, the ‘frozen music’ we play.

Frozen Music (I)


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We talked about the need to draw more deeply from the discipline of architecture when designing a modern workspace. But what is architecture? There are in fact many definitions, and that alone is perhaps indicative of the discipline itself. The simplest, and perhaps the one we are most familiar with, is about the art and science of designing and building structures. Another is ‘the moulding and altering to human needs of the very face of the earth itself’ and yet another is ‘the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light’. My particular favourite is ‘Frozen Music’.

From this last definition we might infer that architecture is a discipline that uses the medium of building to communicate. The nature of this communication is experiential; we experience the structures around us continually. As a form of art it is pervasive in civilisation, inescapable, reflecting the social, political and cultural influences of the day and communicating the values thereof.

Architecture is living history; ‘stone documents’ that are ‘an expression of the utility and power of a nation’. As a creative movement, architects are heavily responsible for the form of the populated world in which we live. Some of humankind’s most amazing achievements and most beautiful creations have been crafted by architects, and indeed some of the most gruesome blemishes.

Similarly to any movement, both scientific and artistic, architecture is a synthesis of thought and feeling and of the dichotomy of the creative process; a model of reality. This dichotomy reflects the mechanistic or organic nature of the world we live in and the parallels between architecture and business are clear. It is the very same dichotomy that pervades our discussions here: holism versus reductionism as modus operandi.

In architectural terms this dichotomy is seen at play in the traditions of Classicism and Romanticism. In classical architecture, the notion is very much about man imposing order upon nature, in romanticism man integrates with nature. Classicism is about the rational and the mathematical, romanticism is about the intuitive and the organic. Romantic asymmetry contrasts with classical symmetry. Neither of these are mutually exclusive – the one always contains an aspect of the other. Therein lies the harmonious positivity opposing models can generate; just as reductionism can provide what, in business terms, can be called a ‘bottom up’ perspective so the ‘top down’ perspective the holistic view presents is equally valid.

Two Schools of Thought

No finer example of these two schools of architectural thought is embodied in the work of two great 20th Century architects; Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Edouard Jeanneret, alias Le Corbusier.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Wright’s romanticism was organic in nature. His concept of Organic Architecture sought to build at one with and inspired by nature and natural forms. Each element of nature, the organic plant and animal forms, was understood in terms of its context and the relationship each had with that context with a distinct connection between form and function.

The principles of Organic Architecture were horizontality (oneness with nature as in a horizon, not verticality which implies man’s dominance over it), sympathy with the site (the merging and blending of building and landscape, blurring the division of inside and out), symbolism (in the sense of a home, this domesticity would evoke welcome, warmth and protection as well as a metaphoric heart), truth to materials (natural materials were used in their natural form) and character (as opposed to a single dominant style).

Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier’s approach was scientific and logical, each problem thought out afresh in the light of cold reason. He saw functionality to be the fundamental principle of design; “a house”, he said “is a machine for living in”. He sought reductionism as a way of abstracting the functions of the constituent parts and reason to design elements for each function. Furthermore, Le Corbusier taught architects to create more problems than could be solved to facilitate creativity; innovation through over-complication.

The Wider Context

Styles and movements abound in the field of architecture, as they do in art and science. As scientific discoveries bore new industrialised societies, so did architecture both fuel and absorb the changes in both material, structural and cultural forms. New technologies provided new materials with which to construct allowing a greater array of innovation in design of form and function. Similarly, as Einstein added a fourth dimension through his theory of relativity, so the consciousness of space and time found expression in the forms of new architecture and new materials. The ‘futurist’, ‘constructivist’, ‘expressionist’ and ‘functionalist’ movements all came to fruition through this time.

We said that architecture was a form of communication – a ‘frozen music’ that surrounds us. Going back to our original question, then, how is architecture influential in designing our workspaces, and what are its messages as we go about our work?

Organisations and their Environments


organisationenvironmentThe notion of organisations as complex adaptive systems enables us to see more clearly the individual, the teams and the organisation itself within the frame of a larger ‘whole’ and, therefore, to appreciate that in any one given situation there are a multiplicity of variables that may or may not have an impact upon the work to be done. Such variables frequently form the case studies of the McKinsey Quarterly or the Harvard Business Review. Leadership is a particular favourite, Learning and Performance Management is another, Reward and Recognition is a third. Follow the links for more in depth posts on these topics.

As of yet, we are still to define a context – an environment – in which this all can take place. This is not a new debate in itself, but taking it out of the hands of the Real Estate and Operations teams in order to understand it as a potential source of major competitive advantage is a relatively new concept: The idea that it may also provide your organisation with a greater degree of ‘Possibility Space’, resulting not simply in success in the market place but also within the organisational community. Transformation, indeed.

Outside our individual perspective and team perspectives the next cognitive filter is that of the workspace.

The Old (Built) World

Let us cast an eye back through history briefly. The organisations of the past reflected very much the formal societal structure of the time. All too often they were ‘hierarchical monoliths’ where the agenda was set by top management and implemented through the ranks by a series of management levels responsible for ‘controlling’ the organization. Both physically and metaphorically, the top management placed themselves away from the sharp end of their business, straying from the office’s ‘executive suite’ often only when the necessity arose.

Decision-making was seen as the domain of management with little input from others. The workforce was deemed to be motivated largely by money and little else. With the advent of organizational psychologists and sociologists and behavioural scientists in particular, it became more evident that such a rigorous hierarchical approach was an ineffective way of running a business.

The division between management and employee pervaded beyond the physical. It set the whole nature of corporate culture. The self-imposed isolation that management sought proved a huge barrier to collaboration, organizational learning and flexible, adaptive practices. What happened at the top was pervasive throughout the whole of the organisation itself. Often we see that humans are imitating beings: We tend to take on role models and behavioural models that suit our world and conform, so reinforcing non-collaborative, ‘silo-mentality’ behaviour. This is a self-reinforcing loop; a downward spiral of non-information sharing, mis-trust and non-alignment of purposefulness.

It would be good to think this was all in the past, but in reality we do still live in an era when the division between management and employee is the norm. Although corporate cultures increasingly tend to encourage openness and honesty, there is much room for improvement. In fact, the majority of organizations around the globe still conform to this type of monolithical structure. And this type of sectarian workspace design is still prevalent.

The New (Built) World

Perhaps one of the greatest inciting events workplace design was the advent of the ‘information age’: New forms of enterprise emerged, and with them new kinds of workers and new styles of workplace. We were presented with a notion of alternative office spaces containing what seemed like elements of bar culture, primary school, artistic workshops, sound studios and so on, where the cool kids got to play as they worked. For many this was considered a frivolous exercise in an attempt to ‘out-cool’ the competition but others took a more open mind, asking what they could learn from this revolution and how it could benefit their own business, an inquiry that led – for a small minority – to the conclusion that alternative environments may in fact be necessary in order to build and maintain a creative competitive advantage in today’s world.

Other pressures, too, have contributed to the shift towards reconsideration of how our corporate buildings support the work done therein. Technology, in particular, has fuelled this area of debate. Workers are increasingly mobile; the advent of laptops and telecommunications means that teleworking is now a reality; in fact the number of teleworkers worldwide is expected to hit 200 million by 2020 and many knowledge workers rate the ability to telework – at least partially – as a high factor in their employment choices. There are obvious implications of this trend, from a practical reassessment of the building capacity required and how it is used, through to revision of leadership models.

The workspace is possibly the most liberating enabler an organisation has at its fingertips.

Of all the tools an organisation has at hand day in, day out, the work environment is the most prevalent. An organisation may spend millions every year designing, building, implementing or custom-ordering Information Technology systems but fail to see that outside itself – that is the agents of the system – its potentially biggest liability and source of both productivity and efficiency (as architects have been crying out for years) lies with the design of the physical environment in which these agents (co)operate.

Attitudes are changing, slowly, but the connection between the workspace and organisational learning, play, creativity and sustainable innovation is still not always made. One reason for this is because we need to draw on more refined principles and ideas of architecture, a discipline not generally understood by business professionals and one which we will explore in subsequent posts.

What is a model?


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‘Model’ can mean different things to different people, but in the context of our work, we mean a representation of reality intended to foster understanding.

Human beings use models all the time. Our observations, reflections and interpretations are all about creating mental models. Words themselves are models – a representation of reality. Just as the word apple is not the apple itself, a word, any word, is a concept we understand through agreement. Models provide a basis for conversation.

Friends at the Sente Corporation have put it this way:

“Depending on how you look at it, anything can be a model. Even reality – from one vantage point – is merely our own electro-chemical processing of narrow bandwidths taken from a sea of information”.

Why do we create models? Good models simplify our complex world, enabling us to communicate and appropriate complex ideas, notions, theories, and so on effectively and efficiently. We make our models to a scale where what they represent becomes understandable on an intuitive level. They enable us to develop the comprehension and insight from which we can begin to experiment. And through this, we learn.

In the context of enterprise, models enable us to examine a situation, analyse it and then draw out plans. Many of the concepts we grapple with in today’s organisations are so complex they are beyond the limits of our intuitive comprehension. Through modelling we attempt to strip away these layers of complexity in order for us to understand the context of the enterprise, the components within it and their relationships to each other and the external eco-system.

They do have their limitations. Models are fundamentally ‘reductionist’ in nature and there’s a balance to be struck between making the model sufficiently abstract that it can be understood intuitively whilst avoiding over-simplification. For example, in breaking processes down to constituent parts, the nature of the whole – the systemic dimension of the organisation – is all too often left neglected. The decomposition omits many of the complex interactions around a process, which is just a logical, linear sequence of activities. To document all such interactions would involve a mammoth effort of analysis, so the trick is to find the right mixture of reductionism and ‘holism’ or ‘systems thinking’. Cybernetics helps our understanding too, and I’ll come back to these points in later posts.

There is one fundamental pitfall to avoid when working with models: we must never forget that all our models – be they process maps, mind maps, spread-sheets, stories, physical or conceptual models – are abstractions. Therefore it is vitally important we remain vigilant in revisiting and revising them regularly, cognisant of the fact that, as George Box put it: “All models are wrong. Some models are useful”.

We must learn to be constantly critical and questioning, otherwise the very models we have constructed can be our own downfall as we cling on to them, attached to the comfort of a reality we perceive that may not, in fact, be appropriate. The only way of achieving a shift in our own perspective is through conversation. An intervention in our self-perpetuating thought processes can – if we are open to it – change our view of the world. Or our business.

At Innovation Arts, when we work with clients facing complex issues, we apply a rigorous approach to modelling. Dialogue and iteration are key to our approach, both during the Architecting and Building phases of solution design, but also when the new model is put to Use.

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