Of Work, Not Place

( December 31st, 2007 )

Cover of TC Tenant

Bear with the shameless self-promotion for a moment while I make a point.

Yes, that is me on the cover of a local commercial real estate publication. It came out last month and something about the interview with me inspired them to put me on the cover. Good times. The point of the interview was a conversation about how the modern workplace has changed, and will continue to change, and how my firm is beginning to experiment on itself to navigate this change and determine those workplace innovations that work, and those that do not. This is as much about organizational dynamics and ergonomics as it is about technology and communications, and it is part of a much larger exercise we are undertaking to develop a comprehensive program and master plan for our office and studio environments. By 2010 my firm will be in a new environment, and ideally one that we own, and this programmatical exercise will inform the type of space we ultimately need to occupy. It is also the inception of a longer term plan to treat our entire office environment as a laboratory, to experiment on ourselves, and be able to model different workplace innovations for our clients by using our own environments as proof of concept. Currently, we have an experimental area of our office, featured in the magazine, that is a studio dedicated to one comprehensive project, and we have used this studio to co-locate the central project team of 8-10 individuals. The space is flexible, surrounded by collaborative tools, and emphasizes the immediacy of communication. It is not private, it is not perfect, but it is a valuable experiment and the quality of work from this team has greatly benefited as a result.

The point that I want to make is that without having experienced and experimented with workplace innovations and organizational concepts it is impossible to appropriately represent them to our clients. For lack of a better expression, this would be “walking the talk.” A significant focus on this blog has been the concept of “the workplace of the future”, but what does that really mean? It means an environment that is about the work to be done and not about place. It means that substantial thought goes into the way an organization works, into its culture and business strategy, and how a work environment can manifest in support of these key aspects. It means that the conservative notion of office organization and layout is not only increasingly irrelevant, but actually counterproductive to the longer term success of a company. At its core, this is the physical embodiment within the environments that we create of superior occupant quality, of environments that are supportive of work and task while also enhancing health, well-being, and ultimately productivity. We know that an environment that we create today may be challenged anywhere from one to five years from now, that is how fast organizations and the markets within which they operate can change. The challenge to us is how we build in flexibility and anticipate this change so that we create value on behalf of our clients that allows their work environments to grow and change in advance of the demands of their markets and their people, without sacrificing the occupant quality of the environment. This is workplace innovation, and at its core involves a thorough understanding of organizational dynamics, occupant quality, product design, communications, materials technology, cultural analysis, and of an organization’s long term business strategy. These are the catalysts to the creation of successful work environments, and it mandates a rethinking of legacy notions of office and a focus on innovations that begin with an individual person’s needs and experiences as they relate to the physical environment.

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How We Look At Building Performance

( December 27th, 2007 )

We can only go up

One of the most comprehensive and significant ways in which we can positively enhance the health of individuals, and society, in relation to their interactions with the built environments that we create is through the applied concept of building performance. Building performance is a broad organization of how these environments affect us. This occurs on both a micro, or personal, level as well as a macro, or broader societal level. At the micro-ergonomic level it has to do with the ways buildings balance human factors and provide basic environmental elements and systems that support health and well-being. This includes lighting and daylighting, thermal comfort, air quality, acoustics and privacy. While these all seem like logical qualitative elements of a healthy environment, we all know that they still go largely disregarded. With this is the macro-environment of a building, or how it performs in relation to the whole and in relation to the greater community. Ideally, a building that adheres to certified standards of building performance has been designed with a sustainable agenda and incorporates not only energy savings, but also schema for rain water runoff, waste and recycling, materials life-cycle, and systems that minimize the need for natural resources.

Historically, the science of building performance has done much to honor the perspective and experience of the individual, to ensure that the design of these environments is not in conflict with the health of those who will ultimately inhabit them. More recently, and in line with the larger sustainable movement within design, is how the inclusion of building performance analysis as it impacts the greater environment, and how it exists within this greater context. Taken as a whole this is a sensitive approach to building design, one that embraces constraints that ensure that architecture design is indeed doing no harm. This might sound trivial, but it is a growing movement. Sustainability and human factors are gaining ground within the design of products and services, and those early to this holistic approach are seeing the first financial and productivity based results.

Resources for more information:

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White Space

( December 19th, 2007 )

Google’s offices

“White space” is a term describing areas within flexible work environments that represent the diversity of work styles and the supporting environments sought by people who demand alternative ways to work. White space is the focus of an in the New York Times, and follows an employee at an advertising firm as he spends his time being productive everywhere but at his desk. I think that is a terrific name for a flexible work environments, one that is more about our work and less about place. At its core, white space challenges the traditional notions and expectations of how we work, and the environments that we work in, and represents the growing movement in office design to provide employees with flexible space that can adapt to their tasks and their work styles.

Realize that this is not a generational thing. Most people, regardless of age, would prefer flexibility in their work environment and the freedom to tailor that environment to what is optimal for them. That might mean working at a stand-up desk, or while sitting in a common area. Also, the tasks that we need to perform, the work that we need to do, over the course of a day can change dramatically and are better supported by environments that can flex with these changing needs. What do I mean? Think about the productivity savings if meetings did not have to be in conference rooms and always scheduled for an hour. What if, in lieu of a fixed desk, an office was actually made up of a diverse series of work areas with each supporting specific types of work… from intense concentration and focus that might require quiet privacy, to a raucous and energetic brainstorm, to an open and ongoing collaborative environment that fosters easy communication and connectedness. The net result is a radically different approach to the way we work, and one that defies the 1950’s notion of an open plan work environment. Finally. Beyond this, though, it yields very different space demands for companies that ultimately result in smaller, more efficient office environments which changes the real estate equations and potentially saves tremendous investment in space.

A good example of an office environment that successfully blends white space is pictured above and is one of the environments in Google’s headquarters. Much thought and research went into their environment with the ultimate goal being real support of their people in their work. Google realized that tying people to desks is limiting, and in a fast moving and innovative company the people that make it up need to be fast moving and innovative. The environment of their offices is a manifestation of this need. People are rarely at their desks as they are busy engaging in work that is collaborative, impromptu, and occurring over a large campus. A desk would take them out of the flow.

While Google might be an extreme version of this, suffice it to say that more and more companies are seeing the value of white space in their environments. We know that the office as we know it has been under siege for over a decade. Our work has intensified to a point that the traditional office environment can no longer keep up. The value is in adaptive, flexible and customizable environment that empower and support people and allow them to tailor the environment to the immediate task at hand.

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Toward Intelligent Workplace Design

( November 3rd, 2007 )


I was interviewed last week by a reporter investigating the limitations in open plan workplace design. It was a good discussion, and he was pursuing what I felt to be a very appropriate theme… that most open plan offices are a result of economic decisions and fail to provide workers with a supportive workplace. Despite the fact that we all experience and acknowledge the challenges of being productive in most open plan environments, they persist. There is an abundance of research to challenge the open plan, but the reality is that workplace environments are first a product of the economics of the space lease or purchase, and second the result of the powerful drive to keep the investment in that space as low as possible and to expedite the process. The result is that decision makers continue to miss an enormously valuable opportunity.

People. The people that make up their organization. The people that do the work.

What company today wouldn’t rush to tell you that the people who work there are their most valuable asset? Nearly everyone says this, and it is reflective of the way the economy in the United States has dramatically changed over the last fifty years. And yet, these same people will also make workplace design decisions that have absolutely nothing to do with their acknowledged most valuable asset. But what if they did?

If they did they would find they have created environments for their people that are infinitely more supportive of activity and tasks, reflective of their culture, and supportive of employee health and welfare. They would have done this with minimal additional cost to the project and would yield tremendous gain with a work environment that supports their people. We would be remiss to not think that all of this together might have a positive impact on worker and workplace productivity.

I am incredibly optimistic. There is tremendous opportunity to think differently about the workplace, and bring research supported assertions to the decision making process that are supportive of human factors and the user experience. Through the effective use of we have the opportunity to effectively challenge assumptions, to challenge the status quo, and create environments that inspire and stimulate people, environments that are more enjoyable and healthful. This is really very practical stuff and at its simplest is being smart about how we think about sound attenuation, lighting and daylighting, thermal comfort, and empowering the individual to self-create micro-environments that are ideal to their happiness, efficiency, and productivity.

It should be noted that much of this is not new. We have understood that open plan environments are problematic for some time, and research has existed to support dating back to the 1970’s. We have entered a time, though, where companies depend on every advantage possible to be successful in the marketplace and as a result are increasingly accepting and demanding that there is a better way to do things, and that doing it better is in fact supportive of their business strategy and a competitive advantage. Now, the challenge is in convincing the design firms to change their approach, to invest in the research and understanding to redirect design efforts in support of the individual and to provide organizations with environments that are a positive influence and that enhance the success of the companies for whom they are designed. This is thinking beyond the aesthetic of environments, beyond the beauty of edifice, and understanding that the design is on behalf of interaction and in support of the people who will ultimately inhabit the space.

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