Work looks different, now

Image from "Playtime" by Jacques Tati

Image from "Playtime" by Jacques Tati

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

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

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

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

The workplace transformation imperative

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

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

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

So, “work looks different, now.”

Designing with the social brain in mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jim Meredith/MEREDITH Strategy & Design LLC

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2 thoughts on “Work looks different, now

  1. Jim, call me a cynic, but every workplace transformation initiative I’ve ever seen up close is about one and only one thing: reducing costs. Higher density seating, hoteling, work from home programs, and others all enable companies to eliminate square footage. I don’t think they are all bad, mind you, but the clear driver for corporations is cost, not innovation, no matter what they might claim in their internal memos.

    • Aaron –

      One of the most frustrating aspects of corporate programs is the dominance of the cost-saving agenda. In the current economic climate, it’s also more prominent and dominant than ever, and occludes and frustrates almost all other value (values!) conversation.

      Your cynicism is valid, to a point. Looking back on most of what I’ve done over the past several years, it feels as if every engagement began with a cost-saving component, either as the primary purpose or as a significant component of the program. When it’s been possible, however, we’ve opened the conversation to discuss the purpose of the organization, its direction, its culture, and its values. We’ve then tried to uncover and develop considerations about how people learn and develop into creative leaders, how best practice processes are developed, and what their clients/customers/constituencies value.

      These factors are key contributors to the financial performance of the organization but their measures are typically non-financial. If we can then link workplace transformation concepts to these other measures, we seem to be able to develop a more “authentic” and successful program.

      Almost every client these days demands that “workplace transformation” programs be at least “cost-neutral.” Nobody is spending. Yet, I believe that the momentum for transformation is increasingly being driven from the troops rather than the execs, that business sustainability urgently needs a top-line (talent-driven) measure as well, and that a walk through a well-designed, light, agile, and “social” workspace will be transformational to the priorities in the “workplace transformation” agenda. That is, as you’ve noted elsewhere, there is great power in a compelling vision.

      Thank you very much for your comments…and challenges!

      P.S. If I haven’t said it before, I think Urbanophile is fantastic!

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