How space inevitably evokes culture

I was invited recently by friends in a leading national professional services firm to attend a day-long charrette. They were launching an initiative to redesign their offices and offered me a seat at the table to listen, and perhaps contribute, to their exploration and discussion.

Not long into the charrette, the agenda was interrupted and suspended. Topics had emerged in the course of the discussion that very quickly engaged the entire group – subjects of organizational form and culture. That is, while exploring certain concepts of space planning, more substantial matters about how the firm did its work, and the alignment of its work, organization, markets and culture quickly took the floor. What had been an agenda about place and space was overtaken by an energetic discussion around the fundamental tenets of the organization and the nature of its operations.

This, of course, was not an unusual event. This type of discussion occurs in almost every project begun to address a renovation of space or the relocation of an organization. Whenever thoughtful people gather to consider the places where they do their work, they inevitably take up core subjects about who they are, what they do, how they relate to each other and to others outside their organization, and the nature of their experience in the places and spaces where they do their work.

It is not difficult to uncover why these subjects arise. Consider what has changed around you and your firm over the past decade or more that you have been in your current offices. Consider, for example, how the global economy has changed and how it has bought both opportunities and challenges to your work and the work of others in your profession, perhaps changing your approach to geography. Consider the technology you used a decade ago and the technology you now have in your hand, and consider its influence on where, how and when you do your work and the nature of the spaces where you most effectively do it. Consider how the complexities in your own professional domain and those of your clients have gradually generated a context in which you seek places, spaces and opportunities to bring together or join teams of experts to serve clients where individuals and assistants once handled everything. Consider the generational and experiential make-up of your organization and the variety of approaches to space and communications that shape the settings of practice. And consider how economic conditions have you looking around the office assessing the validity of the spatial perks you once took for granted.

This inevitability shapes our advice to most of our clients and our approach to their projects. Their decision to relocate or renovate presents an opportunity to reflect on where they’ve been as an organization, reassess where they may want to go in the future, and uncover and understand how to use the planning and design of the workplace as a key tool in their strategies.

As your organization becomes more reflective on how and where it does its work, it will begin to consider and challenge, and re-form or reaffirm, its culture, operations, and organization. With facilitation, those new questions and awarenesses will yield a renewal and rededication of the the firm. And with facilitation, it will test and explore the spaces and places that authentically and effectively reflect who the firm is as it moves into the future.

When beginning a office design project, the consideration of organizational design and culture can be approached as a delicious opportunity, be confronted as a surprising inevitability, or be overlooked or resisted. The firm’s awareness or response to this larger context can substantially affect its performance, success and sustainability.

The strategies of design are always preceded by the design of strategies.

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