What is “workplace” design?

Among our offerings to clients through our consulting practice is a bundle of services under the heading of “Workplace.” Among our friends and others who look at our portfolio of great workspaces is a general perception that these are “corporate interiors” services – selecting and specifying finishes and furniture for spaces designed by project architects.

While this is descriptive of a portion of what we do, it is a substantial understatement of the services we perform and the value we bring to clients. I thought I’d offer, then, a brief primer on “workplace” design by telling a story about a current client.

The client’s strategic context

Our client works in one of the most dynamic and unpredictable businesses of our time. Delivering health care insurance and other services to its customers, the company operates in a context that is at the top of the national agenda. The national political discourse, the state of the economy, demographic trends, lifestyle trends and other factors generate an uncertain, unpredictable, and highly dynamic set of conditions for business performance.

Looking into the mysteries of the future, this company has set a strategic direction to define its future purpose and performance, and shape its evolution from a claims processing business to a health and lifestyle consulting business.

It has now also formulated a set of initiatives intended to attract customers and grow the business. These initiatives have influence on the company’s entire corporate culture and specific impacts on its organizational design, its human resources policies and practices, its information technology systems in both operations and customer-facing domains, and its business processes.

The company has also generated an initiative for the design of new workspaces wherever it works. This program is influenced by the other operational initiatives, and is also recognized as having a significant potential impact o the success and benefits of those other projects.

Strategy Design – Design Strategy

In a recent letter to the company’s employees, the COO clearly signaled the importance of the design of the workplace to the performance of the company by defining the goals for the workspace initiative.

He explained that the design initiative would play a “vital role” in the success of the company and enable everyone who worked there to live its brand attributes every day. He defined these goals for the design –

▪          Shape the corporate culture
▪          Secure the brand’s sustainability for future generations
▪          Stimulate creativity and collaboration
▪          Improve the ability to provide the highest quality of customer service

So that is the beginning framework for a “workplace” project – linking the  business’s strategy design to our design strategy and developing a workspace that enhances the quality and benefits of the company’s work.

Let’s take a quick look at how we’ve embraced this mission and what we’ve been up to so far. This might give you a better understanding of what “workplace” projects are all about.

Brand Repositioning

As we entered the project, the company had just complete a “brand repositioning” initiative. This was a first step in shaping their strategies for success in this dynamic business context. This involved an exploration of the potential needs of their customers and developing a deep understanding of their experiences as they sought resolution of their healthcare objectives.

With the insight that the customer experience is driven by the employee experience, the brand repositioning defined key differentiating behaviors of the company’s employees and the impacts they would have on customer experience.

Employee experience

We’ve long believed that the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “own” the experience of work. That is, as business success increasingly demands innovation in processes, services and products, there is an increasing competition for the top talent necessary to deliver innovation. Attracting those people increasingly means providing the contexts where top talent can engage with others inside and outside the organization and experience the pleasure of accomplishing great things.

We were therefore pleased to enter the discussion with the company’s leadership around this subject of employee “behaviors.” We began to speculate on the working experiences that could be associated with those behavioral objectives and, in turn, the characteristics of the working environments that would provide those experiences and nurture those behaviors.

Design principles

Workplace design has long been characterized by a very limited “lexicon” of form. Dilbert was the perfect outgrowth of the corporate workplace typology in which two forms – offices and high-walled cubicles – defined the nature of work and the culture of companies. Almost all of our clients come to us knowing nothing other than this lexicon, and expecting only a stylistic variant on that tired theme.

It was therefore very important for us to help our client visualize other possibilities and to have other goals for the design of their next workspaces. We formulated a set of “Design Principles” that made a direct linkage between their brand differentiators and the innovative concepts we might propose. These principles allow us to move into a much more robust engagement with the client and a much richer conversation about design, experience and performance.

Design vocabulary

The Design Principles then had two influences, backwards and forwards in the process – they began to influence our client’s development of “company values” aligned with the brand and strategic initiatives, and they informed our development of a “Design Vocabulary” for the project.

The Design Vocabulary consists of a number of concepts for “work settings” including all physical and infrastructural components of the environment in which people would work. This has helped us bring an largely new approach to workplace design and policies for the company.

We are developing concepts around teams, not individuals; around work activities, not titles; and around a future state for the company, not current conditions.

Prototype templates

Among the challenges given us by the leadership of the company was to develop a design that could be implemented wherever they were and wherever they would go. This, of course, is both about place and also about time – how to design in a way that would be relevant over the next 10-20 years of the company’s development and growth.

The Design Vocabulary was a core component of this approach. The settings are team platforms that can be plugged in or pulled out of any specific project as the scale or organizational mix required.

We then tested this approach through the development of prototypical “templates.” These were illustrations of the application of the work settings to both “greenfield” and specific local contexts. We tested alternative floor configurations, alternative scales of occupancy and alternative mixes of organizational functions as a way of “proving” the relevance of the Design Vocabulary, its authenticity to the Design Principles,  and how it would affect employee experience and deliver on the goals of the initiative.

The developed concepts will then form a set of workspace design guidelines that can be adapted to the specific conditions of location and time. We are now about to start the implementation of the design for a phased development of the company’s 1,000 person headquarters.

Turning point

This is now a significant turning point in the initiative. Up to now, the company’s strategy has been influencing our design strategy. As the company begins to occupy its new workspaces however, it will be our designs that influence the successful accomplishment of the company’s strategies.

Our workspace designs will affect the experiences of the employees, in turn affecting their behaviors and, through their interactions with customers and development of new and innovative solutions, affecting the experiences of customers and the success of the company.

Stay tuned.

I hope this story-in-progress gives you a better understanding of what “workplace” strategy and design is all about.

Remember a couple of core ideas as you look around and talk with your own clients and friends –

Work looks different now – The technologies we use, the ways that we work, the challenges we face all beg for a radically different approach to the design of the spaces and places where we work.

It’s about the experience, stupid – The leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “own” the experience of working – top talent will choose where they go and who they work with based on how the organization provides the innovative resources of place and space to nurture differential purpose and achievement.

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One thought on “What is “workplace” design?

  1. Pingback: B2B2B2C – How should we design for the emerging business models in the health insurance industry? | archizoo [MEREDITH Strategy & Design]

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