Why would anyone want to invest time in your workspace?

by Jim Meredith

Walking through a client’s current workspace this week reminded me of the great gulf that exists between the way businesses are managed and the way they perform, and the extraordinarily important role that design has in that performance.

We entered a mean, little, anonymous elevator lobby, on one of the ten similarly appointed floors that made up their workplace. Nothing differentiated this space from any other building standard floor with its anonymous finishes, its blank door with a wire glass sidelight, its absence of identity. After our client used a security card to get us through the door into their full-floor suite, we squeezed ourselves into the narrow aisle defined by the walls of the core and the high-walled cubicles that made up much of the workspace, and made our way, turn after turn, into the gray conference room with a dirty whiteboard where we had our meeting.

As we walked past those walls of cubicles, I noted the taped 8-1/2 x 11 paper tags at the aisle ends that held the names of the people who sat in those rows and who were otherwise not visible from that main aisle nor from any other vantage point in the office. Both management and staff, both using the same justifying language of “focus” (but with entirely different meanings) were tenaciously hanging on to an office typology that we could be sure was holding back their performance.

Why would anyone want to invest time in your workspace?

There is a distinct difference between “spending” time in the office and “investing” time in the office. One of the most defining characteristics of spending time is, of course, the spontaneous flow of 99% of the workforce on the tick of the clock that starts and ends the day.

Another defining characteristic of the consumption of time, of spending time rather than investing time, are those cubicles I saw.

As I look back on what we’ve done over the past decade and over the differences in the form of the workspaces we’ve encountered and those we’ve designed, it is possible to tell the fortunes of those organizations.

When we see the kinds of spaces I’ve described above, we see organizations that are struggling to find or sustain their positions.

Where we have created or have seen a workspace characterized by a comparatively high diversity of work settings, where our eye can scan the place and get a sense of its composition and orientation, where we can see the activities of people, where we can see evidences of the work products of the people, there we also see an organization that is thriving. People seem unaware of the clock, perhaps because the complementary buzz of activities around them provides an alternative cadence or cycle that is about something else. People seem more focused on their work, and their work seems more collaborative than individual, with more collective energy yet with a variety of apparent paces in the work.

When we’ve had the opportunity to design spaces like these, it seems invariable that the discussion of the project started at the culture of the organization and not with trend, cost or comparison to others. These organizations were purposeful in their mission, goal-oriented in their activities, and dedicated to bringing something into the world for their customers or clients that either did not exist otherwise or that was better than what had gone before.

People arrived at their work with a distinctly different mindset. They arrived into spaces that welcomed them and where they could see and immediately engage with their fellow members. Their workspace had at hand all of the tools they needed to do what they needed to do. They worked in spaces where it was easy to perceive the needs of others and contribute or, when in need, receive the insights and participation of others. They worked in spaces where they could see the progress of their work and sustain energy and “focus” in its accomplishment.

These are places with an emotional attachment. The character of their design has generated workspaces where a sense of membership is nurtured, where accomplishment is celebrated, where ambition aligns with larger purpose, where people feel secure.

These are not the places where people spend their time. They are the places where people invest their time.

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