by Jim Meredith
My work typically includes a deep penetration into an organization. I do this through structured and unstructured interviews, on-site observations, document analyses, surveys, workshops, provocations, other primary research, secondary research, a bunch of reading, and other methods.
The unstructured, or informal interviews, actually conversations, are always interesting. Subjects come up that act as odd punctuation. They stop the flow, sometimes jarringly. These are always delicious points for me, spots in the journey that actually end up as destinations, rich places to stop and explore.
The precedents in workplace design are so dismal that many people I interview, anticipating the typical change that they expect will take place in their world, prepare defenses. Expecting that the open office with mini-workstations and visual exposure is in the cards, they are prepared with all of the research, examples, stories, data, and articles to state why that should not happen to them. I get it. I appreciate it. I understand.
I am trying, however, to come to the design of the workplace – in this case, the technical workplace – with a much richer palette of spaces than many have seen yet. I am an advocate of choice, and I hope to be a designer of relevant, authentic, purposeful and satisfying choice in every project I take on.
I proceed carefully. A leader of an advanced products development group, actually a “skunkworks” of sorts, tells me about the research he has done into the open workplace and about his experiences. He tells me about the 18 minutes of recovery time required to get back into the flow of work after each interruption he has in the open office. He has calculated the cost of his lost productivity that his company suffers because of his open environment. He makes a spirited defense against moving from the advanced products garage to the engineering office. I get it. I appreciate it. I understand.
I ask him about the interruptions. Why do they occur? He is a knowledgable, smart, clever, innovative person, and he has a lot of knowledge about advanced systems. People who bug him are trying to get to his knowledge to resolve problems they are having, develop ideas they have germinated, advance their own careers, move their projects forward, test emergent ideas, save time.
As we talk, I begin to mentally calculate the costs of his resistance to engagement with others – the lost productivity of the development teams, the stranded innovation, the lowered morale, the uninformed technology investments, the cost of retention, the cost of attraction, the slower time to market, the reasons for the earlier spinoff of the more agile business units, and more.
My commission was to design a workplace that would attract the best engineers in the business. How will I design for this? How will I appreciate the need for a key player to have the solitude he needs to do his research, reflect on his experiences, get into the flow of the stuff that matters to his organization, remain aside from “management” values and stay immersed in “innovation” values?
How will I nonetheless design a workplace to enable others to have timely access to the knowledge they need to advance individual and organizational purpose? How will I design a workplace that balances values of solitude and engagement without compromising the industry leadership that comes from broadly applied, competitively differentiated, know-how?
But in the meantime, how do you and your organization balance (or not) these individual, team and corporate values?