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There Is No ‘I’ In ‘Space’

24 Aug

Open office design has become mainstream enough to have its own Wikipedia page (no, really) and it has been around since the 1950s, rapidly popularized in the authority-challenging 1960s and growing ever since. Yet supports still approach open design with new eyes, and that all-is-new perspective is apparent in Alexandra Levit’s article on ways to use open office design to map corporate culture.

She hits on some familiar themes:

  • Open designs help “relax hierarchies.”
  • Having low or no cubicle walls improves “collaboration” so “people will naturally connect with one another.”
  • Technology is important to provide a platform for efficiency.
  • Design all spaces as if customers will see them, especially in considering natural light and “pleasing colors.”

What’s interesting is a project she uses as an illustration – Deloitte’s new-ish (2011) campus in tiny Westlake, Texas, a project she calls “controversial.” The project was a massive one – a training center sprawling over 350 rooms and costing over $300 million, nestled in the foothills of Tarrant County. While close to DFW Airport, Westlake itself has fewer than 1000 residents, while the hotel center along employs over 500 people and sees an anticipated 45,000 people per year. The controversy wasn’t about the design of the space – it was about the necessity of the space.

Deloitte social spaceA Forbes article about the Deloitte campus said that the campus design was so effective because “learning represents the strategy of the company.” The article – proposition about looking at office design as “I” and “we” spaces – then points to a massive wall of screens with associate-driven media and a person-tracker as a way of creating a giant “we” space, a communal, collaborative zeitgeist.

But is that really it?

Deloitte created a training facility, and the idea behind a lot of the designs appears to be ways to create a team spirit while associates are at training that will energize them at their daily work. In other words, it is very similar to the bulletin board in a schoolroom, surrounded by students’ artwork. It does create a sense of unity and team work, an “us” mentality, but with a very specific scope. It is a transient community space, one that only lasts for the time people are at the training.

Would that kind of “we” space work in real life? Because the Deloitte facility is decidedly not “real life,” even for Deloitte employees.

The Deloitte facility is highly effective because it reinforces a core strategy (as the Forbes article notes) – learning is their core corporate value. Dedicating resources and providing a lush environment for training emphasizes how important it is to their employees. It is truly form following function. The design flourishes – the wall of screens, the associate finder, the tech-forward training centers – provide a collaborative space that is tuned toward a very narrow focus. It is full-immersion in corporate culture.

I have a sense that level of “we” space design wouldn’t work, not in most places. It would be too overwhelming, too much “we” and not enough autonomy. I stumbled on another article at Recruiter.com[5] about ways to attract and retain employees with office design. It’s based on the results of several different university and industry surveys – and almost nothing in there relates to an open design to improve collaboration. Three of the six points deal with letting people select and design their private workspaces. The top priority is flex-scheduling and the ability to telecommute. Another one is simply having comfortable chairs.

In other words, when they’re asked what they actually want, employees don’t list “collaboration” and “innovative design.” They want privacy and comfortable chairs. It’s simple.

One idea that jumped out at me in the “I” and “we” spaces article – and I hope it’s something that is explored and expanded elsewhere – is the idea of designing collaborative spaces around projects rather than people. Instead of having Conference Room A or Open Design Area B, create a specific space for a specific project, so that everyone working on that project has a consistent place they can meet, collaborate as needed, create group materials, and pool resources. That seems like a way to truly inspire innovation and collaboration, of creating a “we” space, while preserving the privacy and sense of personal ownership and comfort that is actually critical to employee happiness.

Featured images:
  •  License: Image author owned
  •  License: Image author owned

About the Author: For over 35 years, David Johnson has worked in small and large corporate environments, focusing on marketing, strategy, employee productivity, interior design, and management techniques. Now, he works with office design, productivity, and ergonomics. He writes regularly on business sites related to office culture, communication, and design. You can follow him on Twitter (@bizoutfitter) Google+ or check out his conferenceroomoutfitters offfice furniture website.

 

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