Why ‘lean’ office design might actually hinder business success

Article from FM Magazine

Kursty Groves discusses what makes a creative and inspiring workplace, including examples from her book I Wish I Worked There!

With a growing resistance against ‘lean’ office design, and new research suggesting that it lowers productivity, she asks: do today’s ‘knowledge workers’ need more individual, less standardised workplaces than many of them currently have access to?

One of the most inspiring and humbling experiences I’ve been privileged enough to enjoy in recent times was the year-long tour I took of about 60 different corporate workspaces around the world as part of researching my book, I Wish I Worked There! The fact that large, successful companies were willing to throw open their doors and share the inner workings of their daily corporate life – warts and all – allowed me to report on what was working (or not working) for them, and for us all to learn from it.

Several common threads emerged as I visited a large variety of companies in industries ranging from Automotive to Banking, Consumer Healthcare to Film, and two specific comments stand out that I think illustrate an interesting challenge that many businesses face as they embrace new office design philosophies to support new ways of working.

Whilst being shown around a newly refurbished office by a Facilities Manager, she turned to me and proudly proclaimed:

‘We’re implementing a “lean policy” here – doesn’t it look great?’, which was followed quickly by, ‘It’s a shame we have to put people in here – they just spoil it all!”’

On another tour of a large utilities provider in the USA, a Project Manager metaphorically threw up his hands as he exclaimed: ‘This is supposed to be hot desking, but look!…’, indicating to piles of paper and files on a surface, ‘..and you should see the lockers – they’re chock-a-block full of people’s crap!’ Hot desking, it seems, is a phrase that most people understand comes with the obligatory “clean desk policy” but the reason behind the initiative is not always understood. Depending on whom you turn to, you’ll hear different sides of the story, but at the heart there lies the same problem: in a bid to increase space efficiency, manage mess and create a unified “look and feel”, something goes wrong.

Enabled by technology, organisations are moving (some more quickly than others), toward paperless systems removing wires and cables and working in more agile ways. Whilst this move is clearly in the right direction, it has fuelled a surge of minimally-designed offices – with clean lines, matching everything and enforced clean desk policies. In some cases, the office environment looks like one has walked onto a Hollywood set designed to depict heaven – yet, for the employee, it can feel like hell.

Environments like these might be pleasing to the designer’s eye and apparently easy to maintain for the Facilities Manager, but how does it affect the worker? And what are the consequences for business? In recent times, I have witnessed a resistance to this type of one-size-fits-all lean office design. The reason is that – in some cases – it is having an adverse effect. By focusing on design for design’s sake it can strip the personality out of a place and take with it a sense of ownership that often contributes to employee happiness, wellbeing and productivity.

I am a huge advocate for those businesses who are looking forward and seeking out working environments that support more modern working processes, and methods enabled by technology, but they also need to be seeking to answer the question: ‘How can we create a productive yet inspiring working environment?’

Save the Office Soul

Without soul, a place lacks a deeper connection to people. Pause for a moment to consider those places you just love being in – those environments that seem to speak to you. For some, it’s the pomp and grandeur of a cathedral, for others it’s the unadulterated beauty of nature and others still it can be the humility of a friendly local pub. In many cases, people talk of feeling a sense of “possibility” or “inspiration”, feeling “connected” or being “at one” when surrounded by places that are rich in history, showing evidence of the patina of time, imbued with meaning or stories or just indescribably beautiful.

Yet when I ask people where they go to be inspired, or to describe an environment that helps them to think clearly, problem-solve or create, the office is never indicated as top of the list. Cynics might argue that productivity and creativity don’t mix – that offices are for processing and creativity is for “out of hours”, but I have seen countless examples of higher-performing individuals and teams within organisations who all share one thing in common: a strong culture reinforced by an appropriate physical environment. Of course there are many successful companies who have a thriving culture within mediocre offices, but one can’t help but imagine how much better the culture and performance of those people would be if some attention were paid to ensuring the spaces that surround those people support them and work with them.

The offices of Bloomberg, whose primary business is analysing and sharing financial data which relies on technology to operate a paperless office, could be like many in the financial industries: dull and corporate. Yet here, where speed, transparency and trust is at the heart of the company’s success, layers of light and colour are to communicate round-the-clock information. The appreciation of how the environment can inspire and sooth goes deeper than mere information displays: a more visceral engagement can be experienced aurally – where meaningful sound codes denote business successes and the now “signature” fish tanks stocked with beautiful and interesting colourful fish entice people to slow down for a moment of contemplation.

One of the strongest competitive advantages a business can have is that of a strong culture. A product or service can be copied, but you can’t copy a culture. A place that reflects the collective soul of the people who ‘live’ there will resonate with the energy that encourages those people to be who they are, encouraging them to work towards a common goal with a purpose higher than clocking in from 9-5.

Bloomberg “signature” fish tanks entice people to slow down for a moment of contemplation
Bloomberg “signature” fish tanks entice people to slow down for a moment of contemplation

Purposeful Belonging

Places with soul also have an undeniable identity, where the purpose and personality of the people who occupy them seem to resonate through the very fabric of the environment. When people develop a sense of belonging or attachment to a workplace, it helps to reinforce values and attitude, feel “at home” and consequently free to bring their whole minds to work. The result: people who are have permission to be productively creative.

When it comes to belonging, there are four levels to consider:

  • Organisational belonging, where people feel aligned behind a common vision, set of values and way of doing business.
  • Geographic belonging, where local cultural differences are encouraged, which makes for a more friendly environment; people are less likely to feel like just another cog in the wheel or just another desk number! You can walk into any Google office in the world and know that you’re in Google. Yet each has its own unique flavour – rather than being exactly the same the world over, attention is paid to local preferences. This applies not only to the “quirks” -London is kitted out with traditional red phone boxes and brightly coloured Brighton beach huts, Zurich has ski gondolas and reclaimed original expedition igloos for meeting rooms – it also applies to the less ‘flashy’ stuff like meeting space allocation, tech-stop and micro-kitchen décor as well as individual desk personalisation.
  • Team belonging, where teams mark out a territory (which may have blurred boundaries). This can fuel positive inter-team competition, make way-finding easier and yet still allow flexible working within a defined area.
  • Personal belonging. People need the freedom to interpret this differently, and as an organisation, the interesting part is establishing the principles that provide guidelines to manage a cohesive look or feel, without being overly dictatorial. For some, personalisation is in the form of “trophies” of achievement (consumer feedback, performance data, product output, etc), for others it’s photographs of their nearest and dearest. Other people find surrounding themselves with stimulating images or objects can put them into a productive state. Personalisation does not have to mean allowing”junk” to accumulate on workstations; it can include personal touches in communal areas. At an adventure travel company I worked with in London, one employee was well-known for her green fingers, as over time she had created a mini oasis of plants around her desk. Her passion gardening has more recently extended to include the company’s reception area and outdoor spaces, and both she and her colleagues derive great pleasure from seeing the personal touch that she has added.
Reclaimed expedition igloos are used as meeting pods at Google in Zurich. The originality of these spaces is specific to the Swiss location, but the principle of creating a variety of different meeting spaces is core to Google’s spatial philosophy
Reclaimed expedition igloos are used as meeting pods at Google in Zurich. The originality of these spaces is specific to the Swiss location, but the principle of creating a variety of different meeting spaces is core to Google’s spatial philosophy

Space for Creativity

It’s no longer enough to expect people to turn up to work and just process information. Computers do it more quickly and efficiently. Many organisations have acknowledged the shift to a more innovation-driven economy, where cross-functional teams share and build upon knowledge, create, conceive new processes, services, products and methods. By definition the ability to create something new and appropriate, creativity is essential to the entrepreneurship that not only gets new businesses started it’s the lifeblood that sustains the best companies once they’ve reached global scale.

The innovation process itself requires many different modes of thinking throughout – from analytical decision-making through to care-free ‘blue sky’ thinking. These thinking modes – stimulation, where the mind is inspired or thought process triggered in some new way; reflection, a period of uninterrupted focus; collaboration, where ideas are shared and built, and play, where experimentation occurs – show up as different types of work. The physical environment should support these modes otherwise it will become a barrier and a source of stress or frustration.

Principles to create inspiring working environments

There are three clear principles that I believe, if followed, help to guide thinking and the design of inspiring working spaces. These hardy principles have stood the test of time and have guided some of the most successful spaces I have witnessed in business:

1. Nail the Needs

All too-often I see people rushing into space re-design without fully considering the essence of their needs. Once these are well established, then it’s time to roll in the designers to translate those needs onto visual and physical reality.

DreamWorks Animation SKG (California)

Rather than following the ‘de rigueur’ of open-plan spaces to encourage collaboration, DWA supported the needs of its creatives by clustering them in small pods. These ‘work dens’ were often dark (most animation work is carried out on screen), so to encourage people to get outside, take a breath of fresh air and bump into other colleagues, several outdoor devices lure people away from their desks to mingle. Of course in the UK we don’t have the luxury of year-round fair weather, but the principles hold true!

2. Brilliant Basics

When embarking on an office space transformation, often the basics are overlooked. In fact, paying attention to those small, sometimes invisible features of the working environment can make all the difference.

Google (London, New York, Zurich, Mountain View)

Google is known world-wide for its impressive working environment. Possibly more famous for its culture and workspaces than its products and services. The number one response when I ask people to name a company with a great working environment. But few appreciate that Google’s mantra is to deliver on the basics first, and deliver them well. This thinking has driven workspace innovations such as the 24-hour ‘Tech-stop’ for IT support, the ubiquitous ‘microkitchen’ and endless walls of whiteboards.

3. Iconic Touches

Once the first two have been established, it becomes easy to create those one or two really out-standing features that express the personality or uniqueness of a workspace. Importantly, these iconic touches should be deeply connected to the personality and culture of the people who work there.

Innocent Drinks (London)

It only takes one or two bold touches to create a compelling and memorable message that inspires both employees and on-lookers alike. Importantly, Innocent Drinks does not brandish its logo all over its workspace. Rather, the team has understood what lies at the heart of the brand and the company culture and used that as inspiration to inform some key spatial design choices. Its now-famous Astroturf flooring has been copied by others, but where it may be seen as ‘gimmicky’ or ‘whimsical’ in those spaces whose brand or culture does not align with it, for Innocent, it’s a natural choice.

Innocent’s iconic Astroturf grass in place of carpet has become an iconic talking point
Innocent’s iconic Astroturf grass in place of carpet has become an iconic talking point

4. Get People Involved

As already noted, it’s really the people who make a space come to life. So it stands to reason that involving people in the creation of an exciting working environment is a great way of engaging them through any transformations you may want to make. Eliciting contribution and feedback in the process of designing your spaces can not only provide essential information, managing their input into team and public spaces can make them feel they’re part of a community. At T-Mobile’s Innovation Centre in Seattle, teams competed to decorate the previously clinical and “bland” loos. The result was a wonderful set of themed areas (based on a pre-determined brief) that not only provided daily interest for colleagues, but also injected a real sense of ownership. 

Implementing a workplace philosophy that is grounded in ‘agile’, ‘lean’ or ‘flexible’ ways of working can be the right choice for many organisations seeking to update and transform their environments, but this should be taken as a starting point – don’t rely on it as a silver bullet. Often what happens is a new trend in office design will be seen as a solution for a problem of the time – to the detriment of the business. This new buzz word can be implemented without acknowledging its appropriateness to the company in which it’s being applied. The most important thing to recognise is that what works for one business might not work for another and so understanding what makes the business tick – as well as having serious commitment and engagement from senior leaders – is essential.

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