Innovant discusses the future of the workplace with Greg Lindsay
Earlier this summer, Innovant’s marketing team attended an IIDANY Facilities Forum focused on the topic, “The Evolving Workplace: Change or Adapt?” Moderated by David Craig, Associate Principal at Cannon Design, the discussion featured insights on the evolving workplace and what this means for the industry from two workplace innovators, Greg Lindsay, Contributing Writer for Fast Company, and Bart Higgins, Director at What If?.
Innovant’s team was particularly excited to hear from Greg as his New York Times article, “Engineering Serendipity,” had been posted on the company’s blog. This post summarized Greg’s commentary on workplace policies by the likes of Yahoo! and Google, describing how a company can boost employee creativity and productivity by engineering social interactions.
Greg agreed to elaborate on some of his ideas for Innovant’s blog, including explorations into what he calls “the blurring of the office and the city.” Read on for his insights into 21st century ways of work and places for work.
Deborah Herr: Gensler’s recent survey effectively pointed the finger at open plan environments for declining workplace effectiveness. Are you noticing a looming shift away from open plan or seeing any real trends that address these complaints?
Greg Lindsay: The open plan office is never going to go away, just like the cubicle is never going to go away. But what I find most interesting is the recognition that one size does not fit all. In the ongoing quest to squeeze every good idea and every last bit of productivity out of people, we’ve realized that working at one, generic environment for 8 or 10 hours a day is ineffective. Instead, we need to physically mode switch on a moment to moment basis to glean every last bit of efficiency out of people.
DH: Speaking of these modes, have there been any suggestions about what the “right” ratio would be for these modes? Is there a certain balance of “we” and “me” spaces that we should aim for in a single workplace?
GL: That‘s the $64 billion question. You’ve highlighted the absurdity of someone, somehow publishing research with the “right” ratio based on the number of hours we collaborate. Though it probably won’t be right, we will convince ourselves that it’s right enough.
I imagine the companies that try to do this are going to end up going in two directions. Either they’re going to oversimplify it and get an office with one really intense environment and one really collaborative one. Or, they’ll have eight different work modes in a single office. In this case, the office becomes a fantasy land of different working types, which I would imagine is good for sales, but difficult for most companies to implement. This is why I’m personally more interested in work and city relationships. This would involve encouraging people to leave the office to find different work modes and in the course of that discover something new – whether it be a new idea or new people.
Ultimately, I think the larger notion of “the office” is reaching its functional limits. The struggle to come up with new ideas, push faster and move farther has exposed us to these limitations. The innovation we strive for requires face-to-face, high bandwidth communication, but we still try to do it in an environment where you see the same people day after day. These two trends are in inevitable conflict.
DH: The idea of the office reaching its limitations would alarm a lot of people in my industry. We will have to wait and see, but I can hardly imagine the day when someone may say, “You don’t need to be sitting at your desk for me to realize that you’re being productive.”
GL: Well, it’s a question of, “What is your desk?” I don’t think the desk will ever go away. Desks will be around as long as we’re typing on a device. Instead, it becomes a question of, “What is your desk that is not your desk at your employer?” I think this question will lead us to all sorts of fascinating answers – it will be a desk at someone else’s office, or a temporary desk in a co-working space. Rather than choosing between two or seven environments in one office, you might have two or three environments in your employer’s office with multiple workspaces located across the city. It will be interesting to see how this network of workspaces evolves, which is separate from the ongoing design evolution of desks and chairs.
To me, the more interesting question of what should alarm Innovant is the notion that people find the office to be so ineffective that they’re willing to take their laptops and work in sub-optimal conditions just because they can. If people are willing to shed the productivity-enhancing elements of the office in favor of choice, we are failing them somehow. Perhaps we need to balance this by designing better environments for work outside of the designated office.
DH: You’ve mentioned technology as having a significant role in the evolving workplace. This was obvious at NeoCon 2013 where a lot of big industry players focused on technology as a way to mitigate some of the problems of open plan environments. What sorts of tools or technology do you see contributing to workplace effectiveness?
GL: One longstanding problem that people are interested in solving is the need for systems that track employees down when they’ve been encouraged to wander. I’m dubious that furniture or office equipment makers will be able to design software that can iterate fast enough or function as well as the offerings from software companies.
This is why I’m interested in the potential use of social networking or GPS tracking systems to figure out who’s nearby. At some point, I imagine that as a function of employment we’ll all have an employee badge app on our phones or we’ll wear badges that contain these functions. A recent New York Times story described retailers using smartphones to track people’s movements through their stores. Eventually, we’ll do the same for the office – or we should. Once you do that, you can perform all sorts of interesting big data analysis of who’s actually working and where. I imagine that this would be the grail for a lot of companies since the org chart is the barest approximation of who’s actually working together. Once you understand what’s really going on, you can start rearranging the office in real time. It will be interesting to see how an office manager of the future might intervene on the fabric of an office to either support employees or shake things up a bit.
DH: You’ve written about Google and mentioned them at the IIDA event. Innovant has seen three global RFPs from them in the last four years, which is an extreme example of a company undergoing rapid growth at rapid speed. If you can speak to this, how do such companies deal with the chaos of space planning, workplace strategy, and establishing standards under these conditions?
GL: As a journalist, I’ve never been on the inside of such hyper-growth, so I can’t really speak to that. However, I am fascinated that the biggest cloud company in the universe is massively investing in physical space. The second Googleplex (i.e. the Bayview Campus) and London headquarters are evidence that Google values proximity.
DH: Do you think your amazement that Google is investing so much money in physical space relate
s to the idea of “engineering serendipity” that you’ve promoted? Are they really able to think in those terms when they’re moving so quickly?
GL: Yes, I think so. One example is Google’s “people analytics” group. The company was prescient enough to create a dedicated data analysis group to study how people in the company actually work. Eventually, most companies will follow suit in molding functions of HR and facilities management to actually manage people and space together as a single unit — or at least they should.
Another responsibility of Google’s people analytics group is to manage social interactions among Googlers. There’s a reason the Googleplex has a bee-keeping club, and it’s not to keep employees at the ‘Plex 20 hours a day, which is how such programs are typically seen from the outside. Instead, they’re trying to figure out how to mix employees in unforeseen combinations that go beyond corporate roles and politics.
I’ve seen the chronic coffee machine and water cooler metaphors come up frequently in this context. When companies try to figure out how to increase workforce cohesion or introduce people, the solution is invariably adding or moving the coffee machine around. After all this time, we seem to have no better idea for bringing people together than to leave food lying around the office kitchen, as if you were trying to attract a pack of wild animals. I’d be curious to track the people analytics group’s results, which may suggest new social modes for bringing people together.
The third example is Campus London, where Google has stacked an incubator, an accelerator, and two floors of co-working beneath a satellite office on the top floor. Google’s presence is the draw for the entrepreneurs who work there, while the appeal for Google is this hive of activity beneath them they can keep tabs on, learn from, and hire from. I think this is an interesting lesson for companies — especially considering we talk all the time about the benefits of industry clusters. Though the work clusters may not be competitive, they’re close enough to drive innovation.
DH: You also mentioned Facebook at the IIDA event, describing how Zuckerberg was very vocal in the design process with Gehry. How does Facebook measure up in the world of companies growing so quickly when they’re the ones driving the design of their workplace?
GL: I don’t think this makes Facebook much of an outlier since I imagine Google gave NBBJ a lot of input. Facebook is evolving, hiring, and adding new functions so quickly that the company believes it must be able to spawn out a whole new product group at a moment’s notice. The result is that it’s very reluctant to conform to planted physical space. Instead, they’ll just mount work surfaces on castors so they can rearrange the space as necessary. I think this is: A. Really interesting, B. It’s similar to the urban dynamic I write about, which describes why cities work so well, and C. If I were an architect it would scare the hell out of me because they’re basically saying, “You can’t figure us out. You can’t design spaces for us that morph as quickly as we need them to, so just give us a big box.”
DH: We’ve seen sit-to-stand workstations established as a standard in Scandinavian countries and other parts of Europe at a rapid pace. In the US, however, that’s been lagging. Recently, Innovant has seen a surge in requests for adjustable height desks. Do you think this notion of adapting our workplaces for health and safety reasons is a real and sustainable shift, or is it just a trend?
GL: I don’t have informed opinion on this, though I would say yes. I think it’s a real trend, which is part of the larger notion of choice and the awareness that people no longer have to sit in an uncomfortable chair at an uncomfortable desk. Instead, they’re demanding a range of motions and a range of environments for work.
As Nilofer Merchant put it, “Sitting is the smoking of our generation.” I’ll be curious to see whether this achieves the status of a crusade, though it will be hard to trace its origins since there seems to be a greater acceptance of design and choice in the US. I certainly think the desire for public space and a range of motions at one’s desk are a part of a larger trend.
DH: Based on what you know about how work is changing, how do you envision the workplace of the future?
GL: The key is that it’s not just a workplace. The workplace of the future is merged intimately with the other environments around it. You’ll have environments that exist either to put your head down and work alone, or you’ll be involved in socializing; either you’re plugged into the cloud or you’re really involved in physical space with people while executing multiple work modes at once.
The workplace of the future won’t start by walking into an elevator lobby or parking your car outside a suburban office complex and going inside to sit at a desk, where there’s nothing but desks and there’s nothing but work. I imagine the street intersecting with the building, so that the moment blurs when you walk into the office out of what today would be a coffee shop, restaurant or retail complex.
The people you’re working with are not necessarily your professional colleagues. You chose that space because it’s designed for the kind of work you want to do and it houses the kind of people you need to work with (or not work with). I imagine you won’t necessarily be choosing where and how you work based on who is paying you. Instead, you’ll base your decision on a space’s relevant functions, which will blend with the city somehow.
The word I keep coming back to is permeability. We need to break open the walls of the office to allow other elements in. This will allow the office to leak out into the city and the city to leak into the office. I think the next step is to determine exactly how that looks. We’ve begun talking about multiple environments in a workplace, but when we take that further, the discussion will be about the environments of the city and vice versa.
DH: What I find most exciting about your vision is the notion of choice –
GL: Exactly! Choice, something we don’t normally associate with going to work.
DH: Right, it’s empowering to think that someday we’ll have the choice to flow throughout the office (or even out of it) in an attempt to find the right workspace.
GL: I don’t think this change will come because employers are more enlightened, which is what we’re seeing with technology companies now. Anybody who’s involved in knowledge work knows what it takes to come up with good ideas. What makes a good working environment on paper is a diversity of opinions and backgrounds, a certain environment, and a certain mental mindset to even be able to think warm thoughts and come up with good ideas. Employers are going to give you the flexibility of choice so they can better harness your work, not because they’re warm and fuzzy. They simply want the best work from you.
DH: What will it take to convince employers that giving employees the flexibility of choice will produce the best work?
GL: Everything I’ve said so far is a mix of anecdotes and hypotheses. The real question is whether we can test any of this — what new sty
les of work, collaboration, and organization are emerging in cities? What kind of environments will be disrupted by these shifts? What solo- vs. group work patterns exist, how are they evolving, and how can they be mapped, understood and enhanced? How can new ways of organizing work in cities make people more creative, productive and happy? And what are the benefits of doing so— better retention rates? Higher productivity? Greater innovation? And how do we measure any of this?
I’m putting together a team of architects, data scientists and researchers to explore some of these questions. I’ll let you know when we have some answers.
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