MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

The power and potential of platforms and pathways in workspace design

We’ve made great strides in workplace design over the past decade.

Informed by increasingly enlightened management practices, augmented by mobile technology, supported by new developments in furniture and equipment design, and shaped by the significantly different workstyles and working relationships of a new generation, the workspace became more relevant to the emerging world of work.

The complexity and layers of facility standards were reduced, the workplace became more open, and the social nature of work advanced from the cafes and foosball tables of the model to more sophisticated understanding of the informal networks that are essential for good team work. Employee dread with the assumed characteristics of concepts like “free addressing” was replaced by comfort with the discovered benefits from agility and flexibility in working and organizing dynamically.

The best-in-class office now exhibits a significant shift of resources toward team work from the hierarchical management model of a generation before. Despite these advances, and with the impacts and influences of the economic pressures and strategies of the past couple of years combining with the rapid and continuing evolution in the nature of work, many of us are yearning for more.

What is that’s missing now? Where is the value of the workplace shifting? What’s next?

Time has become more precious making the effectiveness of place more important

A key factor in our discontent may be the quality of the contexts in which we work.

Time has become more precious. That is, as information, context, and opportunity grab more of our attention and time, we have come to place more value in the nature and quality of our experiences.

The tools we now use are beautiful objects and also perform very well, yet we also expect a sustaining relationship with them. We customize them, augment them with personally selected apps, and embed them with more and more of the information that enrich the quality of our lives and the performance of our work.

As our time working in and out of conventional office environments has become more fragmented, and the management of the relationships, networks and information we use has become more complex, we now seek a relationship with place, as we have with our tools, that augments and amplifies our identify, our image and our effectiveness.

Said another way, the preciousness of time increases our attention to purpose, and this attention, this measure of effectiveness makes the experiences of working – the unique and valuable experiences of working – more important.

What matters is no longer how much time we put in at the office, but how effective the time is that we do spend there. What makes that time more valuable are the experiences we have while we are there.

The “performance” movement aimed inaccurately

“Performance,” the consistently referenced metric of the effectiveness of the knowledge worker began to be a focus for workplace design. The “high performance workplace” was a goal to be reached through new approaches to office design.

But over the past decade, a key measure of workplace “performance” became, instead, the cost of its real estate. The less space dedicated per person in a corporate space supposedly meant increasing performance for the organization.

Mobility programs, for example, had the potential of increasing individual and team performance by introducing more flexibility and choice into the workplace. These programs rapidly lost authenticity as they became a real estate tool rather than a human resources and creative management tool. “Mobility” became a program used to push people out of the office to find their own workplaces as a means to reduce the cost burden of corporate real estate.

This unintended yet driving “performance” metric was, of course, one with diminishing returns. Not only was there a finite limit to the amount and cost of space that could be cut, but signs also emerged of a resulting reduction in the creative or productive output of organizations.

A key issue was the experience of working. That is, as space decreased, so interactions, the engine of innovation and of engagement, also decreased.

The office went from a place where people came to work together to a place where nobody wanted to work. As long as the workplace is measured as real estate it will be perceived as a cost, as well.

The emerging world of work demands a radically different approach to workspace planning and design

I think that the emerging world of work demands a radically different approach to workplace planning and design.

Let’s turn to a survey, of sorts, of projections for what the emerging world of work might look like. Why, in other words, do I believe that it is time for a shift?

There has been a significant body of research and analysis done in recent years to comprehend and understand the “information age,” “knowledge work” and the characteristics of the “knowledge worker.”

Similarly, the change in generations, or more specifically, the rather radical shift in the characteristics of the first generation emerging from and influenced by the technological embeds of the “Information Age,” has shaped a new body of thinking about what work is and looks like to this emerging generation and also the influence their workstyles may have on what work looks like for everyone else.

Here are just a few of the projected characteristics of the emerging world of work –

  • An individual’s social networks and their ability to capitalize on them mean that companies will hire those with higher 
“reputation capital”
  • Increasing developments in mobile technology change everything about work, both where and how it is done
  • The increasing importance of teaming, the power of social networks and the potentials in communications technology enable the formation of “work swarms” – connected individuals forming teams quickly to capitalize on opportunity
  • A generation immersed in gaming may use some of its organizational principles, like the formation of guilds, to form high performing teams and leading companies to hire not individuals but entire teams
  • Successful individuals will have a different mind-set characterized by global thinking and cross-cultural power, social participation, openness to continuous and contextual learning, and speedy movement on identified opportunities
  • The continuing merging of work and life will be accepted as a new normal, and the value of flexibility will replace the values of separation or balance
  • Non-routine skills become more important, work becomes more informal and spontaneous, and skills in charrettes or sketch-ups become increasingly valuable

What seems significant and characteristic in these projections is the importance of time, a focus on purpose, the value of flexibility, the accommodation of the non-routine, the power in new but temporary operational forms, and the rising influence of externally-connected individuals and teams over internally managed organizations.

What seems significant, in other words, is the increasing value of experiential design – the qualities and characteristics places and spaces that will be sought by self-defined and ad-hoc teams to support speed and effectiveness in their quest to capitalize on emerging opportunity.

We are at a point where neither the centrally-provided and regulated workplace of the past nor the anonymous and commercial “third place” workplace of the mobile worker satisfies. What guides our thinking for the next workplace?

The shift in value toward tacit knowledge

As the value of knowledge has shifted from that which we hold unto ourselves to that which we share with others drawing them to participate, our attention is drawn more to the power an potential in tacit knowledge.

Organizational evolution and development takes place through a continuous interchange between two forms of knowledge.

Explicit knowledge is formally codified and transferred, and is transmitted in easily accessible forms such as words, numbers, and formulas.

Tacit knowledge is expressed in more than words and frequently without words, and involves both cognitive and technical skills – beliefs, images, intuition, craft, know-how.

Tacit knowledge is difficult to develop and uncover, yet it is the most valuable form of knowledge for the evolution and sustainability organizations. It is subjective and experiential, and is frequently context-specific.

In an economy in which explicit knowledge is more easily and rapidly transferred, it carries the threat of diminishing value. Tacit knowledge, the unique and differentiated knowledge of people and organizations, carries increasing and potentially accelerating value in this economy.

Tacit knowledge, however, has been called “sticky” knowledge. It is best transferred between individuals through socialization, and this requires a context of shared experiences and direct interactions.

It is becoming clear that the surviving and thriving organizations of the future will be the ones who can uncover, access, augment and accelerate the flows of knowledge.

The importance of socialization and experience

Uncovering and unleashing the power of tacit knowledge, which requires social interaction, moves our attention from the attractiveness of place to the attraction of great experiences.

The relatively nascent discipline of “experiential design” as applied in the workplace has moved us from a closed, process-oriented workplace to a more open collaborative place of creativity and innovation.

The principle tools of this wave of design were developed and used to illuminate the social nature of work and enhance the potential to capture its undefined but anticipated benefits. This initial focus on the social has aimed inaccurately. While supporting the kind of interaction that contributes to cultural development, this first wave of workplace innovation brought socializing spaces – the Starbucks model – into the workplace.

However, it missed the more powerful purpose of socialization – to move tacit knowledge through an organization. That is, the innovators of workplace design focused on the thing rather the purpose.

After a decade of embedding “social” spaces in organizations, we are learning more of what this term socialization really means. We have learned that Increasing the value of the experience means moving the organization from measuring the performance of place to measuring the potential of people. It means moving from you measuring them to them measuring you.

It means moving from measuring things to measuring interactions.

This is why it is time for a new shift in what we’ve called “experiential design.” How do you add value to the experience of working when the places of that experience are exhausted?

Platforms and pathways

I’ve become influenced recently by the work of John Hagel and John Seely Brown, leaders of the Deloitte Center for the Edge. Although their most recent book, The Power of Pull, mainly addresses the domain of technology innovation, I’ve found many of its principles – how small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion – to be relevant to the way I think about the role of the workspace.

Hagel calls the power of pull “the ability to draw out people and resources as needed to address opportunities and challenges...unleashing forces of attraction, influence and serendipity.”

This “drawing out” means moving from the measurement of the performance of place and people, a diminishing return, to the potential of people supported by the right kinds of spaces, an increasing return.

A key tool in capturing this potential is experiential design. Hagel defines two environments to consider for the value of the experiences they host – platforms and pathways. Platforms are teaming environments designed to attract and support “diverse providers and users of resources.” The are the foundations that provide the experiences that enable teams to be effective, to spawn new teams, and to create and capitalize on rich connections between them.

Pathways are the channels through which people participate in and contribute to flows of knowledge. Pathways include the networks we communicate with and through, and the relationships with people and resources where we find the information and experiences that enable us to learn, grow, develop and evolve.

Let’s imagine the look and feel, the experiential quality, of a workspace designed as a “pull platform” –

  • It has a “plug-and-play” nature designed for the convenience of its users, rather than its providers. It is modular, and both self sustaining as well as compatible for connection with others.
  • It is flexible, able to respond to otherwise unanticipated needs of its users and participants.
  • It is dynamic and adaptable, with features that allow it to support and capture increasing returns.
  • It is evolutionary and its value is enhanced by the improvisation, experimentation and improvements generated by its users.
  • It is a rich environment, providing intrinsic rewards to its users who are committed to its use and contribute to its value.

This concept, using the workspace and the tools and principles of experiential design, is, I believe, the next focus for leading workplaces. Planning in this way can yield sustained attention and increasing interactions to uncover latent individual potential and drive organizational learning and improvement.

I believe we need to start a new discussion around the experience of work and how to generate tangible value from the workplace. We have to help companies see that “workplace strategy” is no longer about real estate but is instead about generating new business opportunity.

The old institutions are dying

Old institutions are dying and we are now at the front edge of a great social revolution. The technologies we use, the global ecosystem we share with others, and the ethos that informs our behaviors all influence a seismic shift in the ways that work is done.

New organizational and operational forms are emerging in response, and what we called “work” is now different in all of its dimensions.

It is shocking that everything about work has changed, but very little of the workplace has.

The leading organizations of the future will be the ones where a highly motivated, innovative, and focused workforce discovers to be the most effective places for them to achieve, learn, build networks, uncover opportunity, and build businesses.

I therefore believe that the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “get” the experiences of working. They will be organizations who understand that the emerging metric of performance, leadership and success is the growth in people’s potential driven by the effectiveness of the environments providing the experiences people seek and through which their organizations thrive.

I'll be pleased to have your comments.