Using participatory design for redesigning organisations

I awoke to a beautiful morning in Melbourne today – perhaps Spring is finally on our doorstep and realised that in fact I was supposed to be in beautiful Spain today instead delivering a paper at the Information Seeking in Context conference. Thankfully I have a wonderful co-author and our ‘compromise’ was I would develop our presentation and she would have the ‘tiresome’ job of travelling to Spain and delivering it on both our behalves. I still haven’t quite worked out the equality in that deal…

Within Auraria Library at the University of Colorado, Denver something is happening…employees are engaged in collaboratively designing their workplace structures and systems. A new University Librarian, Dr Mary M Somerville,  was catalyst to providing the opportunity for change. Auraria Library was transformed into a social organisation in which individual and  collective capabilities developed through workplace socialisation processes.

Within just the first few weeks a new leadership structure was in place – not a radical organisational restructure or overthrow but a shared leadership structure – not based on heirarchy, but on drawing together a representative group across all functions and levels of the organisation.

This first phase of the  project used an appreciative inquiry process where each staff member was engaged in a conversation with the University Librarian or a senior leader (yes, the people at the top) in regard to their personal histories and future aspirations – liberated from corporate memory and past performances. Long term employees in this regard were offered a fresh start and the opportunity to tell their own story. This looking back and forward process empowered staff with not only a voice but also recognition of their service and wealth of experience. Through this process of discovery, staff were able to reframe their histories and renegotiate their roles. This resulted in the reorganisation of staff and redefinition of teams and roles in line with strategic goals, immediate business needs, individual skills and interests.

Phase two of the project employed participatory co-design approaches to imagine and redesign organisational information and communication systems. This process was facilitated through participatory design workshops on communication, decision making, and planning system elements which support the Library’s shared leadership philosophy.

The workshops allowed participants to express workplace values, critique current organisational processes and systems, and imagine an idealised work environment resulting in the co-design of potential solutions.  For example, participants articulated ideas such as valuing learning from one another. This raised the question of how does this occur and how do you implement intentional social learning elements into the work environment? And what measures can provide evidence of the value and impact of these learning encounters? By the conclusion of the workshops, participants had identified and in some cases co-designed a number of initiatives to implement the concept of ideal workplace communication systems.  These ranged from small initiatives such as standard file naming conventions for ease of repository retrieval to much larger and more ambitious initiatives.

Many of the initiatives identified within these workshops are now common work practice within the organisation. They are successful – and staff love them – because they were engaged in the process of ideating and designing them and they are specific to the context and needs of the people within their workplace. This was not a one off set of initiatives but the commencement of ongoing iterative collaborative design cycles to continue to build a workplace with and for Auraria Library employees.

Involving your staff in redesigning the workplace to be more effective for them – as individuals, as teams and as an organisation – is achievable and results in not just better systems and processes but more engaged and happier staff. So it can be done. Have you done something similar in your organisation? If you have I would love to hear about it. If you haven’t I challenge you to have a go – you may just be surprised by the amazing ideas and improvements your team come up with.

There is lots more to the story so if you got this far you may like to read the  full paper.

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Designing workplaces conducive to work

In an episode of the US sitcom Better Off Ted a staff survey revealed low employee morale. To solve this, the director Veronica calls Linda, an employee, into her office and asks what would make the employees happy. Linda says the company treats them all like drones and suggest Veronica let everyone decorate their cubicles to let their workspace feel more personal and individual. The next day Linda arrives at her cubicle to find it’s already been decorated with cats. Veronica explains that upper management believed it too risky to allow employees to decorate their own spaces and so each was decorated for them in one of four inoffensive themes: Green Bay Packers, cats, cars, and space.

This unfortunately is not so far fetched from some of our own workplaces where customisation, personalisation and social identity are often suppressed or discouraged. The norm is to assign people a generic workspace of sorts with a desk, PC, chair, small filing cabinet, pinboard and a whiteboard if you’re lucky.

We are all familiar with the Google style of offices – kooky interiors, in house chefs, gym fit outs, dream boy games rooms and the like to encourage creativity, innovation, engagement and collaboration. Closer to real life many workplaces are redecorating with bold colours, a variety of tastefully mismatching furniture and eye catching wall graphics in the hope of envoking a sense of fun and impacting organisational culture and collaboration in a positive manner. These are often architecturally impressive but functionally disappointing.

Macquarie Bank, at their new state of the art fit out at One Shelley Street in Sydney takes the ‘Google model’ one step further with the introduction of activity based working. From architects Woods Bagot:

In this new environment, no occupant has an assigned desk: rather the work space provides employees with a variety of settings that allow them to do specific tasks in tailored work settings. This design philosophy encourages increased collaboration and a more productive mode of working. An employee has an anchor point, which is allocated as their ‘home base’ and it is here that their locker and storage resides. The design embraces the changing needs of Macquarie staff (and other users) through the employment of technology (laptops, touch screens, USB ports, WiFi etc.) to enable completely mobile and flexible ‘real time’ work with colleagues.

It does also include some of that Google office style and feel as architects Clive Wilkinson describe:

Numerous work zones surround the atrium, designed to house 100 employees each in adaptable neighborhoods…The Main Street on Level 1 offers communal spaces that are highly conducive to corporate and philanthropic events and includes a café and dining areas. Within the office floors ‘Plazas’ were modeled after collaboration typologies—the Dining Room, Garden, Tree House, Playroom, and Coffee House, where cross-pollination among business groups is encouraged through spontaneous encounters.

This recognises that people’s work styles are changing and each have differing work preferences and needs – which can differ on any given day and according to the task at hand. Activity based working provides autonomy to employees to work in the space and manner of their choosing.

When determining favoured work styles I like to ask the question: how do you work at home? I listen to music, change rooms throughout the day, and my posture will vary from lying on the couch with the laptop on my lap to perching on a bar stool at my breakfast bench to sitting at a regular desk with an OHS style chair. It is in these spaces where I feel comfortable that I am most creative, productive, efficient and happy rather than my more sterile white work pod.

Activity based working as demonstrated by Macquarie Bank translates my home experience to some extent into the workplace. It allows people to work where the want, the way they want, according to the work they need to achieve.

The lesson here?
This era of mass customisation and individualism has not yet invaded the majority of organisations who still attempt to control the space and methods of how people work. People want to be able to create and customise their own workspace according to their preference, mood and need on any given day as much as they vary the music they listen to on their iPods. This requires a large shift in trust in organisations – where proximity to supervisors, clean desks, neat dress and strategy models plastered to pods does not make a good or a happy worker. Instead, design workplaces people want to work in, that are conducive to work. Create flexible workspaces where furniture is easily movable and adjustable into a variety of configurations suitable for both individual and collaborative work. If people are familiar and comfortable within their space it assists in inspiring motivation, efficiency, productivity, creativity, innovation…and work.

If you have other examples (and preferably an image) of other organisations using activity based working or flexible configurable workspaces I would love to hear about it.