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.

What comes first – great leaders or great followers?

Sharing by furiousgeorge81.  Source: Flickr.
Sharing by furiousgeorge81. Source: Flickr.

Jye Smith‘s post Great Leaders, Great Followers on his blog A Digital Perspective
echoed many of the sentiments I feel about leadership and ‘followership’ – and what indeed does come first great leaders or great followers (or as Jye calls them supporters)? Can you have one without the other?

Inspired in part by 10 ways to be a great follower (which is a fantastic post) Jye states

Maybe the qualities of great leaders and great supporters aren’t so different?
By providing a platform of understanding and embrace, you’re doing a large part of what you can to be led, and likewise, a large part of what you can to lead.

To be a great leader you also need to be a great follower. This goes beyond the management and leadership debate and instead recognises the value and importance of leadership across all levels, both horizontally and vertically, within an organisation.

Follower is an uncomfortable term but implies greater participation than simply supporter. Support can be inactive, where as following implies action and participation. For example I think we all support the efforts of charities such as World Vision, but how many of us donate and/ or become invested and follow the charities activities?

A great follower:

  • Self manages well
  • Is committed: both to the organisation and to the purpose which brought the leader and follower together
  • Works with others to reach organisational goals – without needing star billing
  • Builds their capability and focuses their efforts for maximum impact and
  • Is courageous, honest and credible.

From these, you can see that the attributes of a follower are shared with that of a leader and as such through building effective followership skills, leadership capabilities are also fostered.

A follower plays an active contributing role whereas a leader leads other individuals in the collaborative effort – however both have shared responsibility for outcomes (differing from accountability which generally falls to the leader rather than the whole team).

Mark Hurd, CEO of Hewlett Packard describes this as ‘leadership as a team sport’ – and is based on the concept of shared leadership. This moves beyond organisational hierarchies and creates leaders at all levels throughout the organisation – recognising that succes relies upon individuals, teams, and departments working in collaboration both vertically and horizontally across the organisation. In shared leadership the roles of leader and follower are not mutually exclusive or static roles – nor is one afforded more status or importance than the other. Staff members should be able to flexibly move in and out of leader and follower roles as required. The relationship between the two roles is symbiotic being in one or the other role depends on the situation or organisational need.

Shared leadership requires courage at the top of an organisation to relinquish control and flatten heirarchies to allow all organisational leaders (not just managers) to make decisions as appropriate. For me, the strength of a great leader recognises the potential in others and works to bring that to the fore.  A great leader enables a great follower.

Like the old adage – behind every great man stands a great woman…behind every great leader stands a great follower.  Committed, engaged and capable followers, enable great leaders.

So what does come first – a great leader or a great follower?

The shift toward innovation, culture and design thinking

Innovation in Corporate America by Ross Mayfield via Flickr

Reflecting on the business morning of Design Capital, part of the State of Design Festival, three weeks on three key themes continue to recur in my mind.
• Innovation
• Organisational culture
• Design thinking

Roy Green, University of Technology Sydney Business School, commenced the morning stating:

For knowledge and innovation, the global financial crisis changes nothing. The real challenge is to link short term recovery to long term competitive advantage.

Green discussed that even within the crisis, those countries who have invested the most in knowledge still have budget surplus – for example Sweden. This is due to the recognition at a high level that innovation drives productivity growth, competitiveness and social inclusion.

Green presented many figures throughout his session including data on product innovation by companies; organisational collaboration in innovation activities; and research and development budgets – in all three areas Australia is lagging behind much of the developed world. What does this mean? To me, it says Australians, both as individuals and companies, are primarily forward thinkers but not so forward in action.

To overcome this Green concluded that organisations must:
1. Invest more in innovation
2. Invest in capabilities and skills for innovation
3. Invest in the management of innovation.

This is needed as innovation is becoming increasingly ‘organisational’, introducing new business models, technology absorption and systems integration. It is becoming ‘non-linear’ with multiple sources of knowledge and creativity, and increasingly driven by collaboration and networks rather than silos. It seems that currently organisations want to ‘do’ innovation without understanding or investing in the appropriate structures, requirements or development required to ensure long term organisational agility.

Peter Williams, CEO of Deloitte Digital, followed demonstrating the change in business models which results in innovation and rapid responsiveness to market (and ultimately success), made available through the social web.

He demonstrated what is possible if organisations are flexible and agile enough within this environment, however most organisations are still governed by structures that do not enable the flow of creativity or innovation required and do not understand the paradigm shift to a social world and the implications this has for business.

Williams stated ‘Corporate culture is an issue: openness, self organisation, and self governance are alien to this environment’.

Innovation will continue to be contrained in organisations where questions such as these prevail: Who owns it? Who’s in control? What are the deliverables? How much will we make? What will happen if someone says something wrong/ bad?

Williams reiterated Clay Shirky’s ‘Failure for free’ concept discussing the core importance of learning by doing in the current environment. With low costs and speed to market, business cases are not required, just launch.

Williams introduced the notion of social innovation and porous design being critical – how can you get people to innovate for you? He introduced a number of success examples of this:
iPhone: the mass numbers of applications being developed daily by the audience
Threadless: you design the t-shirt, population votes on favourites, whichever is most popular is printed
Innocentive: innovation challenges solved by a global community of experts

In Williams words ‘start somewhere, do, reflect and go again’. Oliver Freeman, host of Design Capital summed up Pete Williams presentation as ‘we need to give ourselves up to the anarchic state. In this environment quantity = quality and the diamonds will filter through’.

Moving toward providing capability and the appropriate structure and environment within an organisation for innovation, Joseph Correnza, Principal from Arup Australia presented partly on their workplace design culture. He discussed ‘innovation is the responsibility of each person in the organisation, not a particular team’. Their design culture involves integrated thinking and a holistic approach which is key to the company’s identity and the basis of their differentiation. Their philosophy and culture is built upon:
• knowledge+experience: including knowledge sharing, participating reviews and critiques, networks and forums, professional and technical training.
• creativity+invention: supports original thought, encourages exploration, search for inspiration, communicating ideas, engage in dialogue and passion, allow incubation and maturation.
• holistic+mulitdimensional: discovering cause and effect, encapsulating multiple perspective, developing an appreciation of drivers, working within a cross disciplinary environment, considering the community and society, composition and harmony

In particular it was emphasised the importance of developing confidence within people to explore their own ideas.

Correnza also discussed design thinking as an influence toward Arup’s culture, as the process which leads to the outcome involving:
• Problem definition and translation
• Option creation and exploration
• Selection and refinement
• Execution and delivery
The design thinking process mirrors closely the concepts within Correnza’s Designers Toolkit presented, being made up of: exploration, testing, optomising, collaborating, delivering and immersing. The language may differ but the principles remain aligned.

Previously Green had discussed design thinking as being key for the workplace of the future, which is agile, engaged and collaborative – and which in turns enables innovation. Williams supported this, presenting the importance of design thinking in business models as it provides the opportunity to identify talent, allows openness in process and participation, and the occasion to introduce porous design and incentives to get involved.

So what do I take away from all of this?
The concepts of innovation, organisational culture and design thinking are somewhat intertwined and interdependent for business agility and success. I want to say this will be important in the future, however the paradigm shift is already occurring, people are increasingly social and collaborative, there is greater expectations on response times and engagement. Organisations need to reevaluate and move from primarily process based, closed heirarchical systems and allow creative thinking and innovation, increase nimbleness and time to market, and change their cultural approach to structures and work practices or find themselves falling off the cliff as the new social paradigm fully takes off. It is apparent to me that collaboration and innovation are high on our priorities list within Australian organisations but in actuality appropriate investment, both monetary and personnel, are not being invested to encourage and support this.

Williams summed up his core themes on the Deloitte Digital Blog.
View Neil Shewan from Tank Studio’s response to Design Capital.