Early in the spring of 2011, when me and my teammates kickstarted our Cradle to Cradle furniture project for EFG (European Furniture group), we all felt that some research had to be done on how people actually work during a typical workday and perhaps more importantly – how they wish they could work in the future if there were no barriers or strings attached. In short, before we started thinking of features and aesthetics for our furniture piece, we wanted to uncover what people desire in the office landscape of tomorrow.
As we set out to explore what the future office space of tomorrow ought to be, we talked to our peers, interviewed creative professionals and read about inspiring working environments such as Google, Facebook and Pixar. After a while, even though people were talking about it in different ways, it soon became apparent that they were all referring to the same thing: the ability to be innovative. What we mean by innovative is basically the ability to see new opportunities and then use resources within the organization to pursue them. Today, nobody can really argue against that the ability to be innovative is a fundamental advantage for any company, regardless if it’s a corporate giant or a start-up.
And as space is the stage for the overall work day experience, the office space itself needs to work hard on all fronts – it needs to support business processes, positively influence the corporate culture and fully accommodate the appropriate technology and tools. If done right, we reckoned that our workspace should support the symbiotic relationship of all these components in order to inspire and facilitate innovation.
On top of these conclusions, we came across a study of U.S. companies conducted in 2009 by Steelcase which showed that Generation Y’s new behaviors and work styles are driving new, dramatic shifts in knowledge work and the workplace. Generation Y is referred to as the millennial generation and is generally characterized by an increased use and familiarity with communications, media, and digital technologies. By drawing from the insights we gained from our user studies and literature as well our own opinions and experiences, this implies a workforce that value and seek variation both within the environment and the career, use social media as a communication and networking tool and take ubiquitous technologies and mobile computing for granted to live a ”work on anything anywhere” kind of lifestyle. Moreover, these shifts are being embraced rapidly by workers of all generations.
On our path of designing the workspace of tomorrow we navigated among a set of different key ingredients.
So as we were putting pen against paper to explore different design ideas for our furniture work space, not only did we know that the end result had to be innovative in the way it supports a Cradle to Cradle mindset, we also realized it ought to support the drivers of innovation within the work place as well as serving Generation Y’s preferences and habits. A rather daunting task.
However, courageous as we were, we pushed on with our design process and drafted our research findings on a list as a set of ”commandments”. Hence, we based our work on the following four guidelines and even though they might be up for debate they helped us to get our thinking clean of what the the workspace of tomorrow ought to be.
1. Make the space flexible
Innovation spaces need to be reconfigurable to support spontaneity and the ability to switch between different work modes. Reading requires a different setting compared to more creative tasks like sketching or brainstorming. We suspect there might be misperceptions today about what kind of spaces actually support innovation. An individual work area can’t support innovation easily, and a traditional conference room won’t either. A work space needs to be flexible to dynamically morph between these two settings. In addition, organizations may require use of the space by multiple project teams, simultaneously or in sequence, which makes flexibility all the more important. A workspace should also allow for team customization and personalization to reflect ownership and identification.
2. Make the space inspiring
Creating something new is fundamental to all knowledge work, and inspiration is especially important for those charged with product and service development and other areas of organizational innovation. Stimulating, engaging spaces can jumpstart and sustain creative thinking. It’s important to make room for abundant natural light and views as well as to include natural elements and materials throughout the space.
3. Make the space collaborative
Innovation teams require a shared mind. Individual insights and memory need to become group learning and memory — the sooner, the better — and the history of the project needs to be readily discernible to reduce unnecessary backtracking and errors. Hence, one should be able to easily place individual workspaces around group spaces to maximize visibility and provide group areas for informal brainstorming and informal information swaps. In fact, from our research we learned that people would much rather move dynamically between different settings in the office as opposed to sitting at the same place all day. The reason was that you are more likely to have informal information swaps with your coworkers as you are moving about – which brings us to the next and final point:
4. Make the space social
Social capital between co-creators is crucial for innovation to occur. It builds trust, especially important when teams are doing intense work. Open and relaxed areas for informal conversations are critical components for successful innovation spaces so one should provide comfortable lounge seating, café tables, and other furniture that invites mingling as well as convenient access to food and beverages. So casual collaboration should be located in areas in close proximity to work areas so it’s easy to take a break, swap stories, etc. Although, we also have to acknowledge that it’s worth considering privacy issues by providing enclosed spaces as well for, example audio and videoconferencing.
Whichever way you are looking at innovation within your organization, we think the design of the workspace is an important driver that can improve the speed and outcomes of innovation efforts. The next generation workspaces are a key element for reaching the Holy Grail of productivity of today and the right kinds of office spaces can help people collaborate, share knowledge, learn together, and build the social networks of trustful interaction that are so critical for solving the big or everyday challenges of today and tomorrow.
// David Bruer