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Floor Plans & Freud: The Psychology of Workplace Planning

Understanding clients’ needs by asking the right questions will help uncover the most appropriate path to designing effective workplace solutions.


If you thought workplace planning was just about square feet, employee numbers, materials, and color palettes, pull up a couch.

To plan a workplace that will truly make a client more efficient and productive, it is crucial to understand what a client organization’s true needs are. And needs are often different than wants. For everyone involved, getting to this truth requires a new way of thinking about workplaces, a new and deeper way of interacting with clients, and a new understanding of what drives the right workplace solutions. One of the worst things we can do as planners and designers is to develop brilliant solutions to the wrong problem.

What defines a workplace?
The idea of the workplace has evolved dramatically. Not that long ago “workplace” referred only to the built environment—the furniture, the walls, all the physical components of the space. Today, however, workplace planning must consider much more than this: technology, for example.

Workplace planning in the 21st century must take technology into account in a very serious way. How should technology be integrated into the space? Are there projectors in meeting rooms? Is there WiFi access? The answers to these and other questions can change the nature of how people use the spaces and the way we plan for them.

Another consideration is sustainability, which has become a much more mainstream issue in the last decade. Thinking about sustainability means thinking about things such as materials and resources, about the impact our choices have on the environment, as well as the impact they have on the health and well-being of the people who work in our spaces. It also includes the thinking about the amount of space we use, and the resources required to heat, cool, and power these spaces. And there’s much more.

But ultimately we must keep in mind that we are designing for people, specifically to help people do their work more productively. Even if we design the most elegant, beautiful, technologically advanced, wholly sustainable space, if it doesn’t help people do their work, we have missed the mark. The challenge is to ensure that all of these factors are working together and impacting the human experience in the most positive, productive way for our clients.

The evolution of work
Another reason that the way we think about the workplace has to change is that the whole way we think about work has changed. Again, technology is a prime culprit; we now communicate in ways and at speeds that were not merely unknown, but unimaginable, not too long ago. And it’s not as if the change is over. In fact, it’s accelerating, which means “designing for tomorrow” is far from an empty platitude. It is a necessity.

Another significant factor in how we need to think differently about work is worker mobility. Smart devices, mobile hardware, the insatiable cloud, and near-ubiquitous WiFi have freed workers from their desks as never before. No longer tied to physical spaces to access people and information, many workers are spending more time working from everywhere but the office. Many companies, some very publicly, are still wrestling with whether and how much worker mobility is right for them, and it’s a different answer for everyone. But, true mobility is more possible than ever before, and makes the traditional “one workstation per person” planning model (and the idea that people spend all their time in that one space) obsolete.

Work has also evolved in terms of who is doing it. We have a more diverse workforce than ever before—generational differences have gotten most of the attention recently—but also diversity in gender, background, training/experience, and personality types. That means we workplace planners need to build in flexibility and create solutions that suit a wide range of user needs.

Strategy vs. design
With the recent proliferation of workplace strategy experts and services offered by different organizations, what does that term really mean? How is workplace strategy different from workplace design? We think of them as different phases along the same continuum, towards the same end: client success. Workplace strategy describes how we think about all workplace factors together and understand what we are trying to achieve. Workplace design is about how we translate that goal into specific recommendations. You really can’t have one without the other. A strategy without a design plan is just an academic exercise. And a design without a strategy is just a guess. This is not to say that some projects are not more strategically focused and some more design focused. The point is that any project requires both identifying the right problem and then designing a great solution for it.

Understanding the real issues
Sounds obvious, you say? Yes, but also tricky. Today’s workplace is almost unfathomably complex, and getting an accurate understanding of what the right drivers are, what clients really need, and what we need to pay the most attention to is far from easy. Issues surrounding workplace change are often surrogates for larger issues of organizational change. This is where the psychology comes in.

Organizations are made up of humans, and as humans there is often a disconnect between what we want and what we need. Often, the underlying issues are very different from the ones being addressed. According to Sigmund Freud, if you’re arguing with your spouse, for example, it isn’t because you’re upset with your spouse, but rather that you are upset with your parents, you had a bad day, etc. Arguing with your spouse may be merely a symptom of a larger underlying issue.

Similarly, issues surrounding workplace change are often surrogates for larger issues of organizational change. It is important to understand your client’s larger business goals and whether something is going on that is either unspoken or not completely understood. Sometimes the “problem” isn’t the problem. For example, are you designing to encourage and facilitate collaboration? Or to reduce a real estate footprint? Or both? Many workplace change projects have competing drivers. To end up with the best design solution, we have to drill down with our client and get a deeper mutual understanding of what they’re truly trying to achieve with the workplace.

Think | act | interact | work
Sometimes when we talk about the psychology of space and the ways in which the built environment impacts the way we work, it can be perceived as a little “fluffy.” A lot of organizations may not fully appreciate the connection between the built environment and business outcomes. But there actually is a very strong one.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, the spaces we spend time in impact how we think, act, and interact with one another. This in turn affects how work happens, which can have a huge impact on how productive or successful an organization is. So it pays to be very aware of the strong connection between the kinds of behaviors we’re trying to encourage through our design and how effective that organization will be.

The fundamental attribution error
In social psychology there is a phenomenon called the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is defined as people’s tendency to overemphasize internal explanations for the behavior of others, while failing to take situational factors into account. As a corollary, we tend to do the opposite when it comes to ourselves. Consider this example: You’re driving down the street and somebody cuts in front of you. Your immediate reaction is “What a jerk! What a terrible driver.” We automatically blame his behavior on internal factors. If we, on the other hand, cut in front of someone, we attribute it to an external factor—“I’m not familiar with this area,” or “I didn’t see the turn-off.”

The more objective truth is that people’s behavior in general is much more attributable to surroundings—their environment and situational factors—than we tend to give it credit for. With workplace design, it’s important to keep in mind that the environments we create can, indeed, have a significant impact on the way people behave.

Go beyond the numbers
Conventional space planning or programming is typically based on quantitative factors—how much square footage, how many employees, what number of this, what size of that, etc. While these considerations are certainly vital to any solution, they should not be considered the whole picture. There can be, and often are, qualitative factors that can change the entire nature of the problem and render even a quantitatively perfect solution unusable. It is critical to understand a client’s corporate culture, to appreciate fully what its real business drivers are, and to understand what is actually happening within the organization.

Context changes everything. It is possible to give a client exactly what he or she asks for but not give them what they need. We need to consider all of this, because in the end these qualitative factors can trump design and trump strategy.

Getting the right quantitative data is straightforward enough. Fully understanding the qualitative issues is a little more involved. It requires a multi-method approach. One method is conducting high-level visioning interviews with leadership from your client company. Ask lots of questions and pay close attention to the answers—both spoken and unspoken.

Who do they think they are? What kind of company do they aspire to be? Are they formal? Informal? How is work accomplished? Is their organization hierarchical? Is it flat? Understanding your client in these overarching ways helps you begin to focus in and narrow the realm of possible solutions.

It’s a way to avoid, as we said earlier, creating a brilliant solution to the wrong problem.

One size does not fit all
Correctly identifying your client’s quantitative and qualitative requirements is only the beginning. There can be, and usually are, many different functions within an organization—legal, HR, manufacturing, IT, marketing, etc. One overall workplace solution would probably not be equally effective for all of them. The opportunity that comes with a thorough understanding of your client’s true needs is that you can create different specific solutions all while working within the same original realm of possibility.

The earlier in the process we can identify what the high level strategy should be, the more effectively and efficiently we can make the right choices. It affects not only the type of space you’ll design, but also the quantity and quality of space you’ll need.

Are you designing a more open environment? Or a more enclosed one? A mobile/distributed plan, for example, allocates the utilization of space on a sort of as-needed basis. People come and go and do not have permanently assigned offices. By contrast, a conventional plan presumes one desk per person with everyone functioning in more or less the same way. These are very different realms of consideration and will take you to very different solutions.

A shifting process
Traditionally, a workplace design project was set in motion by an event such as a lease expiration or pending move. There was a short programming phase, using mostly the quantitative factors we’ve discussed. Then space planning and schematic design, i.e., the general mix of spaces, and how people fit into this mix. Then translating this information into the actual design, then the technical specifications and, finally, building out the space.

These days the schedules tend to look a little different. First of all—and this will come as no shock to anyone—the overall timeframe is being compressed. It’s a much shorter process overall. What’s more, the proportionality among the phases is also shifting, with the programming phase becoming much more important. People have discovered that spending more time up-front, asking big questions early can save a lot of time, money, and headaches down the road. Changes in design and architectural technology have enabled the design development and contract documents phases to become faster and more efficient.

Change is a constant
When we think about workspaces, it’s important to think about how they will change, and how the realities within them will change. A building typically lasts 40 to 50 years without major renovations, but within it and around it things change much faster. Interiors are changed and refitted about every 10 to 15 years. Workforces turn over every five to seven years; it is estimated that a current college graduate will work for between 12 and 15 different organizations during his or her career. That’s a lot. This means in a five-year span, a company could experience a significant transition in its workforce population, affecting corporate culture, institutional memory, and more. In addition, businesses’ focus can change every three to five years due to changing economic conditions, business conditions, and even elections or policy changes.

Lastly, there is technology, which seems like it changes every five minutes, but significantly changes within organizations, on average, every 12 to 18 months.

The point of all this is, of course, that we have to design with flexibility in mind. We have to recognize that the problems we are solving today will change in the future. More challenging, perhaps, we have to help our clients look at the project through that lens, too. Doing so successfully will certainly give them a better, more long-term solution, but it will also give you a better, stronger relationship with your client. You will be much more than a mere service provider; you will become a strategic partner.

Space utilization
Responsible businesses making decisions about their future usually look to their past for clues about what to do. What worked in the past? What didn’t? What can we learn? It makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case when it comes to space utilization. We’ve just sort of made assumptions and proceeded. Encouraging your client to take an objective look at their current space utilization can be very revealing, helping them realize what space they utilize well, what not so well, and what to do going forward.

Here is one example: A company took a snapshot in time across its real estate portfolio at how many people were at their desks. They found that 31 percent were “here” at their desks at any given time, 12 percent were “near,” away for a moment, getting coffee or meeting a co-worker, and 34 percent were “clear,” or not in that day. And, lastly, 23 percent were “vacant,” and not assigned to anyone. So at any given time, more than 50 percent of their desks were not being used. That certainly gives an organization and a designer something to think about.

We hasten to say that the answer is not to get rid of 50 percent of the desks. The answer is to understand better where the people are who are not at their desks and what they are doing. A realistic and objective understanding of work patterns is a valuable step in planning and designing the most efficient and effective workspaces.

Designing for collaboration
As we mentioned earlier, many organizations are embracing more collaborative ways of working. But collaboration is not just one thing. It is a broad term describing many different ways that people work together. So designing for collaboration, deciding how many and what size of collaborative spaces are needed requires an explicit understanding of how your client actually works. Most meetings average about three to four people. Yet more than half of all meeting rooms are for 10 to 15 or more people.

One client we know of said they needed more meeting rooms. Their biggest complaint from employees was that rooms were never available. This was a big company in a huge building; they had more than 37,000 sq.ft. of meeting spaces over several floors among all their departments. But these rooms were only being used on average 26 percent of the time. What was the problem?

It turns out that it was not a space problem at all, but an allocation problem. Each department hoarded their own meeting space, not sharing with other departments. It was an organizational issue, and building out additional meeting spaces would not have eliminated the problem. Digging down to uncover truths like this allows you to ask your client if they are willing to, in this case, share meeting spaces among departments. As Freud reminds us, sometimes the problem isn’t the problem.

Understanding work
There are four fundamental work patterns: first, there’s “Focusing,” which tends to be individual, concentrated, and uninterrupted work. Second, there’s “Collaborating,” which can be anything from face-to-face to virtual, formal or informal, and can take place in spaces established just for this purpose. Thirdly, there’s work that’s more “Socializing”—it’s casual, informal, ad hoc. Finally, there’s work that is more “Learning” oriented, usually more formal interaction that involves one person sharing information with a group.

Starting with these four work types, and understanding the mix of what behaviors you’re designing for, can be a good way to create the right mix of space types. The right space for a highly social group is likely very different than that of a highly focused group. Again, understanding how your client embodies these different work patterns can help you create the work environment that best helps them and encourages the right type of behaviors.

Think like a psychologist
As you can see, Freud has more to do with creating the right floor plan than you might have thought. To review: You want to understand at the deepest possible level what is driving your clients’ decisions. It is essential to ask the right questions, and to approach the problem from multiple perspectives. You not only need to think outside the box, you also need to figure out how to take your client out there with you on a journey of discovery and creation. You need to learn from your experience, but not be limited by it. Don’t assume. Question everything.

Only then are we best able to understand what we’re designing for.