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Designing for Possibility

Letting employees choose when, where, and how to work creates better collaboration and improved employee well-being.

03.08.2018 by John Hamilton

Perched on barstools, members of a design team gather around an oversized kitchen-style island for their weekly Monday morning meeting.

At noon, another group assembles around the same island to eat lunch. Three hours later, an employee grabs a seat and pops open her laptop while someone from another team spreads out drawings at the other end of the counter.

This is no imagined scenario. It’s a real space in a studio where I’ve spent countless hours. This work setting allowed our team to come together in ways that supported the work we were trying to accomplish while also serving as a social space. The room felt nothing like a corporate conference room, yet it was a brilliant meeting place. It felt right.

And because it wasn’t designed for any specific task, this space attracted and inspired people to use it in a variety of ways. Everyone used it for everything. That’s what made it so great.

Drawing Together Teams

This communal work setting is one example of a company helping its employees meet shared goals by drawing them together to do their best work.

Today’s business challenges are more complex than those of decades past. These challenges are best met not by individuals laboring alone but by groups of people coming together and sharing ideas. To solve tough problems, companies need their people to work together in groups, teams, and collaborative sessions.

The first step is to attract people to the office. If workers retreat to a neighborhood coffee shop because it’s a better place to work than the corporate office, the company has a problem.

That’s where architects and designers come in.

The challenge for design professionals is to create spaces that pull workers together—a broad range of ancillary office settings that are more inspiring and better equipped than any outside alternatives.

Diverse Destinations

These new spaces won’t look like traditional office environments. Instead, they introduce a diverse range of options—a greater variety of spaces designed to give workers maximum choice.

These settings should represent a rich mix of sizes, postures, and amenities:

  • Large and small spaces
  • Public and private settings
  • Open and enclosed spaces
  • Team and individual environments
  • Lounge-, desk-, and standing-height settings
  • Low-tech areas and spaces with fully integrated presentation and video conference technology

The idea is to provide a plurality of settings that give employees the choice over where, how, and with whom they want to work at any given time based on what they’re trying to accomplish.

I call this approach “programming for possibility” because, as in the kitchen island example, there’s no right or wrong way to use each space. The possibilities are wide open and the workers choose how to use their individual environments throughout the day.

For architects and designers, programming for possibility requires deep knowledge of their clients and how their workers interact. Understanding how an organization functions exposes its unique workspace requirements.

Yet, despite the need for tailored solutions, some needs are nearly universal. Every office or campus should include, for example, places for private conversations and lounge spaces where people can connect informally.

Moves Toward Faster Innovation

A workplace culture that encourages employees to choose how and where to work each day is a workplace that engenders engagement and trust. It motivates people to give their best.

What we’re really talking about is creating spaces that allow companies to innovate more quickly so they can achieve goals their competitors can’t. The way to innovate faster is to collaborate more—to bring individuals together to create connections and share ideas. As connections form and trust deepens, the work becomes richer. Ideas and solutions grow stronger.

Because these collaborative solutions develop in a shared, egalitarian way, they automatically come with strong support—not from a single champion but from a team of advocates. The solutions can therefore migrate through a company faster, gaining greater acceptance.

So, the more a company can provide spaces that bring people together collaboratively, the faster the organization will achieve innovations and breakthroughs.

A New Vibe

How can our industry help clients promote increased collaboration through increased diversity in work settings? What should this palette of spaces look like?

The trend we see today began in Europe with the concept of “loose” furniture. The concept calls for carefully composed settings with a more casual, residential style than office spaces of the past. People are drawn to work settings with a softer look and feel with more visual interest and textural variation.

This represents a pushback against conventional office furniture with its repeating packs of cubicles or galley of open-plan desks. Workers want their offices to reflect the comforts of home or the cafes they occupy when they’re on the road. They want to choose whether to sit at a desk or on a sofa, in a private enclave or in a social space.

They want to feel more at ease.

Well-Being at Work

Employee well-being is a closely related theme and one that successful organizations are pursuing as they face complex business challenges. Work environments with choice and diversity baked in demonstrate a commitment to supporting employees holistically. We see this in several ways:

  • Having the freedom to choose the places and postures that match their work styles makes employees more comfortable and less stressed, more empowered and less detached—increasing well-being. It promotes health and wellness by allowing them to unwind, recharge, and refocus.
  • Movement helps the brain and body work better. When companies encourage employees to change locations and postures—from sitting to standing, from group work to solo work, from upstairs to downstairs—people see benefits in their physical and emotional health. Movement gets the blood pumping and gives people access to different sources of light and air.
  • Instances of irregularity and diversity in the designed workplace environment remind people of being in the natural world. The field of biophilia shows that our minds are programmed to respond positively to the experience of being outdoors. When designers create spaces that mimic nature in subtle ways—through lighting, shadow, color, texture, pattern, scale, and variability—people pick up on those cues and feel happier and healthier.

Any investment a company makes in promoting the well-being of its workers will soon be repaid in lower absenteeism, higher employee engagement, greater effectiveness, and ultimately, a stronger position in the marketplace.

Managing Complexity

Programming for possibility is simple in theory—it’s in the execution that things become complex. However, that’s no reason to avoid the challenge. For architects and designers, in addition to their clients, the response to complexity lies in collaboration.

Design organizations that find partners to help manage the selection, ordering, and installation of these diverse spaces will find innovative solutions rich with possibilities.

John Hamilton is the Global Design director at Coalesse, a division of Steelcase Inc. An industrial designer by training, he leads the Coalesse design team from the Steelcase Learning + Innovation Center in Munich.