The Ways We Work: II

In my first post, I suggested that we humans tend to rely on self-referential thinking. It goes like this: Somebody makes a statement at a conference or in a blog like “Baby Boomers are slow to change and will resist learning new technology,” and it gets repeated, maybe in a news story or tweets about the presentation – and over time, it’s passed on and on. And now, because it’s been uttered by a whole host of voices, and we’ve heard it from a number of sources, we assume it’s true.  While this clearly happens much too often, we rarely discuss the implications of drawing conclusions based on shared assumptions, over simplifications, or the latest trends.

Instead of repeating received wisdom, we need to develop or adopt effective evidence-based methodologies for gaining a thorough understanding of work as the basis for workplace design. For instance, can we really assume that open plan is always better than private offices? Will people collaborate more and better when they’re in the open, together? Will placing some soft seating in a corner cause spontaneous collaboration to break out?  Should we be putting everyone at benches, regardless of their job function or work practices?  If we work with these assumptions, we risk designing spaces that sit underutilized, occupied by workers who don’t have the tools or other ‘affordances’ they need to do the best work they’re capable of.

Zipcar’s new ad campaign encourages office workers to “Zip Out of the Bored Room.”
How can we design spaces that workers won’t want to escape?

Having said that,  and given the pressure on fees and the speed at which designers and consultants are expected to work these days, it’s easy to understand why everyone’s looking for shortcuts or relies on commonly accepted (and expected) approaches. Even if we had more time and higher fees, do we really understand how to “see” work processes and develop a workplace that optimizes work and is efficient to manage and adapt over time?

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Are we stuck in the past, or have we come full circle?

Then there’s our tendency to view changes to the workplace as an event, or an inconvenience to be avoided. Why not look at these changes as a necessary, on-going, and appropriate process of continuous improvement? Change should not be limited to moving boxes to accommodate a shift in team size.

We designed Gather to give workers mobility and flexibility within their own offices.

Why not, instead, as the NetWork paper advocates, embrace the idea of designing a network of settings to support a complex and changing set of requirements? After all we have a responsibility to focus on getting the mix right, making sure the settings themselves meet the needs of their users, efficiently and effectively. That means paying attention to how the work may be changing, how the settings are being used, and monitoring the metrics we put in place. It means adjusting or re-arranging the mix of settings and updating the technology to suit evolving worker needs.

This infographic speaks to the evolving “@work” state of mind:

Next week, we’ll talk more specifically about rethinking the assumptions we make about programming, so we can design and manage settings for the way work is actually done.

Jan Johnson, FIIDA, is VP of Design and Workplace Resources at Allsteel, manufacturer of office furniture.  She has focused on the correlation between business strategies and the workplace. She has a degree in interior design and a Master’s in business administration and has worked as an interior designer and strategic planner for her own firm and Perkins + Will, and as a workplace consultant for HOK/Consulting. She leads Allsteel’s Workplace Advisory team and the development and delivery of content and tools that support clients and design organizations as they plan, design and manage work environments.

Ways We Work is a blog series.

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