Great office design isn't great if you don’t consider the specific activities happening within your workspace (i.e.. how people use the space), or if you impose a design on people without bringing them along on the change journey. See exhibit A below:

I recently did some research on Google and discovered that they had attributed 80% of their new ideas to discussions that initially arose in a drinking establishment. I’ll let you decide whether some, any, or none of that ‘fact’ is true but I do recall an evening approximately eighteen months ago. I had joined some colleagues for a drink after work when we were all hit with a revolutionary idea of how we could work differently and better. As a result, I became aware that my preconceptions about meetings and where collaboration takes place were all wrong – and believe me, I often struggle to accept I’m wrong!

To echo the comments made in a previous post on ‘The rise of the informal workplace’, which refers to the ‘50 shades of collaboration’. Now whilst I might cringe as I picture the novel, it neatly sums up meetings as we know them today. Meetings occur in informal, ad-hoc or private settings; over lunch, at Starbucks or (perhaps not knowingly!) at the pub; often via technology or occasionally in the gym… I could go on. Once you understand this, how do you ensure you create the right balance of spaces for your organisation?

Activi-tea before design

Not every meeting is appropriate to be held in the café space with a tea or coffee, just as not every team will use a high backed sofa next to their desks. The key lies in understanding in-depth, the different types of activities (‘user experience’) occurring not only at a workspace level but also at team or even individual level. Will HR benefit from the breakout space near them, or will Sales use a two person enclosed meeting room? By collecting data you can make sure your workspace is both flexible and appropriate for each team and how they work.

I often see a new workspace being touted as the solution to improving productivity and keeping staff happy. However, in many of these instances the workspace merely represents a varnish; a visual tool to give the impression the organisation is forward thinking about its working environment. In order to fully realise a workplace change the culture is fundamentally intertwined with the design. If you put an expensive informal high backed sofa into a workspace but the culture of the organisation is somewhat ‘if I’m not at my desk, then I’m not seen to be working’ then it is unlikely this will be used.

When designing any space it is essential to bring people on that journey with you, to encourage a positive change in working behaviours, to shift your culture in line with the workspace. This has to come from both the bottom and top of the organisation, with leadership leading by example… or else it’ll be a lift and shift; a varnish or a surface level change, and people will still be inclined to behave the same as before.

Ultimately understanding how the user interacts with their space and engaging with them throughout the process are the keys to a great design. Since that first eye-opening meeting a year and a half ago, my most productive meetings seem to occur when accompanied by a drink… the challenge now is remembering them!