Our workspaces matter because the old rules for work STILL apply. It’s all about how form follows function. The term “form follows function” is associated with modernist architecture and industrial design but it still applies today. The principle is that the intended function or purpose of a building (or object) determines its shape. And the principle is just as relevant today for any firm grappling with the rise of platforms, algorithms and automation. Technology has and always will change workflow and it also changes the places where people work.
Look at history and you can see the interplay between technology, work and workspace. The introduction of the spinning jenny radically reconfigured the Lancashire cotton mills in the UK; likewise Henry Ford’s moving assembly line radically changed how and where people worked in the US; and I can just about remember the typing pool from my very first steps into the world of work (we even had a tea lady...) and how knowledge flowed around our offices and around work. All these technology innovations profoundly re-architected how, and where, work got done. Again, why should the shift into platforms, algorithms and automation be any different? It’s not. And the places where people come together to work need to change to reflect how technology is impacting work.
I’ve just completed a study that shows how the work we do today needs new spaces to work. It matters because across the board, industry sectors are being redefined in a wave of supercharged creativity and co-creation. Products and services to brands and experiences are no longer standalone entities but increasingly complex configurations strung out across various digital platforms, providers and industries (see Europe’s tech ecosystem takes shape.) The challenge for many firms today is how and where work this happens to create these new customer-centric, unified value propositions that extend beyond what employees previously obtained or even imagined. It might be a surprise but the modern organization STILL needs people to come together, work, and make the future. Clever interior design helps but a fundamental examination of “space” must stretch from work styles to the reality of modern digital workflow, and even confront the big questions concerning corporate location and industry direction. These are the issues that my latest study seeks to unpick and address—it’s called Space Matters. The upshot is, despite what you read about virtual working and the gig economy, the spaces where we work provide a powerful signal to the people that work there. They still matter. A lot.
I had a hunch that something big was happening to our workspaces. New co-working spaces were sprouting up everywhere here in the UK, US and across Europe. The big tech companies also put me onto it when I started to read about the money Apple, Google et al were spending on developing their new work campuses with the goal of fostering innovation and creativity. Apple’s circle of glass in Cupertino for example, includes an underground theatre designed to bring people together and it’s stunning to behold; Google’s new plans for its London headquarters—the “land scraper” with 92,000 square meters complete with a running track installed on its roof—has been designed to support employee well-being. Interior design matters and these companies want their employees to join up, feel good about where they work, and spark off one another. Study the plans and you will see a focus on clever spatial design to maximize random exchanges among their workers and exploit unexpected discoveries around the coffee machine, the kitchen or the conference room. These “serendipitous interactions” can make a significant difference; the idea that employees chatting by the coffee machine or water cooler are “not working” is simply outdated.
“Ok, OK” I hear you say, “We don’t have anything like the real estate budget of an Apple or Google!” I get that but simply relocating the refreshment bar isn’t enough. That could help, but focusing only on simple reconfigurations ignores how modern businesses now get the best from their people. The big “aha” for me is recognizing that our spaces for work exert a talismanic pull for people both inside and outside the company. It matters because the cultural focus for a company is migrating from the corporate center to the exciting stuff happening at its edge—perhaps in a co-working space somewhere near you (learn more and read about how talent clusters are evolving). It’s why the future of space matters and my report Space Matters can give you a framework of how to think about how and where your people will work not just today but in 5 and 10 years time. More to come...