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STAY IN SCHOOL: Tips on being a student of the workplace


I graduated from college in 1982 to a world of analog phones, perimeter drywall offices, high panel cubicles and rows of filing cabinets stuffed with paper documents. Obviously work has changed but the bigger challenge is to understand that it will keep on changing, probably at an even faster pace! To meet this challenge I’ve enrolled as a full time student of the workplace. Here’s my “curriculum”:

There is no shortage of information about changes at work and opinions about how these changes will impact office space design. A web search on “work trends” yields more than a million hits and a surprisingly high percentage of the first 10 pages of results actually look relevant. The trick is to find sources that are reliable and offer insight that will stretch or sharpen your point of view.

Most of us are naturally attracted to people who think like we do, which is comfortable but not very mind-expanding. A few years ago, a friend introduced me to a game that gets you outside of yourself. Every time my friend gets on an airplane, he picks up a magazine he wouldn’t ordinarily buy and reads it cover to cover, including the ads. I did this for over two years and read everything from Bride to Popular Mechanics. The articles were interesting but what was more beneficial was learning to see the world through the eyes of people who are very different from me. I take a similar approach to reading about workplace strategy and follow innovative organizations and groups from outside of my industry as much as from within.

Research is important but there is no substitute for seeing things firsthand. I recall a project I was working on for a telecommunications company in San Diego. The workstations had a deep cockpit type design that occupants usually like, but in this case they weren’t working very well. Our first clue was a dark computer screen that was covered with fingerprints. In the adjacent station two people were crowded around a computer and the one in back was stretching over his colleague to point at something on the screen. We looked around, and sure enough, almost everyone was working with a “buddy” at a corner computer but they were doing it in a station that was optimized for a single occupant. After that, designing a new workstation standard was easy.

I spend a lot of time talking to workers in all sorts of businesses. They are quick to tell me what’s wrong with the workstation and what they think designers and furniture manufacturers ought to do about it. I value their insights but I’m careful to employ a motto I learned from a professor at the Institute of Design. Jeremy says, “Hear what users say, but don’t listen to them.” What he means is that users can clearly articulate the problems but they don’t always have the ability to create the right solutions. Instead, use the insight you gain from them to solve problems in ways they couldn’t have imagined and delight them in ways they never expected.

Whatever I learn today will need to be reevaluated tomorrow. This is true not only because work keeps changing but also because it usually takes me a few explorations and iterations to develop something new. The bad news is that (unlike college), I will never graduate from the School of Workplace. The good news is I don’t need to cram for a final.

| By Michael Fazio

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“A mega-trend is sharing instead of ownership of workspaces. We can either all ride in coach or we can share a private jet.”

Chris Blackadder
Principal, Woods Bagot