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WORDS & MUSIC I: when space and behavior work in harmony


Have you ever heard a song where the lyrics just didn’t fit the melody? Or seen a photo with a caption that missed the mark? In the same way, even the best office environments can fall short if the behaviors and protocols of the people who use them are out of sync with the design intent of the space.

Most everyone would agree that office space is changing rapidly. Technology is an enabler of the change but I don’t believe it is the main driver. That honor falls to the dual corporate objectives of increasing collaboration while keeping a lid on real estate costs. These two forces are working together to push more and more people into smaller open workspaces and repurpose the space savings into a variety of group work settings. Designers are hired to consider the layout, adjacency, function and details of each space but often lack the mandate, time or expertise to coach clients on how to adjust to the new office.  Employees are often frustrated by the level of openness and the inherent distractions to focused work caused by close proximity to group activities. And business leaders who hoped for increased productivity and employee satisfaction often don’t see the results they expected.

This is the first article in a series of three that will explore tips and trends for designing spaces that foster co-worker harmony in an open, collaborative environment. We’ll look at the issues from the perspective of DESIGNERS, USERS and LEADERS. Today, let’s start with DESIGNERS.

Get Engaged for Change:

Many companies undertake major changes to the layout and function of their office space without a clear idea of how the change will affect the people who work there. Designers can help by including change management services in their proposals. This process begins early in the programming phase and continues through post occupancy. If your design firm doesn’t offer these services in-house, there are many outside agencies that can help, including Inscape.

Balance Quiet & Clamor:

Distraction and noise continue to be among the top complaints for occupants of open environments.  Let’s face it, collaborative work is often loud but isolating noisier spaces from quiet ones can help people who need to focus. One strategy for understanding the impact of sound is to use a symbol, like a megaphone or a speaker on your adjacency diagram. Use big speakers for loud functions and tiny ones for areas that need to be quiet. This simple step will help you see not only the functional adjacencies of a typical bubble diagram but also the sound adjacencies.

Pay attention to People who aren’t talking:

Everyone wants employees to be happy AND productive in the new space and most designers use focus groups, town halls, interviews, user observation and other techniques to learn about what people need. But I recently read Susan Cain’s QUIET –The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.  This excellent book led me to the conclusion that I was missing out on some valuable insights.  Susan’s work points out that introverted people are by nature more contemplative and more open to the viewpoints of others. They will likely possess a deeper understanding of the overall corporate culture and the impact of suggested changes. The trouble is they won’t show up at a focus group or if they do they won’t talk much because they’re listening and thinking about what’s being said. She recommends hosting online discussions as a great way to include the ideas of introverts because that format gives them time to craft a response in the quiet of their minds, which is what they do best.

Find Champions:

Change is challenging. A solid plan, participation from all levels of the organization and clear, ongoing communication are all essential to success. But you’ll need someone to carry the torch, especially during the inevitable times of push-back. A champion does not need to be the CEO, but that certainly helps. It should be a person or persons with authority in the organization and someone who is well connected to others. Their job is to both trumpet the benefits of the change AND to listen to concerns so that the design can be refined.

We welcome your comments or additional ideas on helping designers to create spaces that foster harmony. Next week, we’ll look at the problem from the perspective of Users.


| 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