Workplaces aiming to be ‘cool’ should not neglect cultural, managerial and IT elements, says Sam Sahni, senior associate at office design specialist Morgan Lovell.
‘New’ is old and ‘cool’ is new
The word ‘new’ has been exploited over the last few decades. New formula, new product, new look, new collection, new ways of working, new edition, new app, new application, new approach – we’ve seen it all. Marketing and sales experts across the globe have oversubscribed this term in various languages over the years. But have you noticed a change recently? The word ‘cool’ is beginning to take precedent and appearing everywhere. Ever wondered why?
Where ‘new’ is attractive in the first instance, as something that you may not have experienced before, ‘cool’ appears to be more resilient as a concept. Something that is ‘cool’ may be considered more functional, more usable and more recommendable. Remember that friend recommending you something that was really cool? Alongside a rise in the consumerisation of technology, changing demographics and an increasing blur between work and play time, access to something ‘cool’ is becoming increasingly desirable. But Houston, we still have a problem. ‘Cool’ continues to remain a very subjective matter.
You may have heard about that slide in the office of that famous tech giant or beer benches and lush green grass in breakouts of that smoothie manufacturer. But what is ‘cool’ for one organisation, may appear as ‘gimmicky’ or even far-fetched for another. Indeed, having an office that looks cool is attractive, but you aren’t truly cool in reality if the overall experience of your workplace is disjointed. To get to grips with that, we need to understand what elements make up the workplace.
We often use the word ‘workplace’ as experts, referring to the intersectional experience that includes culture, behaviours and people factors. It also alludes to processes, such as the way of conducting business, the physical environment and tools and technologies available for the workforce to do their core job. This is different to ‘workspace’, which only refers to the physical elements. In order for an office to be cool, factors such as organisational culture and technology cannot be overlooked.
Imagine you are Jane, a highly driven and talented employee of a well-known organisation. But when you walk into the office, although cool, the physical space doesn’t allow you to concentrate or collaborate well enough. When your manager expects you to be at your desk from 8am to 8pm every day despite the corporate intranet page telling you they have best agile working policies in the industry, IT issues you with a recycled desktop PC that reminds you of the first steam locomotive and HR is only to be seen when you are having your exit interview, something is not adding up. With so much confusion, how can you be expected to achieve your individual and organisation goals in an effective manner?
Admittedly, the world of work is evolving rapidly. We are beginning to see a wide recognition of the fact that work is something that you do, not go to. The workplace today is increasingly becoming a centre for virtual and face-to-face interaction and is being designed primarily around patterns of human interaction. That is because the next generation is increasingly seeking ‘play’ at work, arguing that play is the key to creativity and innovation. This is one driving factor for the rise of the cool office. But whilst adding a slide in the office may work for an organisation that intends to keep their workforce in the building all the time, perhaps going as far as banning home-working, providing free food and a myriad of gimmicky spaces, that approach may not be right for your organization.
Workplace is all about the experience
Great lessons can be learnt from the hospitality and aviation industry. Buying a business or first class ticket often means you begin to experience the service well in advance of boarding that jumbo jet – be it a pickup from home, separate check-in counter, fast track security or access to the lounge. What I mean in simple terms is that a larger seat in the cabin is just a small but effective part of the service experience. So why do we think that just adding a hammock, a pool table or a park bench in the office will make your organisation intrinsically cool? There is definitely a deeper level of complexity involved.
Traditionally, the idiosyncrasies of design profession mean that the ‘master-builder’ approach continues to prevail. Office projects are procured by real estate teams and responded to by a designer who has had minimal engagement with end users for a number of reasons. This means less recognition of everyday issues and subsequently, lesser buy-in from stakeholders like Jane above, to the new ‘cool’ office. Very often we see the seemingly coolest elements of the workspace, such as breakout spaces, contemplation areas, phone booths and quiet rooms, underutilised due to a number of cultural, managerial and IT related reasons.
Such issues can be mitigated by embarking on an evidence-based design approach where staff can be engaged in various ways to ensure that any cultural elements and IT enablers are recognised well in advance. This ensures the design responds to the practical needs of the stakeholders and the new cool office isn’t a single track ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Where I work, our workplace consultants and designers work as a single team on a project to ensure the strategic needs of a business are translated to a physical design in an appropriate manner. We establish the business ‘demand’ and then address it with the right ‘supply’, the physical workspace.
Cool workplaces are a result of leadership, real estate, managerial, IT and HR teams coming together to not only discuss the physical but also the managerial, cultural and IT elements that enable organisation-wide ownership. It’s a little bit similar to ‘a healthy mind and a healthy body’ ideology. With the absence of the other, the concept begins to fall apart.
Main image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/slowkodachrome/