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Sunday Morning: Design of Things or Experiences?

Simon Elliot

Managing Partner

4xi Global Consulting & Solutions

I woke up this morning to a lively chat on LinkedIn about the design of things, buildings and spaces vs. the design of people focused experiences. I went to reply to the group but ran out of space, so, I decided to share my meanderings over a mug (or two) of Sunday morning coffee.

The first post of the exchange read:

I learned this morning that a number of workplace folk were to start trying to clarify a number of terms for the physical workplace that are often used interchangeably - such as agile, flexible, activity-based and hybrid. Or any of the many other names for the same thing that have been invented since lockdown.

Yet this works on two levels.

First, what those who design the space determine it should be. Sometimes an industry term is used, occasionally a bespoke name. It usually heralds a whole series of panel-beating ‘change’ activity to try to turn people into the ideal occupant.

But people being people they tend to find their own purpose for space. Sometimes it’s what they’re told it’s for, but mostly it’s what it’s needed for.

Second, therefore, the manner in which it’s used. Because the workplace is nothing at all until it’s used. Paraphrasing Albert Camus, ‘emptiness makes all space equal’.

The definition of a workplace is therefore far more likely determined by the work undertaken. For example, it’s a ‘flexible’ space if people keep to differing patterns of attendance and groupings. And the work – and the need – will change over time.

We can build it and call it what we want. But what it is and becomes is not up to us.

Then one of the responses:

A workplace’s impact is driven by the physical design of the space, the services provided to support people within it (note the people NOT the work!) and the leadership evident within it. Not necessarily in that order and a truly holistic outcome needs all three as appropriate and that’s why it’s complex.

This back and forth really got me thinking. One seemed more focused on the design in relation to the work, and how people would adapt to the space and evolve over time. The other more focused on the upfront research and data of what people really want, and then to use that data and learning to complete the design.

"Two different perspectives in surely a complex problem - predicting the future has always been a tricky thing no matter how you go about it, the only judge of who's ultimately right will be time itself."

The thing is that both approaches may have an acceptable outcome, maybe even very similar outcomes but this intrigued me as I thought about some of my own experiences.

In the Good Old Days before the pandemic, I was at a work experience meeting in London. The meeting was being led by architect/design folks and they kept making reference to "our industry", and eventually I had to ask them which industry they were referring to. They looked at me as if I had just come from another planet and the response from around the room was unanimously "the design industry" and how they design things like buildings and spaces and such for purposes identified, by what I could work out, them.

I kept my thoughts to myself as I didn't want to offend, and I admit a bit of jet lag probably stopped me from piping up, "We're in the business of Experience aren't we?" At least that's what I thought we were in.

Back in Silicon Valley I had worked with 1st generation technology companies (including Company A below) desperate to reinvent themselves, their work experience proposition. Then 2nd, 3rd and new entries to the market designing and providing the best possible work experience - why? To attract (and retain) the best talent to their businesses, the brightest minds to continue the development of their products or to invent the next Big Thing.

I was talking to one CEO of a Start-up (Company B) a few years ago who was relocating his $125M+ business just a few miles from Palo Alto to San Jose, I asked him why, he looked me in the eye and responded,

"It's simple. We're moving nearer to where the talent is so that they don't have to change, move home, increase their (already miserable) commute, remove the barriers so that we can steal the best and brightest talent from Company A."

I sat there as his words sunk in. It was at that point that I realized that there really was a War for Talent and that it was so specific he knew exactly which company he wanted to steal that talent from.

A few months later I was on a flight sat next to another CEO of a Start-up Company C who at some point during the journey he made a full admission that he was relocating his $75M business close to Company B so he could steal their talent. I had no idea that this level of competition for talent existed. Moving entire enterprises to be closer to the talent pool. At the time I was blown away by that concept.

On my travels I came across a business located in a disused warehouse space in San Francisco. This wasn't a designer warehouse, this was the real thing. Although polished at least, there were cracks in the concrete floor, an eclectic mix of furniture evidently salvaged, begged and borrowed, the dress code was also eclectic, in fact non-existent - I stood out like a sore thumb in my jeans, suede boots, dress shirt and casual sports jacket. There was evidence of takeaway food deliveries strewn around in the aftermath of lunch, makeshift partitions to form meeting rooms, kegs of beer, music playing, even a couple of old Space Invader machines in the corner.

"Was this a place of work? I thought to myself as I recalled the sea of cubicles, the company branded polo shirts and chinos at Company A."

The place was full of buzz and energy, the people, although casually dressed in some cases to the extreme were all super friendly, clearly very smart, and ultra focused on their mission. Their workspace had no design, it was just a space that they had filled with their own culture, not curated in any way, but it certainly seemed to be working (pardon the pun). It reminded me of the initial article on LinkedIn and maybe the author was right - that people fit into the building and space and not the other way round.

Then, a large social media company who built a new headquarters building complete with a social area filled with bleachers, bean bags and funky looking chairs. I observed how the occupants gravitated to the more traditional (and comfortable) spaces, and in fact the modern design features appeared to be nothing more than Architects Folly.

During the WORKTECH20 North America Conference I was honored and privileged

to introduce a panel discussion including work experience leaders from Facebook, Uber and LinkedIn and I was really struck by the essence of their overarching approach to design the future work experience.

"Basically, to forget the past, pre-pandemic, look at what the people want, need, how to help them become more efficient with work and life and design the future from a blank canvass, not try to retool the past."

I really liked this thought. Rather than design a space to accommodate people, what about designing an experience for people to make them more successful across every aspect of their lives, including work. I thought this was genius and really fit into my own aspirations around the future of work, and how to meet the needs of all of the diversity that exists in the workforce.

On our travels we came across ART Health Solutions who talk about bringing science to the workplace and how they collect robust data that produces deep insights to how workspaces impact employee performance. Data collection on what people think, how they work, how they perform, their health, their wellbeing and what are the elements of workplace design that they react positively and negatively to.

As I think about the conundrum posed on this mornings LinkedIn chat, I think about the "Build it and they'll come" approach, the evolution of people fitting into the building, and the approach of using actual human behavioral data and insights to design the future state of work experience.

What do you think? Which approach will you choose?


4xi Global Workplace Consulting & Solutions provides a range of services to support Corporations, Service Providers, Innovators, and Accelerators to navigate the world of work. Inspiring the future of work, together.

4xi is proud to be Chair of WORKTECH Academy for North America and a member of its Leadership Advisory Board. 4xi is a Global Ambassador for WORKTECH Academy.

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