[with apologies to Charlie Parker and David Foster Wallace]
Our role as consultants gives us the opportunity to interact with brilliant thinkers, sincere place-makers, and talented designers. People who shape the built environment thoughtfully, putting function at the center of form, and allowing the site and environment to inform an organic design process. It is hard to describe the excitement of collaborating with people like this, perhaps because the experience is so synchronous and multi-sensory. Collaboration is the Jazz of design, but we all need to bring our own ideas to the jam session.
The US saxophonist Charlie Parker gave the world gifts of unbounded creativity, intellectual rigor, and childlike wonder. There was no obvious progenitor for the Bird, and there will never be another quite like him. On the 100th anniversary of his birth, I thought it might be fun to imagine the workplace as a shared space for people to create together, much like a jam session for jazz musicians. It is our hope that this perspective is useful as organizations begin to return to a physical presence, and leaders find themselves asking “hang on, what is our office for again?”
Much of Charlie Parker’s innovation can be attributed to his early years in a “wood shed” in the Ozarks, practicing 8 – 10 hours every day, playing songs forward and backward in every key, weaving new melodies through old chord changes. The woodshed showcases the importance of quiet, individual work: to create a space for big ideas to be developed slowly and asynchronously, without external criticism and free from the scrutiny of an audience.
With our ideas developed but their execution and broader context unclear, we gather with others on stage to share, to collaborate, and to take risks in pursuit of building something of utility and beauty. This process reminds me of some of my favorite design interactions; please allow me to set the stage:
You are waiting alone in a small conference room at a designer’s office. The light is crisp, the surfaces are clean and bright. You smell fresh coffee and think you can smell fresh pastries. You hear the distant din of exciting conversations, and smile as one of the founding partners offers her advice to a younger colleague passing in the hall. With a confident posture and a bright smile, the designer enters and drops a sketchpad on the table, alongside a well-worn set of pens, pencils, and markers. As the conversation begins you are physically close to each other, and it is trivial to hear and be heard. You are consciously and subconsciously aware of the minutia of posture, breath, and facial expression.
The conversation turns to which geometric forms solve a particular challenge, and the designer begins telling you about their ideas. As they speak they are sketching in front of you, holding the pencil from different angles to create varying line width and contrast, allowing the mechanics of the graphite to mirror the intentions of their design. It is easy to ask questions without feeling like you are interrupting, and the excitement of seeing an idea transferred from mind to paper prompts additional questions and ideas.
The main utility of a physical workplace is to promote the type of shared experiences described above, much like a stage creates the platform for musicians to interact. The workplace culture provides an audience to critically review ideas and suggest alternate solutions, much like the applause of a crowd or the smile of a fellow musician.
Effective organizations recognize the importance of gathering talent and ideas from across locations, demographics, and cultures. This imperative means that shared collaborative spaces must meaningfully support both in-person and remote contributions. To that end, electronic communications must be as seamless, information-rich, and collaborative as their in-person counterparts. We are not yet there.
As many of our readers have observed in the previous months of remote work, the current video conferencing solutions leave much to be desired, particularly in light of the experiences described above. For example, voice communications are difficult because it is hard to time our responses in the absence of the body language and eye contact that is present in-person. The visceral experience of watching the pencil move along the paper in real-time is lost, often replaced by a static screen and disembodied talking heads.
In addition, it is hard to recreate electronically the spontaneous mentoring that happens in the hallways and at the water cooler. These “happy accidents” shape career development, foster a sense of team and create opportunities to be present with others. Without the stage that the workplace provides, organizations do not have the platform they need to do their best work.
Of all the “crystal ball” pieces that have arrived at my inbox in the last few months, I was particularly engaged by a recent article from McKinsey and Company. I encourage our readers to give it the full time it deserves, but there are two notable ideas that relate to the goals of this blog.
First, McKinsey reports their expectations for change in office attendance in the months ahead, estimating that time worked in primary offices will decline by about 10 – 15%. The majority of this time will be shifted to work-from-home arrangements. Second, they report that 80% of people recently surveyed enjoy working from home; 70% state that they are as productive, or more productive, than their previous office arrangements.
These both seem to be good things. However, the article goes on to ask a devious question:
“[Is] it possible that the satisfaction and productivity people experience working from homes is the product of the social capital built up through countless hours of water-cooler conversations, meetings, and social engagements before the onset of the crisis?”
In other words, without opportunities to sing from the stage, will we continue to find meaningful and engaging work in the woodshed?
McKinsey offers a few insights that will be useful to leaders facing decisions about real estate, recruiting and retention. In particular, their article advocates for a team approach to decision making; where space planners, HR professionals, and business leaders work together to provide unique solutions to the unique challenges that every organization faces.
There are two big ideas to leave you with. The first focuses on designing for purpose:
“Organizations could create workspaces specifically designed to support the kinds of interactions that cannot happen remotely. If the primary purpose of an organization’s space is to accommodate specific moments of collaboration rather than individual work, for example, should 80 percent of the office be devoted to collaboration rooms?”
The second focuses on team engagement across physical barriers:
“To maintain productivity, collaboration, and learning and to preserve the corporate culture, the boundaries between being physically in the office and out of the office must collapse. In-office videoconferencing can no longer involve a group of people staring at one another around a table while others watch from a screen on the side, without being able to participate effectively. Always-on videoconferencing, seamless in-person and remote collaboration spaces (such as virtual whiteboards), and asynchronous collaboration and working models will quickly shift from futuristic ideas to standard practice.”
Acentech is excited to support our clients and colleagues who “reimagine their stages” in the months ahead. We ask that you bring us your challenges, your concerns, your pain points, and your enthusiasm. In return, we can offer you innovative, elegant solutions that help your teams better communicate. If you supply the chord changes, we will weave you a melody.