To Innovate Better, Pay Attention To Your Office Space

To Innovate Better, Pay Attention To Your Office Space
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Founder, Inflexion Point
8 min read
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Do you wonder why Google spends so much money in making its offices so amazing? The company’s headquarters—GooglePlex—located in Mountain View, California, boasts of nap pods for the overworked employees, massage rooms, slides for rolling down floors, three gourmet meals a day for free, complementary campus bikes, Android bots, organic gardens to grow veggies and herbs for the cafeteria, meditation spots for employees, plenty of electric car charging stations, large playgrounds, and recreational areas, and a lot more which you only get to experience as an employee. As Eric Schmidt likes to put it, “We invest in our offices because we expect people to work there, not from home. A serendipitous encounter (with a colleague) would never happen when you are working from home.”

There is little doubt that Google is amongst the top ten on the ranks of the world’s highest R&D spenders, on the list of US patents granted, and the ranking of the world’s most innovative companies. Scores of university and company campuses are imitating such workplace designs to encourage the free flow of ideas, collaboration, a balance of personal and open spaces, and other frills to encourage innovation.

Creating and maintaining such huge spaces requires foresight and a commitment to look at the not-so-obvious aspects of innovation culture. An innovation culture thrives only in the right context. On the power of context, Malcolm Gladwell reminds us, “Non-verbal clues are as or more important than verbal clues. Simple physical environments and observations can have a profound effect on how we feel and think.” A culture of systematic problem solving, just as epidemics, says Malcolm, “are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur”. As a leader, you need to design such environments painstakingly, for they might speak louder than you ever could. 

Steven Johnson, the author of Where Good Ideas Come From, builds a compelling case of how physical spaces shape our thinking and possibilities of idea generation. Open, high density, randomizing environments that maintain a delicate balance between privacy and public spaces encourage greater spontaneous connectivity and cobbling of component concepts together to generate yet powerful ideas. Our physical environments shape our brain’s ability to make new associations with the adjacent possible along multiple unpredictable paths.

Citing the case of eighteenth-century English coffeehouses that sparked and nurtured numerous Enlightenment-era ideas and innovations, Johnson comments, “Collusions happen when different fields of expertise converge in some shared physical or intellectual space—that is where true sparks fly. So much of cultural innovation happens in such a short time because the writers, poets, artists, and architects were all rubbing shoulders at the same cafés. They were not off on separate islands, teaching creative writing seminars or doing design reviews.”

That is why cities, as they grow, become more germane with new ideas, and so do the workplaces which are carefully crafted to strike a balance between chaos and order. They allow for greater possibilities of connections between hitherto disparate people, insights, hunches, knowledge domains, concepts, and ideas. Remember, too much of orderliness can possibly kill your hunches and that is how liquid networks allow concepts to connect rather loosely.

Take the example of IIM-Bangalore. The faculty blocks are designed in such a way that a professor of marketing would have an office adjacent to one from strategy and the right opposite could be a professor of economics seating, with his office door wide open. Instead of dividing space basis departments, or worst still, designations, the place is designed to encourage serendipitous encounters, academic collaborations, and joint authorship of research papers.

When it comes to brainstorming sessions, physical space plays a very crucial role. On the criticality of the local environment, John Seely Brown, the former director of Xerox PARC, observes: “If you can design the physical space, the social space, and the information space together to enhance collaborative learning, then that whole milieu turns into learning technology.” Creative teams not only need to be able to share their ideas verbally but also visually and physically, and a well-designed space can enable multiple forms of expression, quintessential for design thinking.

University of Michigan’s Gretchen Spreitzer, Peter Bacevice, and Lyndon Garrett have extensively studied the co-working spaces and why members feel more productive and motivated in such environments as compared to typical offices. The researchers cite two reasons for the growing popularity of co-working spaces. Firstly, people who use co-working spaces see their work as more meaningful. Because there is little direct competition or internal politics, the members do not feel compelled to adopt a work persona to fit in. Owing to the complementary skills, there are often more opportunities to contribute to others’ work in a non-threatening way.

Secondly, the setting allows office workers to have more control over their work. The 24/7 operations, various seating arrangements, a mix of public and private spaces, and recreational and refreshment facilities allow the members to choose their own rhythm to work. The community further brings discipline in working, especially for freelancers or solo entrepreneurs.

The same environment is a requisite for an effective problem-solving workshop. Instead of resorting to a class-room seating, break up the pattern and see if you can make participants sit in clusters of 5-6 diverse individuals. Though a team might be working on a specific theme, diversity of perspectives is much required to break the deeply entrenched ways of thinking. Leave enough space to move around and wall areas for hanging chart papers, provide your participants with sticky notes, markers, sketch pens, whiteboards, and Lego blocks or synthetic clay to play with. All these artifacts go a long way in creating a climate of creativity.

As a moderator or participant in such sessions, you need to pay attention to the interaction between the physical space and human behavior. Think carefully of the ambient lighting, room temperature, personal space, free space, and other props such that participants feel like giving their best to the problem at hand. It is critical to infuse empathy in the space.

The d.School at Stanford, the house of more design thinking projects than probably any other place on earth, has some best practices to offer on how to design a space to inspire creativity. David Kelley, the founder of the Stanford d.school identifies the standout characteristics of the space as follows: Keep people together but not too close such that their privacy is maintained; ensure that noise is managed well as brainstorming sessions can get quite noisy; have a mix of flexible and rigid spaces such that space does not become disorienting; allow for tailoring of spaces for teams to create their ‘micro-environments’; leave sufficient rough spaces and rough material for people to experiment, and celebrate when a project moves from a prototype to scale or when an experiment succeeds. Simple, but not easy, indeed. 

One of the most thoughtful workspaces that I have been to is the Titan Integrity Campus.

The new head office of Titan, The Integrity Campus, was opened in 2017 in the Electronic City area of Bangalore. The 6.5 acres of the biophilic campus has a natural lake in it, and another bio lake right at the centre of the office buildings which are designed to bring in glare-free natural light, and allows for a continuous movement of breeze. The open-air, asymmetric campus consists of three low-rises, stone-clad buildings, and cascading terrace gardens at every level, offering enough space for employees to walk around and work in open areas. The maximum depth of any workspace is 20 feet so that everyone gets natural light.

The entire campus is designed using a natural palette of materials, with the various departments color-coded and housed in separate buildings and floors and yet connected through voluminous open atriums allowing for a mix of private and public spaces. These are sprinkled with a series of wide steps, courtyards, product display walls, seating areas, open visitor spaces, and informal meeting spaces. On how the office architecture encourages creativity, Revathi Kant, Titan’s chief design officer, shares: “In a natural environment, everyone feels comfortable, thinks differently, it leads to more constructive discussion, better insights. The energy, vibe, motivation levels—all have gone up.” Little doubt, companies are moving towards adopting open office architecture in a big way.

In short, do not let space be the weakest link in your innovation effort.

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