The Architecture of Solitude

The big news this week is that my department has moved to a new building on our campus. If you have read my book GROUP GENIUS, you know that I have quite a bit to say about building architecture and office design (for example, see my post “The building that threw up on itself”). What kinds of offices foster creativity and collaboration? They are offices that support flexible work arrangements and frequent spontaneous reconfigurations, of people, furniture, walls, and cubicles. In innovative organizations, you find a blend of solo work, work in pairs, and collaborative teams. But most of today’s offices are designed to support only one kind of work: solitary work, alone in an office (or a cubicle). In innovative organizations, people are always moving around, bumping unexpectedly into others, and stopping for a few minutes to chat. Offices that support these natural connections have chairs and tables in the hallways or near the stairways, to make such conversations easier.

Space for solitary work
Space for solitary work

But there’s a problem. In a typical organization, everyone wants a private office. A bigger office is even better. And once the architects have finished giving everyone what they want–a nice private office–there’s no room left over for anything else other than halls and stairways to take them from the front door to their office. And that’s exactly what’s happened in my new building. I love my own office, and I’m sure everyone else does, too.

Space for collaboration
Space for collaboration

But there are no spaces to foster collaboration–no nooks in the hallways, no reconfigurable furniture or walls. We have a lounge with the coffee machine and frig, which is nice; and another function room which is very nice (but I wonder if it will be locked and require administrative approval to use?). But these spaces do not support spontaneous conversation and collaboration.

I have often said that university bureaucracies don’t look anything like the most innovative organizations. And when you walk inside most any university office building, you’ll see this right away: when you look down a long corridor and see a row of office doors running down each side. The challenge is: How can we convince everyone–employees, managers, and architects–to change their expectations and see the benefits of a new office design paradigm?

(Note: both photos in this post were taken while I was standing in the same spot, at the head of our new office hallway.)

4 thoughts on “The Architecture of Solitude

  1. Keith—

    I just found your blog today on the way to other things, and got stopped at this post while scrolling through. In other words, please pardon a fast response before getting to know you better.

    The issue of designing space for collaboration, I’ve found, begins with the primary tool of interface between architect and client, the design “program.” Clients of architects have been taught, many times by their architects, to express their facility needs in a roster of spaces and area requirements (23 offices at 150 square feet…), also aligned usually with status (4 SVP offices, 8 VP offices, 24 staff workstations).

    The obvious problem is that in addition to using a language that replicates the organization already in existence and constrained by the wrong kind of space, none of this explores or expresses how it is that people actually work, let alone other key determinants of better design like the culture and values of the organization, the types of people who work there, the technologies and other tools they use, etc.

    A great primer toward a different way of uncovering and expressing an organization’s facility needs is the classic “Problem Seeking” by William Pena. He lays out a very nice technique for getting at the information that helps define a better design “problem statement.” I’ve used the methodology most of my career and have found it to yield not only designs that my clients appreciate, but also a richness to my own career as clients have, because of this method, come to trust me (a Washington University educated architect) as a business consultant as well as a designer.

    A valuable tool we’ve developed at my company (Gensler) is what we call the Workplace Performance Index. The WPI provides us a means of changing the formal lexicon of the workplace.

    Our research showed us that four key work modes typify how work is done in most organizations these days—focus, collaboration, socialization and learning.

    Our tool is an online survey that we use early in a design engagement to learn what people need to support their work, profile their workmodes, and in combination with other tools (space utilization studies, workplace observations, focus group workshops, etc.), develop guidelines for design from this information.

    In almost every case we find significant transformation takes place as people move from demands for entitlement-based space assignments to desire for spaces and places that support their workstyles and work modes.

    Incidentally, you may find in the university context something that we’ve consistently found in the corporate context—the built real estate of the conventional office goes unoccupied and underutilized more than 50% of the day. It seems to be that technology has made us more mobile, and our work is naturally more collaborative, so we already are seeking (as you state in your blog) and using the places that allow us to meet with and work with others more easily and, in most cases, this is not the conventional office.

    We need to design not only to support people more effectively, but also, certainly, more sustainably. Designing around workmodes seems to make people and organizations more productive, and significantly reduces the demand on real estate and its resource and energy consumption.

  2. Thank you, Jim, that is great information and I will follow up to learn more. It is interesting that you point out that corporate offices are unoccuppied at least half of the day, on average. On a university campus like mine, professors have extremely flexible schedules and the great majority of them prefer to work at home. In any given week, I am not on campus more than two or three days. And, the days that I’m on campus I am mostly not in my office (teaching in a classroom, attending a meeting). During the three months of summer, many professors don’t go to their campus office at all. So the overall unoccuppied rate would be north of 75 percent.

    So: why do we build all of these offices? Anyone who’s lived in one of these environments already knows the real reasons, which have nothing to do with getting work done.

    For example: “having an office” signifies an individual’s political affiliation with a department, or their status. Professors that have a joint appointment in two different departments will, quite often, have a separate office in each of the departments. Professors that become department chairs retain their original office, but then also have the official “department chair” office.

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