Organization design and workplace environment

Architects and interior designers traditionally work with company facility managers to upgrade or redesign the physical working environment. The physical environment is rarely discussed in this context and by these practitioners as integral to the organization's business model, the delivery of its strategy, and as a component of the design of whole organizational system.

This is a missed opportunity. The physical environment is a reflector of the culture, values, and preoccupations of the organizational members. The corner office, for example, is the prime example of a physical space status symbol, reflecting positional power. The choices of marble, wood, or other surfaces give clues on organizational values – lavish use of hardwood might be at odds with corporate statements about sustainability – and on the industry sector (the reception area of a hospital is very different from the reception area of a bank).

The effects of good or poor physical space planning effect, among other aspects, the motivation and morale of workers, their productivity, the way they are able (or not) to communicate face to face, and the way they feel about their power and creativity – how easy is it to be creative in a high partition American style office cubicle?

A n NY Times report last week on hospital redesign by Kaiser Permanente describes a welcome example of one company that is deliberately including physical space as part of the thinking about the well-being of the whole organization, an extract from the article makes the point that:

"Though hospitals will end up looking better, these efforts aren't about decorating, they're about outcomes. Numerous studies point to the benefits of the design strategies and environmental interventions KP has proposed and implemented. Factors like the quality and intensity of light, access to natural light, the noise level in a room, the privacy afforded by single-patient rooms – all of these affect patient health, satisfaction, soundness of sleep and speed of healing. Views of nature have been shown to decrease depression, pain, stress and even length of hospital stays. Floor plans that are designed to help health care workers do their work more effectively (as well as increase privacy and comfort of patients) can reduce falls, improve patient communication and lessen stress for all".

Arnold Levin, of architects nbbj, whom I was talking with recently made the point that

"design strategies and solutions must be posed and presented as business cases, a language and format not necessarily in the comfort zone of the design profession. … More importantly, for the workplace to serve as a change agent; we must also be in the position to provide change management services … We often speak with clients about the workplace being a transformation opportunity, a place to create innovation and change, yet we have traditionally given clients the physical opportunity for change while leaving them to their own devises to adapt internally to the required (operational and mindset) changes".

Teaming organizational designers and developers with architects and facilities management to ensure organizations are getting the most value from their physical space in terms of operational effectiveness, sustainability, and good customer outcomes seems an opportunity waiting to be taken up. As the NY Times writer commented: I can't help thinking of the enormous opportunity for other large corporations and institutions to take a cue from Kaiser's efforts.