Transforming the workplace into a ‘theatre of innovation’

Technology has evolved the way that people can work, it has allowed a greater freedom in arranging their work habits and the location of their working environment. So what role can an office play when you can work anywhere?

Thoughts on the sixth and seventh video in the Future of Work series [Reading time: 4mins]

Tacit knowledge exchange

Face to face connection is an important factor in communicating. The more time you spend with someone, the better you get to know them, the more you personally invest in the relationship. This dynamic leads to a greater flow of ideas. The generation of creative and innovative thinking is powered by the transfer or exchange of tacit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge is the kind of knowledge that is hard to codify and transfer, it’s the ‘know-how’ that sits latent in people’s minds. People can never be fully aware of the extent of tacit knowledge they have, or how valuable it can be to others until it is communicated.

The most effective way to capitalise on this hidden resource is by sharing through personal contact, regular interaction and trust. Just think about the difference between the levels of communication and the exchange of ideas between a gathering of good friends in a social setting and a business meeting.

“Employers are looking at how do we tap into that latent value that’s hidden in employees and create some agility inside the organisation to make things happen”. - Dave Coplin, Microsoft UK

Managing for emergent outcomes not just efficiency

Groupthink suffocates new ideas. When people meet in the same way, in the same place, with the same clients and work on the same problems, a homogeny of ideas and a process detrimental to innovation will result.

Office spaces designed primarily around traditional ideas of efficiency lead to less productivity. In a Bank of America call centre, workers were organised to be on the phone at all times. Breaks were staggered so maximize team members at their desks.  This socially isolated team members from each other.

After workplace studies were completed they found that workers with more social contact, who congregated and communicated together were more productive, completing their calls in half the time, in comparison to others.  By allowing teams to take breaks together reduced isolation, allowing more social exchange which made people happier and more productive. 

They discovered that workers, as well as swapping the lastest gossip, also talk about their work problems and exchange strategies for dealing with them. They were passing on their ‘know how’ in a social and self-organised manner. No need for a formal structure for training or development, they just needed to give their workers space, place and time.

“What we’ve seen over and over again is that space fundamentally shapes how we interact. If you sit near someone, we talk to them a lot. If I sit on a different floor from you, I never talk to you. If space can improve how we communicate, that is fundamentally what improves performance…” - Ben Waber, Founder/CEO of Humanyse

Workplace as instrument for engagement?

The workplace is more than a backdrop for your employees, it can be a tool for motivation, engagement and innovation. Workplace design has an impact on performance.
Too many organisations view the workplace as the ‘backdrop’ for work. The overriding compulsion for it to be functional and efficient stems from industrial age thinking where individual productivity was the pinnacle of achievement. However, we have seen that adaptability is a central trait for those organisations that want to stay innovative and competitive.

It could be said that internal operational space needs to become more adaptable to reflect the external operations strategies required in a dynamic and volatile business environment. Imagine the office with a kind of ‘permeable membrane’ improving information flows into and out of the organisation.

What does an adaptable workplace require?

Basically the workplace should encompass three types of spaces: places to concentrate, to collaborate and to contemplate. 

Concentration space

To do anything well necessitates concentration and this requires a distraction free environment. A workplace should encompass areas where employees can retreat to focus on doing their best work.

Collaborative space

The exchange of ideas between people is the fuel for innovation and creative practice. Workplaces need to include areas where the free flow of information and discussion can occur.

Contemplative space

It’s difficult to be ‘always on’. Research suggests that sustained constructive effort requires regular breaks to maintain productivity over time. People need a space to recharge, a place where they are not being ‘supervised’. Somewhere where they can be more social.

By encompassing these different spaces within the workplace, organisations can also capture the energy and possibilities of what’s called ‘the third place ’ where working can be done, such as cafes or libraries. They can also provide an intra-organisational environment where [serendipitous encounters] can lead to innovative thinking and practice. 

Claudia Hamm wants to see the future office as a place,

“where people come with their wares, their ideas, from inside and outside the organisation to create new things together, to share information, to learn from each other [...] with retreat space for moments of concentration, but basically as a big theatre of innovation”.

In the age of flexible and remote work practices and the rise of co-working there is still enormous business value in creating a workspace that people will want to come in to each day. A place where technology enhances interaction, where the design aids communication, increases engagement, supports collaboration and fosters community. 

How do you spot one? Workplaces that encompass these elements have a definable buzz about them. One easy litmus test for a great workplace is whether you would be happy to bring a friend in to see where you work.

Well, would you?

Future of WorkDean Kimpton