De Uno, Plures (From One, Many)

September 1, 2014

As I reflect on the history of work on this Labor Day holiday (in the United States) I am thinking that I don’t need a workplace; I need many workplaces.

Of course, I can only be in one place at a time. But sometimes I need to be in one place, and sometimes in another.

I am a knowledge worker. I use my head to create value. Sure, I use my hands too, but mostly just to hit some little square pieces of plastic in a particular sequence that produces images of text on a computer screen. Sometimes I hold a pen or pencil and spread ribbons of ink (or graphite) on paper as another way to create and capture my ideas. But however I record my musings, it’s what goes on in my head that matters.

I am also learning that where my head is physically (and where it’s been recently) has a lot to do with how well that head produces what I want it to.

Sometimes I need to explore, to think, to create new ideas. Other times I need to express an existing idea, to produce an article or complete a report. Still other times I am searching for new information, often via the web, but sometimes in a book or magazine.

Those kinds of knowledge work are a lot different from analytic or problem-solving work, where I am sorting out existing information, recasting it, or searching for an answer to a specific problem.

And everything I’ve mentioned so far is essentially individual work. When I’m interacting directly with others in a phone call, a face-to-face meeting, or a working session, I’m using not just my head but my eyes, ears, and mouth (and sometimes my nose) as well. And that’s true for every single person in any group meeting.

Where we are clearly affects how we think, what we say, and how we react to each other.

I’ve recently come to understand that my physical surroundings have a very significant impact on my state of mind, my creativity, and even the way I feel about myself (I understand that’s not a new idea for humankind, but it was a big leap for me).

WildTurkeysOne day last week I was feeling more stymied than usual, tired, and cranky. For the first time in ages I simply got up, walked outside, and took a long walk. I didn’t take a headset or an audio player with me; I just let my eyes focus on the trees, the birds, the bright blue sky, the colorful flowers, and the occasional herd of wild turkeys that frequents our neighborhood.

I came back refreshed, re-energized, and with several new ideas clamoring to get out of my head and into my computer. Yes, I “wasted” about 40 minutes of work time, but boy did I make up for it when I sat down at my desk again.

That experience of getting away from “the office,” where I normally do all that head work, reminded me of just how profoundly our surroundings affect the way we think, what we think about, and especially how we feel about what we are doing.

I recently had an opportunity to visit several innovative office facilities; several of them were one-company workplaces while a few were multi-company co-working operations.

LoungeArea1One facility in particular was exceptionally impressive – open workspaces with low or no dividers, light and bright colors, lots of windows, and plenty of natural light. I can’t help but think I’d be creative and energized if I worked there regularly. The folks who were based
in that office seemed highly engaged with their work and – when working collaboratively – with their colleagues.

But the deeper lesson for me was the incredible variety of spaces and places within that one facility. There were several different “zones” with different workstation layouts (some were traditional 8×8’s, some used the increasingly popular 120-degree designs), but there were also several enclosed “personal harbors” for two- or three-person meetings, private heads-down work, or phone conversations; a “kitchen” and café area with informal lounge furniture groupings; an outdoor patio area; and several more traditional conference rooms of varying sizes and designs.

I don’t have detailed work behavior or productivity data on that workplace, but it I could see that people were moving around frequently from one spot to another over the course of a day, as their individual and team activities changed dynamically from one hour to the next.

For me, the primary lesson was the value of giving people choices – choices about where and when to work on any particular task. I’m convinced that when people can make choices, they take responsibility for those choices – and all the evidence I’ve seen tells me that they are more productive, more satisfied, and more engaged with their work when they “own” it. What more can we ask for?

Here I have been focusing primarily on place and individual productivity. Next time: how does the physical context impact a group meeting experience? What can a change of scenery do for a group conversation?
 

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Cory Williamson September 2, 2014 at 8:39 am

To any discussion of space or of workplace we must also add the discussion of time–or more accurately, of the “accepted” work schedule. Awareness of the the workplace’s effect on productivity, innovation, and collaboration has grown. But most corporate managers still insist that “work” must be done during the work day. And this dated, absurd notion has as deleterious an effect on productivity, innovation, and collaboration as a dark office crammed with cubicles.

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Bary Sherman September 2, 2014 at 9:19 am

“Choice” being available is really a demonstration of “trust.” Leadership demonstrating trust in their staff will reap the benefits of more engaged employees, higher productivity, better customer service, and ultimately stronger growth and increased profitability.

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