Designing workplaces of the future
Rushika Bhatia

Designing workplaces of the future

Jean-Luc Scherer, Founder and CEO, Innoopolis, points out the urgent need to redesign traditional workplaces and highlights key elements that businesses need to consider…

In today’s fast-paced economy innovation is a word that starts to have a regular seat in the boardroom as companies fight for competitiveness. CEOs understand that their companies need to transform or die, but how to you change the culture of a company? This is tough, and as you might know, culture tends to eat strategy for breakfast. For a company to successfully transform seeding the culture changes is equally important as outlining the initial vision and strategy. At times where the fear of losing your job is high, and the tolerance for failure is low, the paradox is that many companies do resist the change they ultimately will have to go through.

So how do you foster innovation in a company that has its roots in manufacturing or retail? How do you change the culture of a company to embrace innovation when management is used to rule by numbers or worse rule by fear? How do you engage employees and how do you create an environment that sparks creativity and innovation? Besides the skills, processes and tools that must be put in place to make innovation more sustainable, one of the key ingredients is to design a proper workplace that sparks creativity and innovation, a workplace that gets full leverage of the diversity of the organisation.

Here are a few organisations and designs that have proven to be successful, they form a set of golden rules you can follow when thinking about your own workplace when thinking about inspiring your organisation and igniting that creativity and innovation fire we all have deeply rooted in ourselves since childhood.

1.Force (cross-disciplinary) communication

Innovation often happens when we gain new perspectives when we throw in new insights. What better way to do this than to increase the number of cross-disciplinary interactions in a company, and in particular to do this by design. BMW has perfectly done this when defining the architecture of their innovation and R&D centre in Germany, the “BMW Project House“. To foster cross-disciplinary interactions they have designed a circular workplace where different departments gather at the centre of the structure to exchange perspectives, to explore new ideas, to update each other on projects. The glass structure gives also visibility into progress done by different teams increasing hence the natural flow of communication between project teams.

2. Design your workplace to be adaptive (to the task)

If organisations and leaders are really interested in innovation, they need to provide spaces that allow for more variations in our work environment and give us more options to work differently. One way to do this is by designing workplaces to serve multiple functions from the start. Take the image on the left. The amphitheatre can be used for staff meetings and lectures, as well as it can be used as a library where employees can read in a relaxed setup. Another way is to design a truly adaptive workplace. This is a workplace where things can easily be rearranged to better suit the task at hand, but also to get around boredom that can easily creep in. An example of an adaptive workplace is the one just above, where furniture pieces can be rearranged. Skullcandy, an international office from Zurich, Switzerland, created these innovative desks so that employees can use this to work either individually or collaboratively. These desks fit together like puzzle pieces and employees can decide how they want the table to look like – whatever fits their work needs.

3. Awaken the inner child in employees and customers alike

In many companies, play is introduced as a way to provide a break from real break, and by management, it is often considered a necessary distraction, or sometimes worse it is seen as a waste of paid employee time. But integrating play in the workplace can have many positive benefits when done properly. Play can increase employee engagement, it can increase cooperation and increase a healthy level of competition in the company. Play is also a way to reintroduce the type of experimentation and risk that was kind of natural when we were children, the kind of approach that is needed to innovate. Corporate department boundaries easily vanish when playing and new connections, new perspectives can lead to new sparks in the innovation process. And this does not need to be limited to employees, but the approach we can also be expanded to customers alike. IDEO is one of the companies that have understood this very well and for a long time, a good example of such playground approach is the way they use play to develop new Toys as part of their IDEA Toy Lab.

4. Introduce natural elements in the workplace

Although we might all have different viewpoints on this, it is proven that introducing natural elements in the workplace increases not only the well-being of employees but also boosts their productivity and even more their creativity. Researchers at Cardiff University compared the productivity levels in two offices, one with live plants and one without. They found was that the offices with the natural elements had a 15 per cent rise in output amongst employees within three months of implementing this into the design.

5. Design the workplace to energise your employees

When I mention workplace, what would come to most people’s mind? Probably a cubicle, a hot desk, a static place where you sit for eight hours a day. A space that is optimised to squeeze the maximum of people in the minimum of space. This type of working environment tends to drain our energy and it is difficult to be creative and innovative when you are constantly running on spare power. But there are ways you can reload your batteries while at work, but the workplace needs to provide you with some good alternatives on the spot. It starts with the desks and meeting rooms. Standing meeting rooms and standing desks can, for instance, be introduced to increase productivity. An in-house coffee shop and relaxation area might be a better investment than what you think. It allows people to take a break, but will also increase communication among employees. Some companies even introduce Yoga classes to relax. Yoga can help alleviate back pain, but can also help in lowering hostility and aggressive behaviours. In the start-up world, we usually see these high-energy infrastructures as part of the eco-system. This is indeed often the type of design you will see in a business incubator or accelerator. But why can corporate workplaces not be designed in the same way? There is no good reason that comes to my mind…

Redesigning the workplace to foster innovation

To sum-up, I believe that to change a company’s culture you need to seed changes in the workplace itself. You need to get everybody onboard, you need to have everybody energised and wanting to collaborate. You also need to create these safe zones that are meant for creativity and prototyping. Once management starts to see the workplace as a reflection of the company’s culture and not as a piece of real estate, then the company transformation will be well on its way.