What Is the Value of Office Space
Physical proximity to team members unlocks dimensions of interactions and exchanges that are critical for creative collaborations. The long-term costs of eliminating these dimensions will come at the expense of transformative innovation.
New York City has over 550 million square feet of office space. Within a few short weeks, almost all of that space was abandoned. At first voluntarily, in an abundance of caution, and then by government mandate. Offices fell eerily silent. For those who remained employed, the precautionary distance placed between them forced the physical rhythms and interactions of the office to be played out in virtual space — an experiment no one was prepared for.
The success of telecommuting has surprised everyone. Before the pandemic, a mere 2% of all wage and salaried employees worked from home fulltime, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Forced by the crisis, companies achieved the unimaginable: coordinating complex and widely diverse flows of work without the benefits of shared physical space or face-to-face interactions to do so.
Where remote work is possible, companies are extending work-at-home policies far beyond government-mandated shelter-in-place timelines. Capital One and Amazon are allowing employees to telecommute until the fall. Google, Facebook, and Zillow are pushing their return into the new year. Others, like Nationwide Insurance, are taking far more drastic measures, closing five offices around the country, forcing 4,000 employees to telecommute permanently. As the pandemic rages on without a vaccine in sight and work-at-home policies gain credibility as long-term operational strategies, more and more companies are contemplating a future without a physical footprint.
While the short-term success of remote work cannot be denied, the long-term implications of physically separating teams, offices, and workforces may not be as cheerful. Where tasks can be coordinated in advance with a high degree of certainty that they will come together cohesively, telecommuting is proving most successful. Sequentially coordinated work of this nature can be orchestrated digitally with little loss to productivity because the points of intersection of everyone’s work are well defined. For those whose work demands creative collaborations, coordinating teamwork is not so straight forward. Working towards an undefined outcome — the very nature of innovation — teams must negotiate every step they take. Coordinating flows of work under these circumstances takes on an entirely different dimension of complexity that cannot be easily facilitated virtually. In a ground-breaking study of Harvard University researchers, Kyungjoon Lee and his team of investigators found that despite advances in communication technologies, a research team’s physical proximity to one another continues to be critical in creating impactful work. Surveying 35,000 journal articles and their 200,000 authors, the study finds that the closer teams of co-authors are to one another, the greater their work’s impact. In other words: being digitally connected is not enough.
Physical proximity unlocks dimensions of interactions and exchanges that are critical for creative collaborations. Often tacit and subconscious, non-verbal aspects of communication structure the rhythms, patterns, and moods of interactions between co-workers. These structuring forces fundamentally influence how teams collectively think and as a result guide the emergence, or lack thereof, of transformative products and services. The unarticulated expressions of doubt, curiosity, and excitement, by example, help expose taken-for-granted assumptions, encourage questioning established expectations, and exploring the unknown together. These forces also facilitate the complex and spontaneous choreography of physically blending, rearranging, and editing ideas. In the absence of unarticulated prompts, spontaneous interactions, and unstructured time together, teams are more likely to iterate on existing ideas than develop transformative ones. This is because it is easier to remotely coordinate work around concepts that are slightly new (with one foot firmly places in the familiar), than taking big leaps into the unknown that require constant and sporadic interactions to make sense of the unfamiliar.
Now is a unique opportunity to reimagine office spaces. With old habits shattered and the real need to rethink the physical layout and utilization of space, new rhythms, and styles of interactions can be introduced that encourage creative and collaborative exchanges. Here are three dimensions to explore when reimaging your space as a generative asset.
1. Exposing Taken for Granted Assumptions // Generative Friction
Cultural frameworks and personal experiences guide how we understand the things in our environment. Over time, these frameworks and experiences become taken-for-granted, locking the way we see things in place. When different cultural frameworks and experiences collide, it exposes our taken-for-granted assumptions and expectations. These moments of awareness help break apart unconsciously accepted orders and associations, allowing teams to reimagine concepts from the ground up. Yet most companies actively try to eliminate friction in the workplace, and for good reason: in the wrong places it will blow-up operations. To avoid this, chefs like Jöel Robuchon and Rene Redzepi who are revered for their ability to innovate, create spaces outside the insanity of daily service for staff to reimagine ingredients and techniques. In these spaces, ideas can be presented, interrogated, torn apart, left to mellow (along with the emotions of those involved), and then recombined in new and unanticipated ways. Without providing spaces where ideas can be tangibly expressed and stored, exchanges remain ephemeral and in the minds of those involved. Creating insulated spaces that encourage moments of awareness through generative friction helps more thoughtful and transformative concepts to emerge.
2. Building Relationships // Accessing the Unfamiliar
A high degree of trust, vulnerability, and exposure between team members needs to exist to explore new and unfamiliar concepts. Unlike simple information, such as an address or sales figure that travels easily through vast and loosely connected networks of individuals, complex knowledge diffuses very differently. Complex knowledge travels slowly because it is highly unfamiliar, challenging to understand, and often transgressive to our beliefs. To grapple with these kinds of ideas and concepts, team members need to help each other translate, interpret, and convince each other of their value and utility. This is a highly interactive and interpersonal process that is most successful when played out in a shared space that encourages trust and vulnerability to be established between team members. For this reason, when exploring how to create new communication mediums that connect people on a deeper and more meaningful level, Bell Labs recently resurrected its Experiments in Art and Technology residency. For one year, artists and engineers work side-by-side at the famed New Jersey lab, creating novel concepts by combining their distinctive backgrounds. In the absence of shared spaces that create the context for strong relationships to develop, only information that is easily transmitted through weakly connected networks will be available for teams to work with. Configuring spaces that allow new teams to develop the necessary levels of trust and vulnerability, even if only for a few weeks at the start of a project, will encourage team members to seek out and explore more unique and disruptive ideas.
3. Expanding the Collective Imagination of the Team // Free Association
We often lose sight of the forest for the trees when working intensely on a project. The more we focus on our areas of responsibility, the fewer opportunities we have to zoom out and make unanticipated associations between the ideas and concepts generated by the rest of the team. Meetings are usually too brief to identify and understand the value of novel associations, which by their very definition did not previously exist in our experiences or imaginations. What feels like a flash of insight is the culminating moment when prolonged exposure and subconscious processes of making connections between other team members’ work become apparent to us in a way that we can understand and articulate. Design studios like IDEO and Snøhetta foster free association by creating spaces where teams can gather and display evolving project materials — spatially expanding the collective imagination of the team. This gives teams the necessary exposure to the collective work of the team, encouraging them to make unanticipated associations, and ultimately more integrated and cohesive products and services. At IDEO and Snøhetta, the collective imagination of the team is expanded well beyond the project room. Past projects, experiments, and speculative research are displayed throughout the office, increasing the possible creative material to draw on. Organizing spaces in which teams can display and immerse themselves in evolving project materials allows members to build on one another’s ideas, increasing the cohesiveness and thoughtfulness of new concepts.
The kinds of interactions that physical space makes possible and the way they shape thinking are more important than ever. Yes, many uses of space are unnecessary and should be abandoned, but before contemplating reducing your physical footprint while holding on to old paradigms of spatial organization and rhythms of work, you should first consider how to repurpose it as a generative asset in your pursuit to develop new products and services. To do this, start by asking how your space can be used to encourage interactions that inspire transformative ideas that will help your business adapt to our uncertain future.