Designing the Corporation as a Living Organism

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By Brigitte Preston,
Principal & Design Director,
Perkins + Will

We are constantly innovating the way we work, so it is natural that we would do the same with where we work. As the conversation grows around what workspaces will look like in the future, we as designers need to adapt to the changes and emerging trends, while also committing to understanding the ways in which organizations may grow and change in the years to come.

McKinsey authored a study last December that discusses the shift in organizations from the past to the future. In the past, organizations operated like machines: stable, hierarchical structure, tiered decision-making, and inflexible. Think of an old school analog phone – it can do one thing very well: make phone calls. Workers in these organizations lived in a well-defined hierarchy, where they operated in siloed departments waiting for detailed instructions to come down from the top. How did this manifest itself in the physical work environment? Offices of multiple sizes along the window wall assigned by seniority and status, departments separated by walls and high wall workstations located in interior zones of buildings, and of course, lots of filing and storage space. Amenities were often limited to a few formal meeting rooms and an uninviting breakroom. Budget dollars were spent on design elements that reflected the stability and hierarchy of the organization. Wood paneled conference rooms and lavish executive suites contrasted with the budget fit-out of the typical work spaces.

Today, we find that organizations are behaving more like living organisms as described in the McKinsey study. Why is this shift happening? Primarily because of the evolving business environment, disruptive technology, democratization and digitization of data, and the war for talent. These agile organizations advance principles of autonomy, empowerment, experimentation and transparency. Leadership’s role is to ensure that the purpose and vision of the organization is clear to all stakeholders and operationalized in a way that engages all people. The analogy here is of a smartphone that provides a stable platform with dynamic apps to be a unique tool tailored to its user. Today’s workspaces are a blending of spaces and experiences that encourage new behaviors, support health and make meaningful connections with people.

So how do we design for the organizations of the future, and how is this different from what we are doing today? Let’s focus on developing a more complete understanding of the organization's purpose. What if we could connect to the human experience in the workplace at a deeper level? By discovering the heart of the organization and deep diving into its purpose, we can tailor the design of the workplace of the future to truly focus on people, their wellbeing and happiness. In our practice, we use the filters below to help us ask the right questions:

Potential: What is the potential for innovation, evolution and change?

Influence: How can we influence the organization, its stakeholders and the community?

People: How do we support healthy, happy people?

Environment: How do we respect our planet resources, wellbeing, and quality of life?

Here are some practical methodologies for moving these ideas forward:

  1. Capture the many ideas, issues, concerns and opportunities in a way they can be rapidly sorted and grown into solutions
  2. Focus on the human experience as space is not an overhead expense but a place for people
  3. To move into the future and affect change you have to take risks, plan for disruption and for rapid change.
  4. Listen and have conversations about the changing nature of work and space.

So, if you think of an organization as living organism, you must tend to it and nurture it as it grows and changes over time. How do we conceive spaces that support these new principles and behaviors? Ultimately, organizations are adapting to be as dynamic as the markets that they operate within. Over time, these changes have a profound impact on workplace design, and as we consider what spaces will look like in the future, we must also consider the ways in which organizations may change and grow in the years leading up to whenever “the future” is. As designers, we must commit to deeply exploring the purpose of organizations to be able to design the workplace of the future focused on the human experience.