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Workplace Blog

A blog of all things workplace related (when I get time).

© Oseland 2011

Rethinking the Design Brief pt1

WorkPosted by Oseland Tue, September 20, 2011 19:27:04

It’s not every day that you meet Donald Duck on the way to work, but this did indeed happen en route to presenting at the CoreNet Global Summit held in Disneyland Paris. I shared the platform in person with Brian Szpakowski and virtually with Neil Usher, with the help of Susan Wagner who kept us on track. We each presented pecha kucha style then facilitated a practical session using different materials.

The theme of the session was “rethinking the design brief” and our idea was to challenge the way that our industry usually writes the brief for a new workplace. When you visit the majority of modern offices they appear, to me, to all be quite similar. They have large areas open plan desks with the more interesting (collaboration) spaces positioned around a central core; the desks are bench systems in white or grey with low screens and accompanying tambour units; colour comes in splashes at the end of corridors or in the limited number of breakout spaces; informal meeting and soft seating areas are parked in the irregular spaces that desks do not fit in, and so on.

My conclusion is that these homogenous and repetitive working environments are the consequence of repeatedly using a similar project brief. The focus of the brief tends to be on space efficiency and cost-effectiveness, branding and sustainability may be added as an afterthought, but here is little regard for other key factors. The main purpose of an office environment is to facilitate the occupying business and support its occupants in performing their job, and this should be reflected in the brief. The intention of the session was to challenge the way we brief and explore the consequences of using different success criteria in the brief such as: a) happiness rather than cost, b) personal identity and development rather than corporate brand, and c) personal and psychological factors rather than organisational needs.

Brian informed us that the Kingdom of Bhutan has pursued a goal of Gross National Happiness since 1972, and western leaders are now looking beyond traditional indexes of economic well-being and national policies for measuring happiness. People are productive when they are happy and they are happy when they play, so Brian explored the differences between play and work and the notion of play at work. Brian is an architect and explained that when he receives a brief from a client he is presented with a “schedule of areas” specifying a specific number of space components, plus a little brand information, some RAL colours, and workplace standards. He continues “there is very little that is aspirational in all of this, the language is strictly utilitarian, the brief is a ‘serious’ document’ related to ‘the business case’ and all judged by effect on ‘the bottom line’…”. Brian argues that we all need to be more open minded about what the workplace is and may possibly become, especially in a world of dispersed and flexible working in the knowledge economy, and as such the “office could be somewhere you go when you want to talk to people, when you want to be inspired, when you want to be invigorated or challenged, when you want to be with friends or be part of a community”. Brian concludes that the office design brief needs to focus on comfort, beauty, sharing, friendship, community, and most importantly happiness.

Neil's presentation postulates that the workplace brief is designed to achieve emotional constraint where the spaces are designed to contain emotions how we should feel in those spaces: “the workstation says ‘be quiet and respect those around you’, breakout spaces say ‘politely and positively interact with your colleagues, even those you think are morons’, and meeting rooms say ‘sit around a table for hours on end looking at slides, thinking about your holiday, sneakily checking your e-mail and wondering why you were called there in the first place’”. The standard work-settings dictate an emotional response such that free emotional expression now requires unpredictable spaces designed to surprise and liberate the emotions. Neil’s also challenged the complexity of the brief. He observes that scientific method is ingrained from youth and therefore we crave complexity whereas simplicity is seen as negative and undervaluing our contribution. However, although “our workplace design briefs are bedecked with analysis, data, statistics, surveys – they all look the same when they’re finished – complexity isn’t getting us anywhere different .. The simplest design brief that will allow us as human beings the space and time to grow is one based on emotion. The workplace should not be a physical response to occupancy data, but instead to human feelings and”. He continues that all around us are symbols of how we belong to the organisation; the workplace reflects our needs as an employee, as part of the organisation. Consequently the workplace brief is usually entirely focussed on our part in the organisation and fails to respect the ever more expansive place we have in broader society, where we lend our three dimensional identity to our employers for a portion of our time. The key is how the workplace can support our wider involvement in beneficial and productive relationships and associations outside of our organisation.

My own presentation focussed on the relevance of psychological theories to the design brief, a topic which I published a couple of years ago. I started my career as an environmental psychologist researching the impact of the built environment on requirements, behaviour and performance. My intention was to help create great environments that enhance individual performance and business productivity. Over the years, mostly in response to my clients, this has been diluted to providing space efficient and cost effective workplaces. But my simple premise still stands “the main asset of any business is its people and if the people don’t perform then the business will fail”. Therefore the most fundamental element of any design brief must be how the workplace will accommodate the basic needs of its people and recognise that those needs will also vary between individuals depending on their personality and their role. My presentation touched on personality theory and how the extroverts are thrill seekers who require stimulating environments and get easily distracted when working alone, whereas introverts prefer calmer environments and solitary activity. I also introduced the concept of arousal theory, which reoccurs throughout the psychological literature and states there is an inverted U relationship between arousal and performance. We are most productive at the optimal level of arousal, but too much stimulation can cause stress and too little stimulation leads to boredom, both resulting in poor performance. As extroverts have a natural low level of arousal they require stimulation whereas introverts have a high level hence their preference for quieter environments. Complex tasks also increase arousal so need calm environments, whereas repetitive and mundane tasks reduce it so are best suited for stimulating environments or carried out by introverts. I also presented Maslow’s and Herzberg’s motivational theories, Lewin’s theory that behaviour is a function of the environment and personality including our expectations and experience of place; Hall’s proxemics framework and the preferred distance between people; Altman’s privacy model which explains that territoriality and personalisation are coping mechanisms for controlling the required level of interaction; evolutionary psychology and biophelia which highlights our preference for natural environments; and Dunbar’s number which calculates our preferred social network is 150 people. All these theories have direct and very relevant implications for how we brief for and design workplaces.

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