The Power of the Architect – Part 2

Learning the lessons

In my last post I shared some insights on how architects can have a serious impact on our development and how we can make parallels in how we design our learning environments. Here I’m going to continue the comparison and discover how innovative and creative design can have a positive effect.

In the previous post we discovered how workspaces in the UK have been designed to amaze, delight and wow from the outside but there has been little thought about the people and what effect poor design has on their development and productivity.

The host of the programme, Tom Dyckhoff highlighted “we in this country don’t understand how broken our work culture is… it’s only by going into other cultures, other countries, other places where there’s much more emphasis on the individual work ther and what they want…we’ve got to see other examples and by doing that we open up all our eyes to what is possible”.

This is very true.

So let’s return to the programme ‘The Secret Life of Buildings – how we work’. We reflected on three particular buildings in the UK and how although they were iconic designs from the outside, they had little going for the people on the inside. Bearing in mind it’s possible to learn from how others do things, the programme looked to Europe and in particularly BMW in Leipzig, Germany where the design of the building brought production line workers and managers together. The unusual conveyor belt design which allowed the car bodies travel above office workers’ heads and throughout the rest of the building reminded and reassured employees of their vital roles in the production process.

But it was the Dutch insurance company Interpolis in Holland that was the most enlightening example of not only efficient but effective design. It bred a feeling of purpose, value. Interpolis is a flexible workspace where the building was designed for the people by the people. That is, they were involved in the design process and actively participated in discussions around the use of flexible workspaces. The people were made responsible for what they were doing and there was a high level of trust within the organisation.

The building was designed so that there were various unique work spaces. Each was different and designed for different purposes. There was a club house which contained ten uniquely different areas. Meeting spaces blurred into social spaces. There were no institutionalised rows of desks in souless offices. The idea was based on the fact that only one third of their work time is done at a private desk so they looked to find out what was being done the during the remaining two-thirds of the time.

When asked how do people know where to go when they got to work, Erik Vedhoen, the architect, of the Interpolis building said “your day starts with asking yourself ‘what am I going to do today?’. Then you re-think ‘what’s the best place I can do that? Alone or with colleagues?’ and then you choose one of these places”.

Because there are different zones to promote different activities: relfection, discussion, focus, inspiration or stimulation. There was a definite feeling of ‘people-power’. But there was also efficiency and high levels of productivity. It then begged the question that if everything was so flexible, how did the boss keep control. Veldhoen replied “control is not an issue any more. When you do this, you manage on trust. You make a good system so they have enough accountability so they can show what they did and more than 95% of the people will do the things in the right way. In the old system you think you can control everything but that’s impossible.”

The workspace is very different from our usual ideas of working places and it looked very expensive. However, because of the clever use of space and the informal working areas, this reduced the overall size of the building by half and there was actually a 40% saving in construction costs. Veldhoen pointed out “the people are connected with each other in a natural way which made for a lot of productivity which you don’t get when you put people bound in one place.” Productivity rose by 20%. When asked if the UK would ever be able to learn from this he answered in a long slow ye-e-e-e-e-s but added “it will take a long time”.

Because learning and working are so tightly entwined, this shouldn’t be any surprise to us. We can learn from this on all sorts of levels. Not only from a L&D perspective but also how management can help increase employee engagement. Increased enagement, feeling valued, treated fairly, trusted and given more ownership of their learning and working. Enabling interaction and collaboration more easily together with providing easy access to the right tools for the job and the most appropriate environments in which to use them will reap huge rewards.

To summarise:

    trust more, control less
    encourage social interaction
    encourage flexibility
    use the most appropriate environnent or tool for the type of activity
    provide a strong technical infrastructure
    enable easy and quick access to performance support tools
    encourage ownership by displaying confidence in others’ abilities
    remove restrictions which cause stress and discomfort
    provide informal working spaces which encourage conversations to happen naturally
    support and cultivate
    encouraging a sharing and collaborative culture

If we continue to work in silos we’re in danger of becoming blind to possibilities. This may have a serious negative impact on our creativity especially when it comes to designing appropriate and effective learning solutions. We become swallowed up by the ‘it’s the way it’s always been’ culture and politics. Sometimes it’s easier if we leave things be. It takes time and effort to change the way we do things. But if we are expecting our learners to change the way they behave perhaps we should lead by example by affording time and effort into creating environments fit for the purpose. Environments that encourage, challenge and inspire. When we take the blinkers off we can help ourselves to discover new and innovative ways to engage and inspire. We can learn from others who’ve already been down that road and learn from their experiences. Above all, remember that people are the heartbeat of our organisations. Without them there is nothing.

If you’re interested in finding out more how Interpolis got there, here’s a report produced in association with The British Council of Offices ‘ICT and Offices: Practised Realities and their Business Benefits‘.

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