Here in Perkins+Will’s Boston studio, we’re using our office renovation—which we call Re/Fresh—as an opportunity to become a living lab for workplace design. As my colleague Brigitte Beltran previously wrote, it’s been an open, inclusive process that has united the whole office. In this post, I want to explore how we’ve been able to merge more than a hundred viewpoints into a single coherent design strategy.
There’s no question that, as opposed to a top-down process (where a few people are deciding on behalf of everyone else), an open process is best for an office like ours. First, people are inspired to devote more creativity and talent. They’re also led to adopt different perspectives in tackling a problem, which helps build trust and leads to smoother workplace initiatives down the line. But an open process can also be challenging. You’ve got to create a dynamic where all points of view are respected while still arriving at a single solution. This kind of process takes more time. And yet the outcome makes the effort totally worthwhile.
Here some thoughts on how a design process with many voices can generate a coherent concept:
Design the process before designing the project. Be intentional about the process flow. Plan interactive, well-orchestrated events that tackle different scales of the issue. Let different people lead so that everyone is invested in understanding motivations and finding solutions. Define from the beginning what an ideal project outcome will look like—it’s the only way to know if you’ve succeeded.
Listen, listen, and listen. Because we experience the world through our own bodies and no one else’s, no perspective is identical. Finding common ground can be easy, but when it isn’t, empathy is the fastest way to understanding. Listening makes us stronger, challenges biases, allows creativity to flow, and lets people know they’ve been heard.
A listening and brainstorming session in our Boston studio.
Define the problem. Once everyone is heard, a list of challenges will emerge. In the case of Re/Fresh, our challenges took three forms:
- Clarifying the visitor experience. What is their journey? What are we showing about our brand and about how we work?
- Embodying our values. How can we use design to promote equality, collaboration, innovation, and sustainability?
- Increasing workstation density. In place of additional “me” spaces—co-working spaces and small-informal meeting spaces—could we have more “we” spaces?
Break the design problem apart by theme, then assign responsibility. In general, a design problem can be put into one of two categories. There’s the overall clarity of the design concept and its organizational framework, and there’s the pragmatic, more detail-oriented aspects of how solutions might manifest themselves. For our office refresh, we sorted all participants into either of those categories. Some groups concentrated on exploring broad organizational concepts, while others tackled specific challenges related to: personal storage versus project storage; seeing whether the model shop and the print room could coexist; densifying workstation usage; understanding co-working spaces and ideal furniture types; and making sure teams had plenty of surfaces for pin-up and collaboration space. By breaking the overall problem—that of redesigning the workplace—into parts, we’ve allowed more people to participate and contribute. When these working subgroups reported to each other, they talked through their solutions and agreed on the priorities.
Breaking the problem into themes will help facilitate productive next steps.
Communicate often, with transparency and timeliness. For all these ideas to form a coherent whole, design excellence only goes halfway. You need a process with communication touchpoints at all scales (staff, associate level and senior leadership). You must communicate often to let people know they’ve been heard and their input appreciated. You must reach consensus among the many perspectives by focusing on the goal as defined at the beginning: a workplace environment that supports a variety of working styles, one that makes our project delivery process more efficient and more inspirational.
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