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The place where the office cubicle doubles as lab rat

Modularity on the macro level: Steelcase repurposed a former factory space to create a modular workspace for the company’s research and design staff.
Source: Steelcase
Modularity on the macro level: Steelcase repurposed a former factory space to create a modular workspace for the company’s research and design staff.

Good design solves problems, and the best design solves problems that are difficult to define or not even evident yet. Business leaders today realize they have to be more innovative, make faster decisions and cope with exponential change and complexities.

Place matters more than ever before when solving these issues. That's because our environments shape our behaviors, and spaces where we work can either foster the types of behaviors that drive business results, or help sabotage them.

Steelcase studies workplaces around the world, works with business leaders from diverse industries and constantly prototypes and tests new designs for spaces that can foster the kinds of results that organizations seek today. We use our own offices as living laboratories to prototype new designs for spaces that can foster the kinds of behaviors that organizations need today.

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Our research shows that there are new challenges in today's economy:

  • The more mobility technology allows, the more we need fixed places to come together to connect and collaborate.
  • The smaller our technologies, the more we need larger-scale places to share and communicate effectively with others.
  • The more data we generate, the more we need places to help us make sense of it.
  • The more collaborative we are, the more we need time alone.
Innovation requires great focus, both on a group and individual level. Workers crave spaces where they can concentrate individually and have private conversations.
Source: Steelcase
Innovation requires great focus, both on a group and individual level. Workers crave spaces where they can concentrate individually and have private conversations.

A key behavior that addresses these issues is resilience. It's the ability to adapt to new circumstances while maintaining core purpose and integrity, and it's often thought about in terms of economies or markets—rarely is it applied to workplaces.

But it certainly should be. An organization is only as resilient as its people and corporate culture, both of which depend on the communication, relationships and trust that are built in the physical work environment.

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Resilient workplaces not only adapt to new situations, they can leverage complex, changing conditions. Such workplaces support everyone's need for information. Technology should be embedded in spaces to help augment the interactions of people at work and foster a higher quality and quantity of interactions. Workplaces and technology should support strong social networks which create company cultures.

A resilient real estate strategy solves these issues through three principles: clustering, modularity and feedback loops.

Clustering means designing the workplace to bring a diverse range of people, resources, tools and ideas into close proximity with the right level of density—not too crowded, not too spread out.

Clustering promotes cross-pollination of people, ideas and experiences through places that bring them together. These places have three key features, or palettes:

  • Palette of place—a range of owned and shared spaces designed for both individual work and team work.
  • Palette of posture—spaces designed to support movement and different body postures.
  • Palette of presence—spaces that support both physical and virtual experiences, and sharing analog and digital information.
The Steelcase WorkCafé is a blend of workplace, coffee shop, dining area and social hub. A global information wall keeps employees connected to events around the world.
Source: Steelcase
The Steelcase WorkCafé is a blend of workplace, coffee shop, dining area and social hub. A global information wall keeps employees connected to events around the world.

(Read more: Can design save the PC?)

Workplaces should let people choose where and how they want to work, what we call best place. It can be anywhere on campus, depending on the type of work to be done and the space and tools needed. It's an ecosystem of spaces that augments personal interactions and, since it makes work more efficient, has the the potential to reduce the company's real estate footprint and costs.

Modularity creates places with a modular structure, using integrated interior architecture, furniture and technology components that can be easily reconfigured and enhanced when business needs change, especially during times of rapid growth or disruption.

Modularity requires offering the right balance of individual and group spaces, some owned by individuals and teams and some shared. Users select places where they can be most effective. As a result, the overall work environment better meets the needs of the organization.

Feedback loops help to answer the question, how well is the work environment working? Measure what's working and what's not, and then modify the workplace so the organization can thrive.

Steelcase’s new Innovation Center gives people a range of spaces, including open plan collaboration areas, to match different work needs and encourage movement and interaction.
Source: Steelcase
Steelcase’s new Innovation Center gives people a range of spaces, including open plan collaboration areas, to match different work needs and encourage movement and interaction.

Good feedback is both quantitative and qualitative. It alerts the organization to the need for change. By linking feedback with clustering and modularity, the company can rapidly and dynamically reconfigure its spaces and avoid business disruption.

Collecting feedback can be done in a number of ways. For example, advanced scheduling systems can track real estate utilization and provide real-time analytics to measure and report reservation patterns, overbooked or underused spaces, etc.

At Steelcase, we also use survey tools to gather data on mobility, collaboration, worker satisfaction and other factors.

In a world that seems to leap from one crisis to the next, resilience can make the difference between success and failure.

A resilient real estate strategy, based on clustering, modularity and feedback, helps create strong workplace communities and a vital company culture. The organization is more adaptive to change, collaborates more effectively and responds more quickly and decisively to change.

Steeped in communication and trust, the company becomes more agile, innovative and ultimately more resilient.

—By Chris Congdon, director of research communications, Steelcase

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