The last blog post talked about how physical place is playing an increasingly important role in supporting learning at and through work, and how some workplaces are now looking and feeling like university campuses.
The post also warns against thinking about ‘the workplace’ as singular. Like campuses, which tend to be a collection of buildings, the learning workplace is distributed across multiples places throughout towns and cities.
Since writing part one of The Campus Workplace, Anne McCrossan (@annemcx) and I had a business lunch at The Petersham Nurseries. I wish my writing abilities could conjour up the atmosphere in that peaceful place. The tables and chairs do not match, the smell of plants and flowers permeate the air, and what you see as you eat and chat is a gorgeous profusion of greenery that is gentle on the eye and soul.
We visited on an early Spring day when the sun shone. We also thought that if it had been raining, the pitter-patter of rain on the glass roof would also have been pleasant.
Now we know that our conversation would have been energetic and engaging anyway but the place we were in was relaxing, inspiring and particularly conducive to creative conversation.
There is no shortage of people writing about the influence of place on how people work and learn. Space design has to allow for diverse activities: collaboration, contemplation, formal meetings, informal conversation, play, purposeful activity etc.
I remember being shown around an ‘exemplary’ workspace and feeling vaguely irritated. Different rooms were designed for specific activities – listening, exploring, producing prototypes, collaborating and contemplating. The rebel in me kicked against the intention of the designers. If I want to contemplate in the collaboration space, then I will. Infantile perhaps but there it is.
Creativity and abandoned spaces
Then there is the soullessness of many modern workplaces. Someone pointed out to me that people are usually conspicuously missing from images of award-winning workspaces. Where’s the creative mess – the tools, post-it notes, files and general evidence of shared, distributed cognition?
A colleague recently commented that Soho in London is full of cramped, inefficient and messy offices that give rise to immense creativity.
Whereas creativity can emerge from the tranquil surroundings Anne and I experienced, a perhaps more edgy creativity can emerge from abandonment. The French philosopher, Yves Michaud, observes that artistic creativity thrives in “provisional spaces” and within contexts of creative destruction, which in many cases are disorganised and disjointed.**
Michaud argues that we should leave time and opportunity for disorganisation; a space for something to happen and for creativity to emerge. This is in complete contrast to the majority of orchestrated, organised, structured, restricted and ordered corporate environments.
Designing ‘for’ and designing ‘in’
I am forever grateful to Greg Lloyd (@roundtrip) for alerting me to Re-Place-ing Space: The Roles of Place and Space in Collaborative Systems.
In their assessment of the role of place and space in collaborative systems, Harrison and Dourish explain space as “the three-dimensional environment in which objects and events occur, and in which they have relative position and direction”. The properties of physical space apply everywhere. As they comment, up is up for everyone.
They say that space becomes place when it is invested with meaning and expectations, for example how people are expected to behave within a place. According to Harrison and Dourish, a sense of place is essentially a cultural phenomenon involving “a communally-held sense of appropriate behaviour, and a context for engaging in and interpreting action”.
It is a community that determines how a sense of place develops over a time. Since places have social meaning constructed by place users themselves, workplace designers can “design for” but it cannot be “designed in”.
Cultures and support systems
The extent to which people participate in the design and use of their workspaces, or choose which alternative workspaces suit them, of course is highly dependent on organisational cultures and performance support systems.
I have compiled a number of ideal company profiles according to different process characteristics, along with suggested ‘good practice’ for systems design – people, place and technologies. These have been drawn from management literature, case studies, research on high-performance work systems, case studies, work that I have done with businesses etc.
That is for the next post.
** Dr Marie Puybaraud and I had an article printed somewhere - The Creative Workplace. For the life of me, I cannot remember where it was published. My draft copy does not have the Michaud reference. I will try to find out both from Marie.