For the Most Effective Office Layout, What’s Illogical Might Be Logical

November 19, 2015

Leaders must step up and make their marks in a multitude of contexts, yet your organization’s office layout might not come to mind when creating a vision for improved employee performance. Think again.

Workplaces have widely varying cultural and physical atmospheres when viewed initially by visitors, and more importantly, when experienced by employees who spend large fractions of their time under that atmosphere’s influence. Personnel knowledge of the organization’s history, traditions, mission, aspirations, goals, policies, and procedures are likely to be influenced by their cultural and physical settings. The work environment also impacts an employee’s ability to work smarter – that is, more effectively, efficiently, and innovatively. Let’s explore how leaders, including us engineers, should consider the physical aspects of where we work and the way that can influence how smart we work.

Mixing Up the Personnel

I and my engineering firm colleagues once had an opportunity to design “from scratch” how we would use an entire floor in a relatively new office building. Our initial thought was to follow the same “logical” layout we were used to and which is commonly applied. That is, group people with similar functions together – engineers with engineers, planners with planners, administrators with administrators, technicians with technicians, and marketers with marketers and so on, as illustrated schematically in the upper part of the figure.

Walesh Chart WEB HORIZ

However, we did not pursue our initial “logical” impulse. Instead, we innovated. We decided, “illogically,” to “mix” everyone up. We reasoned that this arrangement, as shown in the lower part of the figure, which would be heterogeneous with respect to functions, would enhance communication and collaboration relative to our traditional homogeneous arrangement. Each of us would have improved opportunities to learn about others and their work and to more fully appreciate the organization’s diversity of functions, expertise, projects, and existing and potential clients/owners. Face-to-face office conversations would be richer and more varied as a result of the new physical environment, and personnel would have more data, information, and knowledge to draw on when addressing issues, solving problems, and pursuing opportunities. We would work smarter. And, that idea worked.

For example, look at the encircled letters E, T, and M in the lower half of the figure. As an engineer (E), I was assigned an office with a technician (T) on one side and a marketing person (M) on the other side. As a result, I talked frequently with Jerry (T) and gained more appreciation for the creative, innovative, and sophisticated field work done by our firm’s technicians. If we wanted something done in the field, they could do it – even if it required a “midnight requisition.” (No, I did not delve into what that “requisition” meant.) And David (M) provided me with the equivalent of a short course in marketing fundamentals. I still vividly remember his “benefits, not features” advice when explaining our services to clients – obvious now but enlightening then. Being next to Jerry and David helped me work smarter.

Steve Jobs, when he led Pixar Animation Studios, was heavily involved in the design of the company’s new office building on a 16-acre site between Berkeley and Oakland, CA. Why? He believed that the building could “do great things for a culture.” The result was a huge building containing a central atrium configured to encourage random encounters because they lead to employees “cooking up all sorts of ideas.”

The new Pixar building encouraged people interaction by forcing employees to get out of their offices and go to the central atrium. The building’s front doors, main stairs, and corridors all pointed to the atrium. A theater, screening rooms, and windowed conference rooms all opened to the atrium. Finally, all of the building’s restrooms were accessed through the atrium.

Mini-Renaissance

In urging experimentation with an atypical office configuration, I am advocating a version of the Medici Effect, which formed the foundation for the Renaissance. In the 14th century, the wealthy Medici banking family of Florence, Italy, and a few others brought into Florence and generously supported scientists, sculptors, poets, financiers, philosophers, painters, and architects.

The interaction of individuals with highly varied cognitive resources (left and right brains, conscious and subconscious minds, experiences, habits, personality profiles, etc.) living in comfortable and interactive physical proximity in Florence gave birth to the Renaissance. You can use the six-century-old Medici Effect to establish a mini-Renaissance atmosphere in your organization that may lead to a burst of more effective and efficient work and a new level of innovative thinking.

Are You Mixed Up?

Put yourself in a leadership position and look around your business, government, university, or professional society office. Does its physical configuration support communication, collaboration, cooperation, idea generation, and overall improved performance? If not, maybe it’s too logical in the traditional sense. It’s only “stuff,” you may think, but actually it’s all about your personnel. Experiment with mixing up the “stuff” and watch what your people do. They are likely to work smarter – and be more effective, efficient, and innovative.

Watch for Stu Walesh’s new book Introduction to Creativity and Innovation for Engineers, to be published Jan. 1, 2016, by Pearson.

2 Comments
  • Raul: Thank you for sharing your views. You and I seem to be aligned.

    When I first saw your use of “control” I thought we might be on different pages because I am not about control. In fact, applying the Medici Effect can result in loss of control of thinking — which in the world of creativity/innovation is a good thing, at least for a while. Too often, when faced with a challenge, we control our thinking by immediately recalling previous similar challenges and, more specifically, how we resolved them. That kind of controlled thinking is likely to dismiss possible new ways to resolve old challenges. Getting away with that kind of narrow thinking is more difficult in diverse groups.

    You relate “control” to each of our specialties. I agree that being in a diverse group that includes many different specialties may stimulate each of us to see new possibilities for our specialty.

    Finally, yes, coffee breaks and lunchtime can provide diversity experiences. However, my experience indicates the experience is richer if we are “mixed up” during the entire work day.

  • Good point and good idea. However, I would raise some issues about.
    – Renaissance, was a great moment in humanity and renaissance people usually were able to address several matters along their lives. Some of them were artists, anatomists, botanicals, etc. by their own. It was a time when each of these branches did not have the enormous development that we live nowadays.
    – Saying that, the more different matters you handle, the less you know (control) each one in particular, which may be your duty ( your specialization).
    – On the other hand, from different trades, you may get good ideas, sometimes applicable “by analogy” to your trade. This is also a good point for the “mixed” arrangement. It does not help concentration (this may be a drawback)
    – Anyway, I like and I favour relating with different employees, may be not that way. ( during lunch-time? at coffe breaks?)

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