Gimmick or game-changer? Beyond the window dressing of workplace design

How can you differentiate the design fads from the genuinely useful? Augustin Chevez of Hassell Studio and Phanish Puranam of INSEAD look at what works in workplace design and where people can easily go wrong

Experience design is re-imagining organisations beyond the traditional landscape of workplace design. From flying sharks and dog-friendly offices to waterfalls in the lobby, the scope of organisational design is changing.

Organisation design is concerned with how to shape interactions among members to further certain strategic goals. It typically involves decisions about authority and incentives, selection and recruitment processes, leadership and culture. The physical space within which an organisation’s members interact has not historically been a part of the design palette. But the game is now rapidly changing…

The concept of experience design (introduced by Pine and Gilmore) has been influential in the world of customer interactions. Principles traditionally used to attract, captivate and retain customers are now being brought in-house in the workplace to win the best talent. The idea, though new to office culture, is basically intuitive: make work a fun, rewarding place to be, and employees will want to come on board, stay put and work hard.

Experience design principles can be brought to bear much more fundamentally at the office. More ambitious schemes may require the intervention of trained spatial experts, i.e. architects. Here, the stakes rise substantially. A ping-pong table can always be folded up and taken away. A complete workspace redesign can’t be so easily undone. And there is no guarantee that the new, expensive environment will produce the desired effects.

The open-plan office was designed with the express intent to foster a more collaborative, less hierarchical workplace. But in many instances, it seems to have achieved just the opposite and is often viewed by employees as yet another cost-saving strategy for the company that comes at their expense.

Three legs of the same stool

The synergy of organisational, experiential and architectural design will improve the structure, culture and setting of organisations much as technology is changing the landscape of work. That’s the theory. The challenge lies in differentiating between the real game changers and the gimmicks.

Truly innovative workspace design stems from three fundamental spheres and how they fit together. The central issues in organisation design concern breaking down an organisation’s goals into tasks performed by its members (division of labour) and reintegrating these (integration of effort) by motivating and coordinating people.

Experience design aims to address these concerns from the entertainment, educational, aesthetic and escapist perspectives. It also places importance on motivation and, more subtly, on coordination, particularly in terms of encouraging certain interactions over others. For example, the ‘water cooler’ moment where informal connections drive knowledge sharing and information flow throughout the organisation.

Bribery by design?

Providing additional amenities such as changing rooms, crèches and meditation spaces can help attract and retain a desirable demographic in the workplace. However, as the offerings become more extravagant people may view additional ‘perks’ as gimmicky or even just outright bribery.

In light of our analysis above, what separates a useful design from a tool, a gimmick or bribery may not be what it is, but what it does. The organisational designer would want to know what all that cool décor and design are doing for motivation and opportunities for information exchange and collaboration (as well as opportunities to escape distraction and work quietly and productively).

Gimmicks or game-changers?

Spotify has adopted Agile project management in its development work, whereby projects are broken down into tribes, squads, chapters and guilds. The use of objects (sharks), colourful seating and wall paint can be used to create ‘neighbourhoods’ where tribes are located.

In this context, these can be useful tools to provide a sense of belonging, identity and other important social cues that promote the performance and engagement of employees. The outlandish (to many eyes) décor is perhaps accomplishing these nudges in ways that reinforce the formal organisational design of agile software development teams.

But without a firm anchor in organisational design, supposedly fun, playful embellishments can be unwelcome additions to the workplace. Even Google, arguably the progenitor of the office-as-playpen design philosophy, has been criticised for its famous slides. The site Dezeen quoted Swedish brand designer Fredrik ‘Freddie’ Öst saying everyone hates the slide because it ruins clothes and it is disruptive to neighbouring work stations.

A cool perk that falls under a broader definition of experience design, such as dog-friendly office policies, could go either way. While the presence of dogs has been found to bolster mental health, increase social interactions and raise productivity, the downsides include allergies that affect 15 to 30 percent of the population, safety and hygiene concerns, and possibly clashing cultural norms (keeping dogs as housepets is uncommon in several countries).

If the company’s primary goal is to attract employees from among the current crowd of urban hipsters eschewing parenting in favour of ‘fur babies’, then embracing dogs in the workplace makes complete sense, from an organisational design perspective. It may even be worthwhile investing in an on-site doggie crèche. Otherwise, the trade-offs may be too uncertain.

In any case, one thing seems clear: without a reinforcing logic linking décor to design, a shark hanging from the ceiling just because it looks cool will soon look like a fish out of water.

Agustin Chevez is a Senior Researcher at Hassell and Adjunct Research Fellow, Centre For Design Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne.
Phanish Puranam is a Professor of Strategy, the Roland Berger Chaired Professor of Strategy and Organisation Design at INSEAD.