09/09/2014 06:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Theater of Work


Does space transform culture or reflect it? Winston Churchill said " We shape our dwellings, and thereafter they shape us."

It is often the intangible social aspects of places that create lasting experiences. The Great Place to Work® Institute recognises pride, camaraderie, credibility, respect and fairness as key attributes to creating the very best workplaces, but the role of physical space is just as important as it is that integration of space and culture that creates what we experience: workspace + culture = workplace.

However, physical space is often seen as static and the design process is perceived as finished when the space is completed. In reality a space is incomplete without human engagement. Space becomes dynamic with people -- when people enter a space life begins, like when actors enter the stage, there is interaction and innovation and everyone is part of the experience and as such everyone is part of the design process.

Pine and Gilmore in The Experience Economy proclaim "work is theatre" as the word drama derives from the Greek expression 'drao', meaning 'to do'. They go on to say:

Consider the sequence, progression, and duration of events. How are work activities arranged? What continuums exist in the organization of events? Where does work begin, reach dramatic climax, and have its denouement? Finally, consider the rhythm and tempo of work, for these define the relationships between dramatic elements. What transitions present themselves and need to be managed? What building, diminution, contrast and release enrich the scene's energy level?... It should be well-rehearsed, passionately delivered, reliable yet nuanced and surprising. And it should happen in venues carefully selected, designed and tuned to enhance and extract the maximum impact,

Designing the context to support human interactions and create memorable experiences involves both scale and time and the theatre analogy is very appropriate. Dr Francis Duffy's Princeton PhD thesis in the 60's and the work we did together at DEGW always acknowledged both these dimensions by ensuring that space encompassed scale; from the chair to the city and that the layers of design were aligned to time and change. Duffy distinguished between different levels of longevity in office design -- from the five-year duration of the scenery of the office interiors through 15 years for services to 60-year life span of the building shell.

What we design today will be our future heritage. It must be a sustainable and resilient resource that stands the test of time. "Long life, loose fit, low energy " should be the guiding principle. A minimum life expectancy of 60 years is not unreasonable for new buildings but they should be flexible to accommodate a variety of uses over that time. The dynamic change enabled by technology adds another dimension of longevity, that of the day to day and hour by hour change of settings (set changes) for work. People regularly report that freedom and choice matters most; they feel best when they are in a flexible space that they can change to meet their work needs, mood, or inspiration at the moment.

The working environment can either stimulate and sustain people's energy or dampen and drain it. For it to be a positive experience that adds value, it must meet a series of basic human needs:

- our need to renew our physical energy
- our need to feel valued
- our need to focus and be creative
- our need to connect with others in a range of ways

We perform at our best when we move, spend time outside getting daylight and alternate between different physical, emotional, mental and spiritual states.
The combination of open plan office design and email has shattered people's capacity to focus on deep work with constant interruption, distraction and lack of freedom and choice. We've come to see multitasking as an essential skill when in fact it destroys our productivity. The lack of places to work without interruption means that we further reinforce a culture of intermittent thinking that tends toward the narrow, short-term and superficial. As we work more continuously, the natural breaks we took in the past have been replaced with constant access to mobile email increasing our need for intentional high quality renewal.

In their first product catalogue in 1948 Herman Miller defined the ideal working environment as "a daytime living room that would be welcoming and humane, where the most important thing in the room is not the furniture, but it's the people." Herman Miller still aspire to move our office environment from standardized workstations and generic meeting rooms to a diverse landscape of purposeful settings through their Living Office Solutions .Yet somehow as an industry, instead of this ideal, we have built millions of square feet of impersonal and inflexible workplaces that drain peoples energy and creativity, sacrifice adaptability and eliminate user input.

Long-term property value is driven by the long term economic relevance of an asset. Remaining relevant in the long-term requires adaptability and that needs us to embrace incompleteness, transition and dynamic user input. Developing successful places involves initiatives big and small, temporary and long-lasting. In this era following the financial crisis, transition should be considered a structural feature of the way places will be built, with a new set of tools and approaches that deal with this uncertainty. Creativity, appropriation and a rediscovery of the ability of people to shape their everyday spaces are highlighting the benefits of emergent and adaptive approaches.

Illustration by Daniel Morgenstern