10 things to do

When I was at high school my favourite subjects were Art and Technical Drawing. Although I considered a career in Architecture, at the time the premier course was in Adelaide and the city of churches didn’t hold much appeal for me in those days. However, I have always harboured an enthusiasm for how people interact with their physical environment, and the design of spaces for effective and enjoyable use remains a fascination for me.

I got to indulge this interest last Friday when I was privileged to attend a Strategic Thinking Forum at the City of Melbourne to discuss the use of public space. One of the presentations at the forum was from an organisation called the Project for Public Spaces. (www.pps.org ) Ethan Kent, the presenter introduced us to a very simple but powerful idea, which at PPS they call the Power of 10.

In a nutshell, a great city has at least 10 major attractions, a great precinct has at least 10 venues, a great space has at least 10 possible things to do in it … etc. Now without getting hung up about the sanctity of ‘10′, I love the idea because it rings true with what I have experienced about cities, offices, parks, rooms and any other spaces designed for people to be in.

In addition to the obvious application to design which was the focus of Friday’s discussion, I wondered about how it works as a diagnostic: if a space doesn’t ‘work’ it could well be that the options for activity are too narrow. Think also about the problem of vandalism and crime: when a space has limited utility, the more creative, innovative or rebellious among us will be inclined to generate additional uses …

This is not to suggest the idea of ‘10′ is the only explanation for why space works or otherwise, but it certainly rang true for me. It was amazingly engaging to discover such a simple idea that even in the couple of days since Friday, has changed to way I see ‘spaces’.

There has been some discussion around workplace design on this blog previously. This gives us another angle. Think about desk space, meeting rooms, communal areas … this simple idea could be applied to multiply the effectiveness, enjoyment and utility of expensive office resources.

I wonder whether this sheds any light on your own workspace?

Workplace design and the Roslin experience

2008_03040049.JPGWe took a branding risk moving from our architect renovated vaulted ceiling warehouse in Albert Park to the grand Victorian house in West Melbourne. I need not have worried. Roslin (as the house is called), has not only been good for our branding, it has offered other advantages I hadn’t anticipated. This has prompted some pondering about the role of the work environment.

At high school, my two favourite subjects were technical drawing and art. (How did I end up with a pure maths degree?) A latent love for architecture and design has followed me through adult life. The ideas of how people interact with space has always held my interest, whether reflecting on Naomi Klein’s ideas about public spaces (No Logo chapter 13) or my own discovery of cooking pleasures after renovating our kitchen. If you share this fascination, I recommend you get your hands on Alain De Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness. The first 100 pages or so in particular are spectacular reading. But I digress.

I visited Shirley during the week. Before we enjoyed the sophisticated dark of the European cafe and winebar in Spring St. she showed me Arup’s impressive new offices, typical of the new kinds of spaces that are peppering corporate workspaces these days. But as an article in Friday’s edition of the Financial Review’s Boss Magazine says,

“…work environments that help get the most out of people – which boast the design finesse the modern worker expects – are not the norm.”

George, who owns and restored Roslin has treated us at Ergo and our network of clients and associates to a building of exceptional quality. It was the awe of the building that first captivated us. What I hadn’t anticipated was the sense of how the environment invites quality work. One almost feels embarrassed to deliver mediocrity within its walls.

We have tried to create different spaces within the building. No one has a permanent desk. All spaces are shared. we’ve got an open kitchen dining area, a modern board room, a ‘bankers-lamp, leather-top-desk’ style library, an open airy hot desking space and two outdoor areas. Each is designed for different moods and work styles. I reckon it works.

As I’ve had the opportunity to talk about this with people there is a sense of ‘derr’. Of course it is true that the environment affects the way people work. But if it is so self-evident, why are workplaces environments that inspire so rare? We have certainly lacked imagination on how to organise our office environments.

Sure, money is a factor, but where there is a creative will, there is a way. I’m not embarrassed to say that we furnished our place mostly from eBay. My suspicion is that managers have considered employees and their environments a cost rather than an asset, and have for the most part have forfeited considerable business value by overseeing very ordinary office environments. I wonder what our workplaces would look like if we embraced the link between inspiring environments and productivity.

I’m interested in people’s experiences of how different work environments influenced their motivation and effectiveness at work. Please do tell…