May 9, 2011

Thoughts on The Physical Working Environment

In this post I will touch on some aspects of the physical working environment in organizations. I will attempt to answer these questions: How should offices be designed FOR people? What makes a certain work environment successful? What physical-work-environment is likely to encourage productivity and creativity?

Since it is spring, I cannot help but think of the similarities between planting seeds in the ground and placing employees in an office. I know, I know, it sounds cliché, but think about it: we try to ensure that the plant will have all that it needs: light, water, shade/sun, structural support (if it has the potential to grow high), protection from wind, etc. We will surely think about all these things before we plant anything, right?  We will want to research the specific needs that this plant has as we shape its environment to the best of our ability. Should we do any less for people in the context of their working environment?
Prof. Tom Davenport wrote about knowledge workers, how they think, how they accomplish tasks, and what motivates them to excel in his book "Thinking for a Living". One of the chapters in his book deals with physical work environment of the knowledge worker. 
Davenport claims that very little can be said for certain with regards to the effects of the workplace on the performance of the knowledge workers. He recommends to develop a customized and personalized approach towards this issue: Customized- fitting of the physical work environment to the group and its knowledge needs. Personalized: knowledge workers have characteristics that define their tasks and type of work, like autonomy in making decisions, and so. Choice and individual decision should be granted to them with regards to their workplace environment as well.

Frederick Herzberg studied and developed theories regarding the factors that affect human behavior. He identified a range of influences on workers’ motivation. The physical environment was identified as having a unidirectional effect on worker motivation. Hertzberg thought it was important to maintain a comfortable, safe, supportive physical environment to help workers stay motivated (and productive).

Now, enough with theory. What can we DO?
Environmental conditions to think about when designing places for people: Indoor air quality, ventilation system performance, lighting, spatial comfort, density, personalization and furniture, layout and acoustic conditions. There are endless design solutions of internal office space that try to address the environmental conditions I just mentioned. I will provide a few examples of cool designs and then provide a few tips on how to go about designing a work environment for your company.
  Cool designs I liked that show the semi-private work area:
   Skype Headquarters in Palo Alto, by blitz design
   Google Offices in Milan by AMA – Albera Monti & Associati

    Beta workplace system of furniture, designed by Pierandrei Associati
    WPP Detroit - Designed by Gensler

A few tips: How to go about designing a work space for your company

Customize and personalize:
Create think-tanks that includes representatives from different groups in the organization. Also include a person who understands the work habits of the team, and the type of people who work there (an involved HR person would be a great fit for this). Different groups in the organization have different dynamics based on the people who work there and on how they do the job that they do. After think-tanks are formed, together identify work behaviors that are important for a successful performance of that team.

Try to avoid solutions buzz words such as: open space/cubicles, instead talk about the types of communication utilized by  the team that will occupy a space. For example, a support team who works on providing clients with online/on-phone support, might need to consult with each other and share institutional knowledge. The physical configuration could be sensitive to that need and support it with a space where the team could easily see/talk with each other.  This approach of defining behaviors first and only then connecting them to physical solutions might be more time consuming than simply sending a survey to ask what configuration they would like to work at, but it will provide a better fit to the behavioral needs of the team (in the next paragraph I will suggest why you should not JUST ask people what they prefer)

What’s wrong with asking people what they prefer?
Usually I claim that people know what’s good for them. In this case, I feel that people might confuse what’s good for them with standard design solutions that they heard about previously. People might not be able to identify the important elements in the space design that could be required for their optimal work performance. A survey regarding the work environment, in which employees are asked to define what they like/dislike, might yield obvious results (e.g.: people like natural light).

Consider plants in the work environment!
It might sound random and not related but in fact plants not only add a visual pleasure but have an effect on the quality of air in the office (they do produce oxygen, it's real!). Nowadays, many offices include sealed windows. Plants won't replace the air conditioning system but it would help increase the oxygen levels in the air. 

So to conclude, there are no tricks or secret formulas. In order to design a productive, functional, and successful work space, you need to learn and understand the way different groups in your company’s operate, the personalities that will occupy different spaces and what type of activities and behaviors they need to do in that space.

May 1, 2011

Mean What You Say and Say What You Mean

This time I wanted to write about three communication issues. These might be related to cultural differences or to the way we were brought up. No matter what the cause is, I think it is worth thinking about these behaviors:

How are you.
And continuing to walk without really caring about the response.

This is one of the things that annoyed me the most when I moved to the US: People walk by you, saying “hi, how are you” (note that there’s no question mark!) and just continue to walk without really stopping by to hear your answer. I thought that it is very rude, why do people ask if they don’t care about my answer??? Well, of course people do not intend to insult. This is how people greet each other here, and it took me a while to understand it and not to be personally offended. However, I would like to suggest an alternative: if we are in such a hurry, and don’t have time to hear how people are doing, just say “Hi, good to see you”.

I think that we should care about other people and how they are doing, conversation is important and good, asking “how are you?” is great, but if you ask it, do be kind enough to pause and hear the response. Or just don’t ask at all.

Professor Sandy Pentland of the MIT Media Lab wrote an entire book on Honest Signals. Here is a quote I took from the Signaling Theory wikipedia page: “Biological signals, like warning calls or resplendent tail feathers, are considered honest if they are correlated with, or reliably predict, something useful to the receiver. In this usage, honesty is a useful correlation between the signal trait (which economists call ”public information” because it is readily apparent) and the unobservable thing of value to the receiver”

In the name of politeness people are signaling DIS-honest signals. Many explain that they don’t want to hurt feelings of the person that they are speaking with and therefore mask it with smiles and kind words. How are we supposed to interpret body language and words that are masked?! For example, people who have a bad interview but receive positive feedback just so they don't feel bad, do not have a clue that they really did badly, and they cannot improve. Wouldn’t it be better to be honest? I am not suggesting to be rude by all means (!) but I think that we can and should know how to handle honest feedback, and it could help us improve.

Direct = Aggressive (?!)
Last week I was speaking with a few people who explained to me how direct communication can be perceived as aggressiveness. I refuse to play the “pretend” game. I want people to be clear and direct with me in the way we communicate, without masks. I am trying to be honest and direct too. I think it will remove a lot of noise and confusion if we all just be honest and direct with each other. We will not have to invest so much energy in rephrasing every word and painting everything with shiny colors. It’s not about aggressiveness, which I don't promote, but I perceive indirect loop-arounds and masks of fake-politeness as unnecessary overhead that weighs-down communication and could distract from the actual content being communicated.

And that's my bottom line. Mean what you say, and say what you mean.