Innovate or die: A better way to design work spaces

“Why we hate our offices” was the headline on the cover of the Harvard Business Review’s October issue.

The issue featured multiple articles documenting why both employers and employees are frustrated with office configuration, layout and functionality. The authors claim that few companies measure the loss of performance that occurs from poor workplace design. It is significant.
Research shows that employees complain about the lack of privacy; the lack of sufficient collaborative workspaces; and their frustration with their inability to be part of the design process of their own work spaces.
Even the Wall Street Journal featured a recent column about “conference room conflict” leading to internal battles over where to meet, in turn creating loss of productivity and angry employees.
Employers also battle the ongoing expense and disruption caused by the need to change office configuration and layout in the years following the completion of interior office construction.
Mind you, billions are being spent every day for the new look and offices; but the research in the HBR articles shows that employees claim now more than ever that they can’t concentrate or stay focused on their work because of interruptions.
Something has got to change!
Is it possible to Do It Right This Time?
It took a Canadian company to answer that question and it decided to name itself just that: Doing It Right This Time (DIRTT).
The company decided early on to commit to a disruptive approach to the construction of interior space (office, health care, education) in a way that has transformed it into a leader.
Historically, if a customer wanted to move into new corporate office space it would retain an architect, drawings and plans would be submitted and approved, and then the contractors would be hired to complete the project according to specs.
The typical project involved a host of subcontractors including drywall, mud and tape, painters, electricians, carpenters, etc. Coordinating all of these trades often creates delays in the building process as well as dust and waste.
DIRTT Environmental Solutions, based in Calgary, decided to change this approach. It has a local distributor partner led by Jeff Lerdahl, with offices in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward.
The company developed state-of-the-art design software called ICE so customers and architects could interact and design within certain parameters the very spaces they would occupy in their new or remodeled offices, health care rooms, or classrooms.
Customers are empowered to sit at a computer with one of the DIRTT representatives and literally design their new rooms on their ICE software, adjusting the design to their likes and dislikes. It truly is a virtual experience. The customer’s employees can actually see the kind of office they will occupy, right down to the location of electrical outlets and Internet connections.
The beauty of ICE software is that it provides a living, breathing way to experience and visualize the new spaces and know the costs immediately for every tweak and change.
Consequently, the customer’s experience is really one of software design and not a typical construction approach in which an architect seeks to understand written plans.
This puts DIRTT in a blue ocean, almost viewed by customers as a software company rather than a construction company. It is offering something so unique that traditional office designers cannot compete. That competitive advantage has translated into an unbelievable rate of growth in 10 years, and DIRTT now has two plants operating in the U.S. and a successful IPO on the Canadian stock exchange.
In the Harvard Business Review, the authors of the article “Workspaces That Move People” argue that allowing the end-users of any given office to influence the final design translates into greater productivity after implementation. The ICE software is ideally suited for this approach.
Once the computer design process is completed and the customers are fully satisfied, it just takes the click of a button to send the order to one of DIRTT’s plants, where the walls and everything else necessary to complete the office space are built.
The finished product is shipped to the customer’s location and local installers can complete installation much faster, with less waste and mess.
More importantly, the customer can return to that software down the road and make adjustments and changes when those changes need to happen. Those can be implemented quickly and efficiently. Their customers do not have to do traditional demolition in order to make the changes and can avoid the disruption.
Today, you can buy a popular videogame called Minecraft that uses blocks to create environments. There’s a reason it is popular. Can you imagine the joy customers get from designing their own spaces with guided help?
You need to ask yourself whether your current work environment is serving the needs of your employees to be at their productive best. Here’s one drill to follow:

  • Begin by getting the facts. Do an anonymous survey of all employees and ask them whether they are satisfied with the degree of privacy, access to collaborative workspaces, or about anything else that might hinder their performance.
  • Get creative. If you uncover lost productivity, engage an architect, DIRTT or competent space planner to create an environment that maximizes everybody’s ability to perform at their best.
  • Implement as your budget permits. Slowly but surely implement the changes and then track employee performance as a result of the changes.

At the end of the road, your workforce will no longer hate their offices, but may, just possibly, love their work environment.
That’s the gold standard, and it is possible.
Daniel Steininger is president of BizStarts Milwaukee, a lecturer on creativity for the UWM School of Continuing Education and president of Steininger & Associates LLC. He can be reached at dan@bizstartsmilwaukee.com.

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