Now here’s something we didn’t expect to see – M Moser’s Steve Gale tells us he has learned about humanity from the tech firms!
In the recent past I visited the headquarters of a global software company. My guide pressed a button, the electrochromic glass cleared to reveal a six foot server rack, flashing LEDs and rivers of neatly tied cables in that lonely space.
We both shrugged, and I stifled an obvious question. This was the showcase for a burgeoning software house, a confident player in the new world of cloud computing and the rack was someone’s idea of showing what it looked like. The thrust of an entire business was interpreted in comical form. A bit like promoting a pharmaceutical company by sticking a bottle of pills on a pedestal.
It perfectly reflects our problem in the design sector of creating workplaces for businesses that operate in the metaphysical world of software. How can design help these firms head into the future?
The well-worn language of workplace design works, up to a point, but beyond this, fresh thinking is needed. Our old friends of efficiency and effectiveness are not enough when your products are invisible and customer service evolves by the minute.
The dichotomy of computer processing – and its wonder – is its ability to manipulate big ideas by writing code in ordinary words, arranged in zillions of manicured lines. Limitless complexity is built from basic components, fastidiously connected. Huge thinking is implemented with microscopic detail and perseverance. This is a contradictory zone of iron discipline and open creativity.
A workplace for such an enterprise is more than a static environment – it is a vehicle to carry people and their dreams into the future. It needs to be robust because it will hit difficult terrain, but also light because acceleration and manoeuvrability mean survival. But, beyond these practical aspects, it must nurture the creative parts.
In addition to purpose and intense discipline, tech firms demand support for thinking outside their current world, and the way we do this is still evolving. For these companies, adventure and innovation are equally important.
Now we are dealing with drivers well beyond efficiency and effectiveness. Like culture, or personality, the DNA of creativity and innovation is hard to define. We are dealing with human characteristics – and quite difficult ones to assess. When a tech business says that coding skills are only part of the job and it needs certain personality traits, like creativity and team working, what should their workplace look like?
This sort of firm may see huge value in the right lobe of an employee’s brain, such as creativity, vision and empathy, as well as the obvious ability to resolve engineering problems. Maybe they want disrupters, pioneers or collaborators in the same people. Our design solutions will support their activities, but they must also appeal to emotional intelligence at the same time. Beyond the solo working, group interactions, focused tasks, social and introverted behaviour, there is the subtle language of authenticity, reflecting a sort of communal psychology, a culture perhaps.
For example, if personal interaction is good for innovation then the social elements of design will play a key part. Easy in a start-up, but more challenging as the business grows. Does the community evolve into a town and then a city, or does it try to be a matrix of interconnected villages?
Can we express these ephemeral attributes, like ambition, confidence, freedom and trust? If we find a way, we will build much more than an effective container for the business – we will build an environment that represents the business and what it wants to be, resonating with its values, and appealing to people that share them.
To be successful it will need to be authentic – a fake will be instantly discovered.
Bringing humanity into the physical workplace is what our clients are asking for, because it is good, even essential, for business. Tech clients might be in the forefront, with others close behind. It is our industry challenge.
We need to have more imagination than the server rack.