Operability versus Creativity

How do we ensure team workplace and team design each scores the winner?

In the first column of his Mix residency, Criteo’s Head of Workplace Experience EMEA, Mike Walley, thinks it’s time we understood the value that each team can bring to the complex and challenging process of designing a workplace.

There are days I really sympathise with the little boy from the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes. He was the only one brave enough to point out that the king was naked. Everyone else was joining in with the group delusion that the king was wearing the latest in lightweight suits so they would not be declared unfit for their job.

History does not relate, but I bet he wasn’t applauded for his insight that showed up the great and the good as slavishly following the groupthink.

I often find myself in project meetings, discussing the design of a new office space, and look around at the faces of the people in the room as the designer explains some new element in the layout. I see similar levels of groupthink as the discussion touches on, say, the collaborative value of a bank of desks at 90 degrees to all the others in the room; or how a stand-up meeting table enhances interaction between departments; or (my particular favourite) how a circular meeting table with swing seats instead of chairs generates creativity.

It has to be said, some ideas just simply don’t have any trousers on.

My challenge has always been how to point this out without being chased from the room as a Luddite and sceptic. It’s not to say that I haven’t had some trendy enthusiasms of my own, it’s just that I remember how many of them ended up having to be thoroughly re-engineered as they didn’t really work or, as in one memorable case, directly caused a staff walk-out.

I think part of the issue is that I am now significantly older than most of the designers I work with and, not to put too fine a point on it, have been there, done that and got the t-shirt. Also, most design teams aren’t there 12 months later, dealing with the inevitable challenges that have become apparent with daily use.

So the real challenge is how do I share the insights I have into space usage, human nature and the likelihood of a chocolate bar destroying my soft furnishings, without coming across as a grumpy old sod?

I love good, innovative design and when it comes to tech I am definitely a fan. I have seen some wonderful ideas out there in the wild. It’s just that for every idea that is amazing, there are two or three that fail to launch. So how do we sift out the damp squibs from the Brock’s rockets?

I suggest that we don’t underestimate the insights that the local site management team can give. These are the guys who look after the end-users on a daily basis. They intimately understand the foibles and fancies of their customers and can shed real insight into the realities of life in that particular space.

I recently heard of one individual who invited the cleaners in to help choose new flooring for the cafeterias. The woven vinyl flooring, beloved of the design team, was very quickly vetoed due to its ability to grab hold of food crumbs and never let them go. The cleaners pointed out that it would require an entirely new piece of equipment to be used and the team would need training in its use, and so the time and cost implications did not stack up. Agreement was reached on flooring that managed to combine a great aesthetic with great operability.

It’s not to say the first choice wasn’t beautiful, but beauty can have a price and all innovation carries risk. We should acknowledge this fact, and client and design teams must come together to decide how far to push the envelope. Too often in a project, the dynamic feels like the innovative and risky elements have to be pushed past the boring and conservative client by the forward thinking and exciting designers.

I would like it clearly understood that, if I were ever allowed to design a space, it would end up a square room, with serried rows of desks all identical in easy to clean material, and meeting rooms would look like a dentist’s waiting room. The whole space would be fabulously easy to maintain, but would probably be so bland as to render the occupants catatonic with boredom inside of a day. So, I recognise I need help with this stuff but…I think designers do too.

There is a wealth of experience in the teams who operate space on a daily basis and their understanding of the full life-cycle of a design can inform and drive improvements without stifling creativity and, in fact, improve the end result enormously, to the benefit of all. We simply need to trust each other and recognise that we are all emperors in our own fields.

So, lets all get around a stand-up meeting table and collaborate.