Hierarchy is dying at work and Tom Vecchione, director of workplace strategy for Gensler Design and Planning, sees architects and interior designers working much more closely with organisations to create working environments that amplify individuals for the knowledge economy.
Q: What differences do you see between the US and European workspace sectors?
A: Historically, the European market has been more open to new design ideas, less tethered to private offices, more into open planning and more transparent. That has been in the DNA there. We have taken a lot longer in the US to follow that model; people are still tethered to their office box.
Q: Where does this American mindset come from?
A: We’re a continent, we’re isolated and we have lots of space. In Europe, you are adjacent to very different cultures all the time, and are comfortable with that proximity. It’s also the idea of the suburban home, the front lawn, the plot of land – “I own it”. Between the 1950s and 1980s, the bulk of the American population left the cities to go to suburbia, so the mindset was the cube: my house, my plot, my fiefdom. The implication of that is that we became territorial, very independent. And in offices, people are so nervous about losing their privacy, they surround themselves with five-foot panels. That works against the model of collaboration and what we call “amplifying individuals”. But it is starting to change.
Q: Across the board, what sort of changes are you seeing in the way people want to use their workspace?
A: We always talk about work-life balance, but we are now seeing that “work is life”. It is not about balancing, but the true integration of the two. So now we think about creating the environment of home at work. I have just finished a project in Boston with the ad agency Hill Holliday, and its whole idea about creativity was shifting. It needed a new space built around the “factory of ideas” concept, but the old space was built more like a law firm. The old advertising model was a bunch of high-level partners, and you don’t see what is behind the curtain until we unveil it for you. Now advertising has exposed the process. It is all about clients coming in and working with you, and being part of that ideas factory. And so they wanted to create a new “home at work at home”.
Q: So how did those ideas manifest themselves in the design for Hill Holliday?
A: We gave it much more space centred on collaboration, such as project rooms – more “we space” than “me space”. Home was a big value for Hill Holliday – the front porch, garage and kitchen. We tried to turn those into the entryway and welcome hall, with the garage becoming the idea factory that is now exposed to view, because in the US, the garage doors are always open, and the garage contains the tool chest. That became the main client room.
Q: Can you expand on the your “work is life” concept?
A: Work defines us. Our careers create the new diasporas, they define us just like the cities we live in define us. The high-growth, high-volume cities of Shanghai, London, Dubai and New York are global gateways, these networks of commerce. These diasporas of workers are living in these cities. Our brand and our values are the cities we live in and the careers we choose.
Q: If that’s the case, then what does it mean for staff?
A: The space has to be more bespoke to the mindset of the people. We have built a partnership with a thinktank in California called the Institute for the Future. They do these 10-year projections, and we have been working on what the next set of values is for the workplace. One important role of space is to amplify the individual. So work is a stage for the individual because talents, intellectual capital and innovation come from the individual amplified. We are thinking about how the workplace amplifies the individual and creates these settings for them.
Q: What does “amplifying the individual” mean?
A: If you are a company that is focused on innovation – and you have to be these days – you have to amplify your individuals, because that is where the ideas are going to come from. That is where the network of innovation will happen. You can’t afford to lose the mavericks who spark innovation. That is part of the business model today in a way I don’t think it was even 10 years ago.
Q: What is the upshot for the actual workplace?
A: It is more about democracy, access to resources and the appropriate kinds of spaces. For example, conference rooms are pretty futile – they are like boxes with a table in the middle. There is not enough technology, there is not enough room around the table. Conference rooms are based on the old boardroom model: we all meet, we go for consensus and we say “aye”. But companies are collaborating more and more, and diversity makes the group smarter, because that is how you’re going to chew up ideas and stuff. There is no reason to collaborate if you are not really diverse. It is not about meeting and consensus (like a conference room). Collaboration is idea generation.