Shawn Presson, ISPI
Who Moved My Cheesy Décor?
I walked into the lobby of my bank this week and noticed a stark change. The carpets were gone, replaced by hard fake-wood floors. Officers’ offices were replaced by low-slung cubicles. The sign-in desk now had four iPads on it. The waiting area had four modern-looking, low-slung chairs.
It was modern, sleek, bright, visually cool, probably expensive – and ill-advised.
I didn’t conclude that at first. First I tried to sign in on one of the iPads that had replaced a sign-in sheet. They were timed-out, so I gave up and sat down. That’s when I noticed that the cool-looking, armless chairs would be disaster for the elderly or those with bad knees. Many people would have difficulty getting back up out of those chairs, and there were no other chairs to sit in.
But the chairs were a minor point compared to what I noticed next.
The accounts manager I wanted to talk to was busy, so I had to wait a while. While I waited, I realized I could hear everything in that vast, open space. Everything. I had a pen and notebook with me; had I bothered to use them I could have written down two social security numbers and several account numbers with no difficulty. People murmuring their private information sotto voce at the teller windows didn’t keep me from hearing them. The phone conversation held by the manager, which involved verifying account numbers and social security numbers, was clearly audible to all. Even someone who was not a clever identity thief could be tempted to commit a crime of opportunity. It was a Privacy Act nightmare.
When I finally was waited on by the manager, I first had to go sign in on the fourth iPad, which turned out to be the only one working that day. When I sat in her low-slung cubicle, I declined to discuss any account information verbally, only in writing. At the end of our discussion, I told her that the bank’s experiment in décor was a failure, and why I thought so. She told me that she would relay that to the district management, since it wasn’t just that branch doing it.
I couldn’t believe it. How many branches had been subjected to this experiment? During the rest of the week I visited several other branches. They were the same. Same layout. Same wonderful, clear, far-carrying, acoustics that may be desirable for concert halls, but not for a bank.
Someone apparently forgot the “form follows function” facet of design, and had such confidence in the outcomes that the first experiment was carried out on an inappropriately large scale. Viewpoint analysis along the discretion/privacy line apparently had not gotten due consideration.
How did something that silly (and expensive) happen in such a successful business? I don’t know for sure, but I will speculate:
That particular bank has been investing heavily in moving towards more up-to-date methods for some time. Agile software development, Open Workspace, etc. I suspect that someone with influence latched onto the Open Office fad and, not merely content to inflict it on development teams without experiments and tweaking, also managed to talk executives into trying it out on a bunch of branch locations. Instead of remodeling one location and paying people to simulate a banking day to observe pros and cons, the bank apparently spent a lot more money remodeling a number of locations in the district and waiting for data to trickle in.
What they are unknowingly waiting for is a lawsuit.
I told the branch manager that I was considering closing my account. I didn’t do so, because I didn’t want to be rash. But considering the poor thinking that went into an experiment, in an environment where Personally Identifiable Information (PII) and people’s financial information can be gleaned so casually, I have decided that leaving that bank isn’t rash at all. If they are this sloppy with an obvious, analog scenario then they could have a lax attitude towards electronic security, as well.
A Professional Approach
There are certain things in America that everyone seems to think they can do. One is making movies, another is design working spaces. We are so familiar with the products of such efforts that it seems easy to do them, especially now that the tools are cheap and accessible. This breeds what I call the “how hard can it be?” syndrome. The results often are off the mark.
To illustrate the professional approach, let me share a few stories from friends in the movie industry who are sometimes pulled into design and architecture as well.
I once went to visit a family member who was running the special effects graphics division for a major network. As part of a new video production suite buildout, he had mocked the entire space using foam board. Desks, devices, server racks, everything. He then had it built with cheap plywood to verify ergonomics, equipment fit, and configurability before shelling out big bucks for slick furnishings. He had learned that “big design up front” can look great on paper, and can be shockingly expensive when it has to be modified after the fact.
He may have learned the approach from his dad, who had in the past built an entire production suite entirely out of plywood, much to the chagrin of his image-conscious executives. But by checking out how operators and editors responded to the layout of the state-of-the art equipment, and by considering numerous factors such as eye strain, bodily fatigue, and context-switching errors, by the time the rosewood work spaces and cabinets were installed he was confident they wouldn’t be chopped up later to modify a productivity-killing work space. His approach paid off: the suite was free of expensive rebuilds and was a profitable asset.
These were well-run prototyping exercises. They did experimentation at the correct time and scale. They were concerned with value, not cosmetics. The glossy designs that executives thought they needed came after the core usability was confirmed with end users. This in turn provided the quality product – and resulting revenue – that the executives really wanted.
Of course, there are counter-examples, even in the relatively mature media industry.
Once, a client hired the Plywood Prototyper mentioned above to quality check the installation of a new media studio. It was slick, up-to-date, and expensive -- including the $100,000 soundproof sound stage door. Given the urban setting, the talented amateur designers had paid particular attention to soundproofing, including extra-thick flooring and walls, using the finest materials.
They just forgot one thing: they hadn’t soundproofed the ceiling.
“He is intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking.”
Mr. Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Sound doesn’t travel along a horizontal plane the way a bicycle does. It moves in all directions, echoes, cancels and reinforces itself. In a film studio without a soundproofed ceiling any jet going overhead, any large truck passing by the building, could ruin a take.
Losing a single take may not seem like a big deal, but it can be. Take it from me. I have been the nervous Producer in a sound stage off Sunset Boulevard, with my budget on the line, worried by the rumble of large trucks penetrating the (aging) walls, and delaying shooting. Several incidents like that in one day can become a very big deal because they’re expensive. Worse, they can ruin that impossible-to-recapture take where everything goes perfectly with that extra magic something that makes it just right. Worse still, running live productions can become impossible.
In the case of the Studio With The $100,000 Door, the company had spent a lot of money to deal with outside noise, but had done so incompletely. A retrofit would be necessary, which would be more expensive and would sacrifice details that could have been included relatively cheaply in the original build-out.
The root cause of this situation wasn’t poorly specified work. The studio had been meticulously specified for the architect, builder, and buyers. The problem is that it was incompletely specified because the specification process did not include an expert user of such systems. A small-scale mock-up with multiple reviews by experts and end-users would have created a set of better specifications and designs.
A similar example was observed by yet another family member who went to work at a new multi-million dollar media production and broadcast facility, built on contract for a Department of Defense client. The building had been completed, and his job was to lay out and install the high-end electronics and furnishings. The first five minutes on-site told him he was dealing with a disaster. With over a dozen electricity-hogging devices slated to go in each suite, he saw a single four-way 110-volt electric gang box on one wall of each work space. Power strips couldn't fix the problem due to reach, and at the scale needed would be a fire hazard anyway. Retrofitting the building would involve a new contract, redesigning the load capacity of the building’s electrical supply, cutting through reinforced concrete to lay new electrical cable, and, of course, delaying when actual work could start.
Once again, expensive and easily avoidable.
Of course, there are things that will come up that are not easily avoidable. Professionals know that building any edifice, software application, or film involves unexpected glitches and changes. With the building example, those may come from the soil, availability of materials, replacing components that become obsolete during the design or build, personnel changes, equipment failure, and a host of other sources. Investing well in the design process, and avoiding over-investment in the bells and whistles too early, helps contain or shape the impacts of these common risks.
"Emergence" is real, inevitable, and often beneficial. Emerging needs and ideas can open up new markets, spawn cost-saving, and bring unplanned-for value to your customers. The problem with planning for emergence is that sometimes it becomes an excuse for not doing homework up front.
In the software engineering world, developers sometimes point to eXtreme Programming as a rationale for not doing design. And indeed, Kent Beck described the design monster known as You Ain't Gonna Need It (YAGNI) as an eater of budgets and creator of vast project wastelands. Understanding YAGNI is useful for not over-specifying things whose future may be uncertain, but Kent did not intend for it to become an excuse for "hack and ship" approaches and for agile popularizers making snarky comments about good design somehow not being innovative enough. (Scott Ambler also cautioned against this mentality, stating that avoiding YAGNI is not an excuse for lazy design work.)
There are compelling reasons underlying the Open Office movement, gleaned from many industries. Examples such as Boeing realizing that designers needed to leave their glass boxes and move down to the factory floor with fabricators. Or my first employer, NARDAC, sending us software developers out in the field to observe and interact with end users. This need for collaboration and frequent contact makes Open Office a potentially great idea, but it needs to be executed well.
It’s the End User, Dummy”
Early in my IT career, I was leading a team writing various accounting, budgeting, and logistics applications. I acquired a new team member, a very bright intern who was majoring in Computer Science at a local university. One day we got into an argument regarding screen design. While arguing his point, he finally blurted out in frustration, “If they are unable to understand this screen, they are too stupid to be using a computer!” I just smiled and beckoned for him to follow me down a long hallway to the Finance Department. When we arrived, I asked him to look at the large team of financial analysts and notice what percentage of them had gray hair. It was over half of them, and most of them had spent twenty years or more doing their jobs manually. I asked him, “when this large group of people have trouble with our user interface, is their division chief more likely to yell at them or at us?” He just nodded; he got the point. Many of my young colleague's later ideas were better than my own, but only when conceived within the context of the target audience. The same is true of office space design.
Just as software developers create complex virtual spaces that end users work in, building and office designers create real spaces that developers work in. Both fields have their collections of experiments and lessons learned. Any given setup will have its strengths and weaknesses, and those will differ by end use.
Many promote the Open Office as an egalitarian idea in which executives come out of their plush suites and work alongside everyone else. That can be very good for morale. But if a manager or executive consistently has to deal with sensitive data – personnel, financial, contractual, legal – then the open office can become impractical almost immediately.
Open Office may also work in some call-center operations in which to level of complexity is fairly consistent and does not suffer from distraction. It may work well in some pure-development situations, as well, so long as techniques are used to minimize distractions from thought work. In fact, for some programs the cross-team collaboration made possible by Open Office layouts can be very positive.
But there are thresholds at which the amount of noise or motion distraction becomes a negative. Poorly laid out Open Offices also can be psychologically unsettling, causing a sense of unrest. Anticipating and avoiding these situations is where, as we discussed before, the need for good professionals arises. “Good” isn’t guaranteed by a degree or certification; it is demonstrated by the kind of questions the designer asks, the scenarios she imagines, the constraints he inquires about, the degree of level thought demonstrated in the proposed solution, and the flexibility demonstrated by accepting changes and refactoring the proposed design solution. We’ll talk a little about this later. But one element often gets left out: individuality. Many organizations have a Darwinian approach to their professional staff: if they can’t handle Open Office, they should leave; if they have issues with the selected Agile method, they are inept. These approaches have multiple levels of arrogance: belief that the solution is sublime, belief that the chosen single viewpoint into personnel is infallible, and the desire for all personnel to be instantly reconfigurable like Tinker Toy parts. This is old-fashioned Taylorism with a coat of Agile Paint, with a veneer of Reinvented Organization goo, and sometimes draped in a saffron Mindful Leadership robe.
There Isn’t Much New Under The Sun
The Open Spaces concept is pretty old. In the 1970’s, one of the high schools in my hometown went to the open classroom design. Like Socrates discussing philosophy with student in the open air, teachers were able to get students out of the confines of a square room and teach them in a more relaxed atmosphere. It seemed like a great idea, and many schools across the country experimented with it. Ultimately, however, the open classroom experiment failed.
Another experiment taking place at the same time was that of schools with learner-centered, self-paced education. Many of my grade school buddies went to one elementary school that was run in a conventional way; some were placed in a second school 200 yards away, which was run on the self-paced program. Overall performance of the two schools appeared about the same, and so the “demonstration” school with self-paced learning was closed for budgetary reasons. There were some arguments that teacher ingenuity in compensating for some of the drawbacks of the demonstration school was the reason it managed to perform as well as the conventional school as part of the rationale for closing it.
The point is that both the open classroom and the self-paced learning experiments failed to absolutely prove the superiority of either approach, but yielded valuable insights. Open spaces and self-paced learning can be beneficial in some circumstances with some curricula. Both approaches have some drawbacks and limitations, depending on the curriculum, the learning objectives, and the particular child. Towards the end of the experiment, we saw some of the ideas from the self-paced school being piloted in tandem with traditional methods within the "conventional" school.
Much later, I witnessed various experiments with Open Offices, with mixed success. One encounter was at a consultancy in Manhattan, where eXtreme Programming was being implemented. The combination of open space and breakout rooms seemed appealing, but there was not a “war room”, a dedicated space where the team could concentrate on its tasks, or communicate openly without disturbing other teams. The excess of openness had a dampening effect. And, as a project manager, I knew what an HR headache it represented because the PM had nowhere to work where someone couldn’t suddenly look over her shoulder and see personnel information or proprietary data. I noted that the open space area was gradually abandoned by teams as they sought out other places to work.
More recently, I saw a similar setup at a Federal agency. But there were no convenient breakout rooms, and a long, tiled-floor corridor ran between the work areas. Just the sound of footsteps resonated so much that it became a distraction, and once again teams fled as soon as they could. The design also was unsettling, with so much negative space that there was no sense of repose.
At the same time, I was facilitating standups and retrospectives for a hackathon going on just down the hallway. That room was a large rectangle, with open access but definitely a sense of a contained space. Four teams occupied it for the hackathon, sitting around four clusters of desks. It was impromptu and imperfect, but far superior to the slick-but-distracting permanent Open Space areas in the corridor.
“We move through negatives spaces and dwell in positive spaces.”
~ Matthew Frederick
I also saw Open Space used by a vendor supporting that agency, and workers seemed fairly happy with it. The differences were in the details. At the vendor site, carpeting muffled foot traffic, and the flow of people walking by did not physically intrude into the work space. White noise was piped in to dampen external sound distractions. Each worker’s space could be personalized and had locking drawers. Plenty of wallspace was available for Kanban boards and other information radiators. The breakout rooms had doors, so sensitive discussions could be held safely.
Another successful setup I observed was in the Midwest location of still the same agency. There, the arrangement of desks left the center of the workspace open while providing high partitions on the perimeter. This created a sense of enclosure and cohesion among the team, even though there were not floor-to-ceiling walls. For a small-team setup, it was adequate.
Another well-functioning example was with my own software projects in which we had fairly open office spaces dedicated to one or two teams, with normal desks for each worker. Privacy suffered a bit, but communication quality was high. Data loss through handoffs was minimal, communication was immediate and open, the walls were covered with progress charts, design diagrams, and other information radiators. But the difference from the pure open-space concept was that there were walls. Teams had a sense of cohesion, people could talk loudly without disturbing other working groups. Engineers could flat-out argue once in a while without disturbing the peace for other teams. As the project manager, I positioned myself so my monitor faced away from the center of the room, guarding private data from casual observation. We had a breakout room, as well, for private discussions.
Still, some companies, like Infinite Peripherals, have tried the utterly Open Space concept and are rejecting it. They feel that a noisy call-center type of environment doesn’t work for their type of knowledge work. Unlike the “do your thinking at home” anti-pattern made famous in the book Peopleware, these companies are seeking ways to make the workspace both collaboration-friendly and deep-thought friendly. Their Open Space experiment didn't "fail," it provided data for them to move on to another model.
The Pendulum of Change
The issue with Open Space concepts isn’t whether it works or doesn’t. The issue is thinking that it always works, or always doesn’t. Therefore, the real question for someone considering it is whether their specific scenario is appropriate for Open Space design, or some other setup, or a blend. They should ask whether different groups within my company have different needs, and whether they can accommodate those varying needs economically.
I'll repeat myself: it seems ridiculous that Open Space fits all situations marvelously, to the exclusion of all others. This is binary thinking, such as we have seen in debates about methodology, politics, and business process engineering. This worst of all anti-patterns resurfaces from time to time, and usually in the hands of popularizers willing profit from a potentially good idea to the extent of selling it to people who not only don’t need it, but who will actually suffer from it. And when the people do need the good idea, they don’t get good advice on how to do it well and benefit from it.
“The Pendulum of Change doesn’t just swing, it slams from side to side.”
Earlier I theorized that someone with influence had talked my bank’s executives into blundering forward with a bad design. What they apparently failed to do was design an appropriate experiment. Piloting the new bank lobby design within a constrained district may have seemed like a great idea, except they forgot one aspect: the customers. Risking identity theft of even one customer’s data while piloting a design overhaul in numerous locations, appears irresponsible and costly. A better experiment would have been to refurbish just one bank with the new design, and then pay people over a few weeks to use and observe the activities with dummy data. Hiring a study group of actual bank customers may have been far cheaper than the multi-bank overhaul, especially considering that it has turned out to be a bad design. It would not even be necessary to take a running branch off-line; one of the branches in my area has been recently closed and could have been used for such an experiment.
Understanding the good and the bad facets of an experiment is, of course, a mature approach to understanding how to react to it. Defending a disproven idea is not mature, and wastes time. It can also cost a great deal of money through “throwing good money after bad.”
Why Isn't This Done Well?
Follow the Money
Often bad ideas are implemented quickly, or good ideas implemented poorly, because of false economy. In the 1990s, Business Process Reengineering become popular as a way to re-think business process, seeking to optimize value to customers and supporting the mission, all while reducing waste. A key to BPR was taking a holistic view, rather than just optimizing sub-processes that may or may not be vital to the overall business mission.
Most people don’t remember Business Process Reengineering that way, however. Most people remember it as a binge of blind cost-cutting to maximize short-term gains, often while eliminating capabilities and investments that would be essential in the long run. In the hands of the uninformed (or cynical,) BPR caused exactly the opposite of what it was supposed to achieve.
This thinking still goes on today. Yet another family member (I have lots of them) has observed Information Technology organizations throwing out software they didn’t understand how to use in the name of “Lean Engineering.” The software wasn’t costing the organization anything to store, the people there just desperately wanted to show how Lean their thinking is so they could collect a bonus, promotion, or pat on the head. The problem was, when the organization was posed to capitalize on the features of the software, it was gone; they suffered delays and spent tens of thousands of dollars to replace something they already had owned.
The false economy represented by these two examples is one of the rationales used to pitch teleworking and open offices by popularizers. And their motives are similar: to show radical savings, and to collect promotions or bonuses, secure in the knowledge that they will be long gone before the business figures out the downsides of their changes.
I encountered one such Telework Evangelist who was trying to eliminate several floors of office space in order to show savings in the operational budget (“Tele-evangelist” was one of the kinder labels applied to him in side conversations.) This organization had significant management and communication challenges, but none of the cost cutting proposals discussed how those would be dealt with in a completely virtual environment. Repeated discussions showed that he didn’t care about those issues, much less understand them. Cutting rent costs was his single-minded goal. This manager even posted a memo on the Personnel bulletin board prohibiting criticism of the telework proposal, and threatening disciplinary action to anyone who did so.
Working at a different client site, I struck up an acquaintance with another person who had collected a bonus and performance recognition for leading a similar “telework at all costs” initiative. During our conversation he asked me, “What do you think the main concern was about the telework initiative?” I replied that I imagine loss of rich, immediate communication would have been on the list. “That’s right! And do you know how we resolved that problem?” His eyes were twinkling with pride, and I begged to hear the solution to that knotty problem. His response was, “With enough salary increases and promotions, people finally shut up!” He didn’t solve any problems, he had just bribed people to be quiet.
There are many ways these con men are able to pull off stunts like that. They generally are quick to spot a manager who doesn’t understand the full cost of decisions or the full value of a business asset. Using all of Plutarch’s tools of flattery, they work their way into a position of undue influence – a “catbird seat,” to quote an old James Thurber story. The popularizers sell management on an attractive cost-savings idea, dismissing all dissent as envy and insubordination. They wrap their ideas in the most recent buzzwords, and hint that resisting their proposed program – Open Offices, Teleworking, whatever – would be innovation-killing, regressive, elitist, cowardly.
Sometimes the reason for poorly implemented ideas is from following idealism untempered by realism. The Mindful Leadership movement, along with the push for Teal organizations, has led some businesses to eliminate executive suites as part of an egalitarian, non-elitist approach to management. But doing so ignorantly (and even praising ignorance in the process) can raise significant problems. If you leap to open office on idealistic grounds, be flexible and ready to adapt to inevitable problems. Don’t spend too much money in the process, and don’t dig in with religious fervor if it doesn’t work out as dreamed.
The first thing you must do is be willing to take on the People Precipitously Pushing THings (PPPTH, pronounced like a Bronx Cheer.) Courageous doesn’t mean belligerent, however. The PPPTH Perpetratorsmay be well-intended people who don’t understand how to consider the Total Cost of a Decision, and maybe just need some input. If the plan pushers are con artists or Teflon Men (nothing sticks to them), a frontal confrontation may backfire on you. Figure out what you are dealing with, and then figure out how to influence the outcome. Once you, or others in the right position, are ready to engage with the office re-design group, the following approaches can help.
Viewpoint Analysis is an old technique for making sure requirements (or User Stories) are ready to be worked upon. It also is used during systems design discussions to make sure critical components aren’t left out. It can be used for other design activitiess, such as workspace layout.
With this technique, decision-makers first identify all entities directly or indirectly impacted by a potential element. Next they analyze the possible impacts of that element that could involve digital interfaces, human interactions, legal implications, security constraints, and so forth. Software developers take the viewpoint of at least one stakeholder via User Story notations that use the construct:
As a [entity]
When [condition or action]
I expect [outcome or action]
So that [business value realized]
The issue with User Stories in that they tend to be single-faceted, focusing on functionality while only peripherally acknowledging other aspects of design. The Agile Methods community was slow to recognize this risk, since any competent developer would of course deal with the other aspects, and capturing them in technical stories created documentation bloat. Unfortunately, this has not always been true, and in some programs Viewpoint Analysis (under whatever name) has worked its way back into Backlog Grooming sessions.
(One glaring example of overemphasizing functionality was the recent deployment of a software application that was to replace an old mainframe system. The young, energetic, brilliant team converted the old functionality into a loosely-coupled, micro-services-based, cloud-hosted system. The only problem was that they had no experience dealing with end users and eliciting their viewpoint; Functionality was King. Although brilliant from a purely technical standpoint, the updated system's screen design and flow cut in half the productivity of a major revenue-generating function of the organization. The new software had to be scrapped, and the mainframe system written by “old dinosaurs” was retained until a suitable replacement system could be developed.)
Likewise, with workspace design Viewpoint analysis is a technique to help counter this “Feature Creature” phenomenon. Viewpoint Analysis may be a quick check or a deep-dive thought exercise, depending on the importance of the element to be developed. Either way, don’t dismiss it as overkill.
If you are a manager, don't accept a verbal proposal that, at its roots, appears to be, “As an organizational climber, when people see our work spaces, I want to look progressive so I can land that bonus.” That is incomplete and selfish.
Do make sure proposals for workspace design:
- consider the viewpoint of developers, people who deal with personnel needs and issues, the customers, and those who have to maintain the work space;
- consider the work culture, the range of skills and personalities typical in your space;
- consider the nature of the work itself (which may vary widely);
- consider sensitivity to disruption/contamination, flow of visitors and temporary contributors
- consider the volatility of team formations and the duration of tasks or initiatives
- consider the shape of the building and space to be used. (Note: “Square rooms can be difficult to organize. They are inherently non-dynamic. Rectangles, crescents, wedges, ells more naturally accommodate patterns of movement, congregation, and habitation.”)
Avoid analysis paralysis, but also avoid the fatal, lazy phrase, “Eh, it’ll be fine.”
Another, often-forgotten aspect of viewpoint analysis is considering people who are not ordinary, not “neurotypical,” not easily pigeonholed. Many of us choose to “think outside the box”, but some people are born outside the box, or within a box that is difficult to escape. They may have sensitivities or limitations stemming from sensory processing, physical disabilities, or just quirks that come from immersing all thought into their craft for much of their lives. Their brilliance may need accommodations for good business reasons; their limitations need consideration for compassionate ones. No one-size-fits-all approach will fit all. Considering variations and alternatives as good planning, not just a wrinkle in the shiny new catalog order.
Hire an Designer, not a Cube Engineer
“Engineers tend to be concerned with physical things in and of themselves. Architects are more directly concerned with the human interface with physical things.”
There are many talented, multifaceted people in the world. The “Renaissance Man,” the ultra-generalizing specialist, is widely admired in our culture going back to Thomas Jefferson. I know people who have designed and built houses, cars, and robots as avocations. My own dear mother once designed a house for an Admiral while she was working as a technical librarian. These hidden talents are highly valuable in a diverse work place, but we have to understand how to use them.
The temptation to incautiously use an untrained, internal amateur is heightened by swindling specialists – from snake oil salesmen to dishonest mechanics – that we deal with every day. Some managers would prefer to be bilked by an internal amateur than be fleeced by an outside specialist, But internal amateurs tend to focus on the layout and acquisition aspects of the office space, and have little experience thinking about how human interactions and work is impacted by physical spaces. They can work extremely hard on design and acquisition, and then fiercely defend all their decisions, becoming the dread Cubicle Police described by DeMarco and Lister.
One way to approach this problem is through incremental commitment. Instead of contracting for an entire design and build-out based on proposals, contract for discrete steps in designing a space. During each of these steps, evaluate the architect or designer based on a few key criteria, such as:
- Evaluate the kind of questions the designer asks during initial meetings. Be alert for whether they betray an innate bias for a single type of solution. Listen for questions about the people who will be using the space, the need for growth, ergonomic concerns. Listen for examples of various design approaches, positive and negative, as an offering of alternatives rather than selling a single approach.
- Observe the scenarios and constraints considered by the designer. These could include zoning and code concerns, duration of programs or operational work, the number of people doing which types of work. Especially observe whether the designer seeks out data versus anecdotes when asking aboutthe company’s history of success or failure with teleworking, cubicle design, team collaboration, and other factors. Listen for concerns about human response to various work spaces, traffic flow, dynamic versus static spaces, sound management, variations in worker personalities and needs, and so forth.
- Listen for fact-based rationales for a proposed setup. Stating “they say that….” or referencing a single source text are not adequate rationale, and may betray a desire to try out a new trend rather than propose the most workable solution. Trends come, go, and come back – like Open Office and bell-bottomed pants – and should not override a thoughtful approach.
- Listen for personal experiences and research on the part of the designer. Citing Netflix, Google, Spotify, Facebook, Uber and other industry examples alone should not cut it. When such industry examples are mentioned, the discussion should include pros and cons; remember that some of these companies have yet to turn a profit and may have untold back stories. More importantly, of their innovation may be in spite of their work setup, not because of it.
- Analyze the flexibility demonstrated by accepting changes and refactoring the proposed design solution. Changes and new information will inevitably crop up, and the designer should fearlessly re-evaluate their impacts rather than strenuously defend a proposed solution. At some point you do have to draw the line, make purchases, and commit. But allowing that to happen too early can mean locking into a bad, expensive idea.
- Check out their formal credentials. While these aren’t everything, for certain types of work there may be legal liabilities. In those cases, do seek a licensed professional to cover your assets.
Pilot Your Idea
The most brilliant layout plan may be flawed. Don’t overcommit. Try it out in microcosm with a representative group. Understand who that “representative group” actually represents so you understand the feedback you get.
For smaller companies, this isn’t hard. They tend to acquire marked-down, used, refurbished, or “curb mined” furnishings that work with whatever space they can find. They innovate, revise, and reject ideas for their work environment. Somewhere along the way, however, a company reaches a size where this doesn’t happen naturally. In those cases, layout ideas should be piloted with a “limited blast radius” just as you would do with an experimental web design.
Pilots are an opportunity for your inspired, intelligent internal personnel to shine. If you hire a professional designer, your internal personnel can help design experiments to try out recommendations. The designer should be expert at piloting ideas and working with internal personnel. This provides valuable feedback, allows options to emerge, and promotes “buy in” by the people who will have to live with the outcome.
Another facet of piloting is “rummage, buy, or rent” decisions. Just because you have moved beyond the Rummaging phase doesn’t mean you have to make big purchases. You should be able to rent furnishings for a pilot. After all, most people wouldn’t buy a car without taking it for a test drive, and most people will spend more time in the office than they do in their cars.
Finally, beware the designer who is in fact a furniture salesperson; he will push a purchase in the hopes that the Sunk Cost mentality will set in, with a manager hoping to justify a bad purchase through a bigger bad purchase.
You are piloting to get feedback and to save a lot of effort over-designing your space. Make sure you listen to that feedback. Avoid selection bias – only asking people who you think will affirm your plan. Listen for concerns about the motives and rationale for the new setup.
(In one organization where I worked, a mix of Open Space and Telework was put in place simultaneously. The Open Space had been piloted with one group, but not all saw that group as truly representative. The rumor circulated that Open Space was used to push people to telework who disliked it. Those loyal to the Open Space idea of the executives would stick around enough to brown-nose, receive recognition, and advance in the organization. Changing where people sit every day is a big change, and typical change communications skills apply; rumors are always quick to fill a communication vacuum.)
Resistance to change is normal, and there will always be complaints about change. But before pointing to the grieving trough in the Satir Curve or handing someone a copy of “Who Moved My Cheese,” listen to them. They may have good reasons for their ideas and concerns. They may be intelligent adults who’ve seen fashion frenzies come and go. And they may not be totally criticizing your ideas for trying Open Office, moving to Post-Modern Frat House, or a return to Cube Farm; they may just imagine how to blend ideas or make them work better.
Go Forth And Have Fun
Moving to a new office setup is a project. It can exhibit all the strengths and pitfalls various life cycles, ranging from “ready-fire-aim” through Waterfall through Agile. Before getting started, think about what approach you will use to plan, pilot, adapt, and implement or scrap your designs. As you move forward, involve your teams, fearlessly refactor, pilot intelligently, and allow for variations. Above all, adopt the attitude of “point with pride, view with caution,” remembering that the workplace should serve the personnel, not the other way around.
Ambler, Scott. Agile Modeling: Effective Practices for eXtreme Programming and the Unified Process New York: Wiley, 2002.
DeMarco, Thomas; Lister, Timothy. Peopleware, 2nd Edition. New York: Dorset House, 1999
Donvan, John; Zucker, Caren. In A Different Key: The Story of Autism. New Yok: Crown Publishers, 2016.
Frederick, Matthew. 101 Things I Learned In Architecture School. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007.
Frieswick, Kris. “The Sound of (Productive) Silence”, Hemispheres, December 2016: 54-56; <http://www.unitedmags.com/features-the-sound-of-productive-silence>.
Johnson, Spencer. Who Moved My Cheese? New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998.
Plutarch, translated by Arthur Richard Shilleto, M.A.. How One May Discern A Flatterer From A Friend. London: George Bell and Sons, 1898 <https://www.gutenberg.org/files/23639/23639.txt>
Thurber, James. “The Catbird Seat”, The New Yorker, November 14, 1942 <http://fullreads.com/literature/the-catbird-seat/>.
 After mentioning YAGNI and “snarky” in the same sentence, I couldn’t resist inserting an illustration of the hunt for Lewis Carroll’s monster, the Snark (which turned out to be a Boojum, a really bad Snark.)
Scott Ambler, “Agile Modeling: Effective Practices for eXtreme Programming and the Unified Process”
 Kris Frieswick, “The Sound of (Productive) Silence”
 This quote has been attributed to Roger Simon (September 2008 article for Politico); some have attributed it to Mary Poppendieck
 Plutarch of Chaeronea. “How One May Discern A Flatterer From A Friend”
 Matthew Frederick, “101 Things I Learned in Architecture School”
 Donvan/Zucker, “In A Different Key”
 DeMarco and Lister, “Peopleware”