Last night I met with some friends on Zoom for a virtual glass of wine. We all agreed that what we are missing most is to go out in Munich and mingle with other people, just to see how they get dressed up and to hear what they talk about. What’s so special about a city is that not everything is organised, the possibility of new things to happen, the promise of the unexpected encounter. These days I’m doing pretty much the same day by day. I get up early in the morning to see the sun rise, work, cook and eat, play with my son, go to bed early to get enough sleep. The strict rhythm gives me structure, even if my life still feels a bit unreal. The makeshift desk in our bedroom is doing an amazing job. The cherry tree is in full bloom now.
If I had to work from office again I would miss this view.
I watched the documentary ‘Urbanized’ by Gary Hustwit, which explores why some cities are experiencing explosive growth while others are shrinking. Many western cities were constructed as an “automobile oriented postwar fabric” in the 1950ies. With the decline of the automobile industry and the inception of the Third Industrial Revolution cities like Detroit started to decline. One of the reasons for growing cities is that people can find conditions worth living. As all cities are competing, city councils are funding affordable housing, public transport, bike lanes and public schools in order to attract educated people. I also learned about Jane Jacobs being of the first women to point out the relationship between physical space and the social fabric of a city.
‘Workplace’, another excellent Gary Hustwit documentary, tells the story of the New York based company R/GA designing their new office together with Foster and Partners. I found it exciting to see how the founder Rob Greenberg engaged in the design process, and how he involved his employees in developing good concepts. What they found most important was access to natural light, private spaces for crystal clear thinking, public spaces for buzzing conversations, and flexibility to organize spaces according to personal and team requirements. One of the Foster architects mentioned that space influences the technology, and you need to allow people to create their space. If this sounds interesting to you, you can watch Workplace for free until April 21th.
When you first enter an office you get an impression of the architecture and the atmosphere. You can detect the self-esteem of it’s inhabitants, and possibly get a glimpse of their sense of ownership. Your first impression gives you some insight about the social fabric of a company. The interior design, colour, style, personal items on desks and the generosity of space provide a framework for thoughts, actions and eventually products. The architecture of buildings, and the plan of a city are reflected in the structure of their population. Cities and companies are organisations. I believe that any organisation has a social fabric, and that the rise and fall of a company is related to aspects similar to those impacting cities. Hence the architecture of our own offices has a significant impact on our company’s products and services.
With the transformation to the Cloud so-called software “suites” were pulled apart. Today self-sufficient teams are building and running products and their components independently. It is the engagement and loyalty of those product teams which constitute the social fabric of a Cloud company. Without their sense of ownership it’s unlikely that a complex product built by individual teams will ever reach the quality required by an enterprise customer. Moreover, in addition to being proud of their own product component, an independent team must feel that that they are contributing to something larger, such as a business process or a value stream for a Cloud business model.
I consider it a huge challenge to translate the social fabric of a Cloud company to an architecture for a physical office, especially when financial resources are limited. It’s common sense that co-location of product teams has a positive impact on productivity and quality of a product. But where does a product start and where does it end? How might we create social fabric based on architecture if strategy, development, support and other stakeholders of one product are distributed across multiple locations and timezones? And what is the relationship between a product lifecycle and a location strategy?
Improvisation is very useful in situations when you can’t rely on traditional knowledge. This is what you can do during a system change: use your own brains, think about what you can accomplish, try it out, not wait for others to approve your decisions. Don’t waste your time on recurring activities to keep the old system stable. Watch closely if your activities help to achieve your objective.
But improvisation rarely leads to the most sustainable solutions. You can update things in the digital space. In the physical space you have to do it right from the beginning. When a situation is new and still evolving it’s not easy to find a good system of reference. What was always normal may be all of a sudden obsolete. To hope that you can return to the old system when the dust has settled may not be a good idea either.
Two years ago I spent a few days in Copenhagen. I was quite impressed by an area which stood out in the neighbourhood of Norrebro: Superkilen, an urban planning project from Danish BIG architects. They used extreme public participation to drive the park’s design, gathering suggestions from area residents for objects the park could contain to represent all sixty nationalities. Although the area is a bit rough, I could feel pride and sense of ownership of the locals. To create an architecture for our future offices I could imagine a similar approach for a Participatory Design. And I think that we should leverage the talents of experienced and renowned architects who understand the challenges of business transformation and are capable of orchestrating a redefinition of our offices.