Design Thinking and the Innovative Workplace

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Leading organizations recognize maintaining the status-quo is a failed strategy in today’s rapidly expanding and shifting business climate. As a result, they have come to realize the best and only option is to innovate if they plan to thrive in a competitive marketplace. Without innovation, organizations risk the possibility of either being acquired by a company with entirely different priorities or going out of business.

Yet when it comes to fostering a culture of innovation, or even one of calculated risk-taking, many businesses lack the commitment required for launching and sustaining ground-breaking processes that demonstrate originality and drive positive results. In general, this lack of commitment stems from two factors: 1) fear of failure; and 2) a linear, traditional approach to problem-solving and planning. The latter represents a step-by-step (“waterfall”) approach that is time-consuming and expensive. The outgrowth alternative is an emphasis on iteration and experimentation that is becoming more prevalent and accepted across market sectors.

Design Thinking—a term and strategic approach that means far more than the simplistic “outside the box thinking” epithet often attached to it—can change the paradigm to foster workplace innovation consistently. Design Thinking involves a creative, agile mindset that incorporates the ability to ask questions from a variety of vantage points. These attributes are applicable not only to the design of the workplace but to the evolution of a culture that quickly generates, shares and assesses the economic viability of an idea. Design Thinking can also help differentiate a brand while providing a competitive advantage.

The impact of VUCA

VUCA, an acronym first used by the U.S. Army War College to describe the unpredictability following the break-up of the Soviet Union, has been applied to today’s business environment. It stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity and represents the endlessly changing nature of the competitive business world. As the Harvard Business Review defined it in February 2014, VUCA is “a catchall for ‘hey, it’s crazy out there,’” and warned that each component requires a separate response if companies hope to overcome each significant challenge. Here is a brief overview of how each manifests itself in the work environment.

  • Volatility. The term represents a rapidly changing and unpredictable marketplace due to extraneous factors ranging from terrorism and politics to disruptive technologies and socially accepted customs, habits and patterns.
  • Uncertainty. Doubts about the state of the marketplace or economy are likely to impact decisions such as investments or expansion plans.
  • Complexity. Unlike a complicated system that is mostly linear and easily understood, the complex system is non-linear with interactions and interdependencies, some of which may not be readily apparent. Corporations battle with complexity because of a wide range of seemingly unrelated sources such as international competition and attracting the best talent that can impact current and future planning.
  • Ambiguity. Much like uncertainty, an ambiguous environment yields multiple interpretations. The fear of ambiguity is likely to forestall decision-making.

Design Thinking does not ignore VUCA components. It incorporates them strategically and creatively. A recent IBM study concluded that creativity may well be the most important requirement for “successfully navigating an extremely complex world.” Other studies verify the importance of the creative mindset inherent to Design Thinking. Case in point: Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by retired General Stanley McChrystal. The general found from his experiences in Iraq that he needed to move away from a hierarchical approach to fulfill his strategic vision of developing an army capable of defeating an enemy that was anything but conventional. Business analogies gleaned from McChrystal’s book on the importance of creativity are well-supported. A linear mindset can be a straitjacket when coping with competition that more effectively responds to a rapidly changing and complex environment.

Team of Teams

Source: Team of Teams. McChrystal. 2015.


Design Thinking: not just for designers anymore

David Kelley, founder of international design firm IDEO, is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of Design Thinking. Kelley and his brother Tom, authors of the book “Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential in Us All” make a convincing case that the creative mindset required for innovation is not limited to “creative types.” They describe a “human-centered designer’s toolkit” that contains five elements for facilitating a Design Thinking process. They include:

  1. Empathize. It is never enough to give lip service to contrasting viewpoints. The design mindset examines those views, the reasoning behind them and considers their validity for defining the problem to be overcome.
  2. Define. This is no place for vague ideas. The innovation model must be clearly defined along with its purpose and measurement of its effectiveness.
  3. Ideate. This word “to imagine, conceive or form an idea or image” was associated with the philosophies of Plato, but it has found a place in modern Design Thinking through discussions that foster creative idea generation.
  4. Prototype. This tool goes beyond the theoretical. It is a version of the product or approach to be reviewed by a team then altered or modified to achieve the desired solutions.
  5. Test. The item, product, approach, etc., is tested through an “iterative process” to evaluate and measure if it effectively fulfills the goals envisioned in the earlier steps. The Interactive Design Foundation states that among the purposes of the testing phase are “to redefine one or more problems and inform the understanding of users…”
Design Thinking

Source: Rolf Hapel, director of citizens’ services and libraries, Aarhus, Denmark

One element not in the toolbox but worthy of inclusion is agility. When it comes to the workplace, an agile environment is one in which work is not concentrated in one office setting but rather where workers have a variety of different spaces where they can perform their functions. Agility is all about human behavior and people’s ability to respond to the changing nature of work. An agile workplace is one that supports a wide variety of work modes: focus, collaboration, learning, socializing, respite, rejuvenation, and nourishment. The agile workplace enhances employee engagement and enables users to decide and co-create a work experience away from the traditional office. Such environs encourage feedback loops for thought sharing and suggestions for improvement that can have innovative outcomes.

Another outcome of an agile work environment is increased opportunities for brainstorming. This process enables participants to ask questions first before going after solutions. In his April 2018 Harvard Business Review article “Better Brainstorming,” Hal Gregerson argues that better questioning is more conducive to problem-solving and subsequent innovation. He describes a technique called the question burst,” which places an emphasis on brainstorming questions instead of solutions. He cites Amazon, Zappos, Tesla, and Pixar as successful examples of this approach as employees are “encouraged to value creative friction in everyday work.”

Design Thinking: A pathway and a journey

Contrary to what some might believe, Design Thinking is not a Wild West scenario devoid of rules. Despite the workplace freedoms associated with it, Design Thinking does not eliminate the need for clearly defined corporate governance. It does, however, require executives and managers to be aware of and be sensitive to work environments that may stifle innovation. When leaders are committed to creating an open and safe environment that allows for the free flow of ideas, they minimize fear of failure and provide a platform for encouraging diverse teams to problem solve effectively.

Design Thinking is ironic in that it’s both pathway and journey to innovation. It is the pathway for leveraging workforce creativity by challenging a linear status quo. Design Thinking breaks down silos because it requires flexibility, input and a variety of disciplines in order to benefit the organization. It is forward leaning, relying less on what worked in the past and more on what might work in the future. The goal is to create a workplace and environment for developing processes associated with a culture of innovation. It is also a journey because Design Thinking is a constant that corporations must take if they expect to remain viable, creative and growth-oriented.

The agile workplace that drives Design Thinking helps create connections, familiarity, and trust. With a trust-based culture that incorporates testing, piloting and risk-taking, it is more likely that leadership and employees will be able to do their best work and keep their organizations viable for years to come.


Originally published in Work Design Magazine.

Behavior by Design: Driving Design Transformation

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In the first article for this series, the focus was on the concept of behavioral design—or more specifically, design as it relates to workplace behavior. In particular, the message emphasized how important behavioral design is to workplace architecture. Recent studies confirm the direct impact behavioral design has on people’s lives, wellbeing, and on the quality of their interactions. As individuals continue to transition from a fully assigned work environment to a more behaviorally focused and agile space, design value is achieved once sentiments, fears, and expectations are acknowledged and addressed. For example, measuring how space is allocated against how space is used can fill change gaps in order to build design results consistent with observation. Equipped with the knowledge that where employees are stationed affects the way they think, the focus now moves to the “how-to” of behavioral design—methods for making it work.

What drives transformation?

Design for behaviors comes from knowing the conditions that drive the need for a shift in workplace design. These conditions come from three sources. First, and perhaps most surprising, are the analytics showing that less than half of those at work who reside in personally assigned cubicles can actually be found at their desks. Stated differently, observations indicate that possibly as few as 10 percent of assigned cubicle residents spend 90 percent or more of their work week at their desks. No longer are employees bound to their workstations. Because of the recent advances in mobile technology, cubicles and offices are generating less and less value for businesses.

Commons space designed for flexible and collaborative work

The second condition prompting design for behaviors deals with the reality of very low employee engagement in the workplace. Gallup, an international polling organization, has tracked this for the United States since 2000. The company’s surveys reveal employee engagement has barely budged in well over a decade. According to Gallup Daily Tracking, only 32 percent of U.S employees are engaged in their jobs and workplaces. Many report that this comes as a result of the hectic and often unpredictable nature of the workplace environment. Ultimately, low engagement can create negative actions toward productivity and negative attitudes toward organizational culture.

The third rationale that explains why work behavior design is reinventing itself is due to the increasing complexity of the workplace. For at least the last 50 years, employees were generally assigned work that was much more rote-and-response driven than is called for today. An employee had a skill set that worked to solve specific sets of tasks. Many employees worked solo. As a result, companies developed systems that lent naturally to a cubicle-intensive environment that fulfilled plug-and-play work behaviors. Now, work is largely people-problem driven, which tends to require more time and interaction when it comes to solving problems and building systems. Collaboration is at the heart of creative talent, and designers are catering to behavioral design accordingly.

Fear-based challenges

There are many merits to designing with behavioral change in mind. However, to design this way, before attempting to use knowledge of behaviors to transform work environments, first it helps to understand employees’ fears, uncertainties, and doubts. Some of the most common sentiments embodying this apprehension include:

1.  “I need a place to call my own.”

2.  “I need a place to put my things.”

3.  “I need to be able to find the people I need.”

4.  “I need a door for privacy and confidentiality.”

5.  “I need to belong to the office.”

One common theme among these five statements is where the emphasis is placed: on the personal needs of the individual. This is very natural; employees believe they must look out for themselves. Another shared sentiment is that each message indicates a loss of control. Although employees define “control” differently—depending upon their status at an organization—being in control over at least the basics (like where to put one’s things) must count for something. Finally, all five reactions come from to memories of former fixed and assigned workplaces that are still perceived as having value. Why? Given the chance, most people tend to fall back on what is familiar from the past.

Commons space designed for flexible work

This list of sentiments is telling. Behavioral design benefits from carefully and considerately restating individuals’ expectations in a changing workplace. Anticipate that disruption will occur as a result of the transition—especially when the difference is as dramatic as changing from a fixed or traditional office or workplace to one more behaviorally flexible. Changes in behavioral design require using one’s imagination to envision new ways of working in dynamic work settings. It is through imagining new work expectations and processes that employees can reset their perceptions and judgments toward behavioral design. For that reason, it is important to invest the time and learn the value of aligning memory of past workspaces to new visions of how work will be produced moving forward. In the end, more advanced work behaviors may evolve that have the potential to increase utilization, stimulate engagement, and reset disappointed expectations about adapting to a new workplace.

Supporting behavior by design

Recognizing the connection between space and human behavior, companies like Google, Intel, and Cisco are spending millions on redesigning buildings, knocking down walls, and rearranging conference rooms. For example, since the perceived value for increased collaboration has been driving design trends, awareness of perceptions and judgments from the employees involved in the process seem to accelerate change acceptance. Being engaged in the behavioral design process helps employees move beyond deterrents and closer to acceptance.

One tactic in supporting behavioral change through design involves how the news of the imminent design change is delivered—explaining each step as it occurs—in real time. Making sure the key stakeholders stay abreast of the what, when, and whys of a changing workplace empowers teams. Another approach for supporting a staff in transition is reassurance. Making certain that everyone sees the positive vision behind designs for new behaviors goes a long way toward easing the pain of a transition. Another way to relieve transitional stress comes from helping employees envision what success in this new environment might look like.

Last but not least, one straightforward way of igniting employees’ imaginations is with storytelling. The reasons why workplaces are underutilized, why engagement continues to be low, and why the complexity of work continues to increase are best discovered and understood through the story of people who are working. Behavioral design can benefit from the power of, “Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after”.

Individual Cubicle Group

Modern workplace makeover

Modern workplace makeovers are a fact of life. It’s taken plenty of time, but the workplace is now becoming far less individualized. The traditional systems and beliefs that standard cubicles and offices propagated for so long are being shed and replaced with behavioral design standards that favor collaboration. As the sophistication and value of this trend increase to better align with employees’ work behaviors, transitional tactics will continue to be developed to support and ease the changeovers. Keep in mind: the best behavioral designs will not only encourage teamwork and boost engagement, but they will do so with transparency—while simultaneously catering to a human’s capacity for imagination.


Article originally published in Work Design magazine

Leading a Culture of Innovation and Creativity

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How can you make your organization more innovative, adaptive, and creatively competitive? After studying 200+ companies, global design firm IDEO has identified six essential qualities to drive innovation and creativity.  IDEO’s David Aycan shared a framework around these qualities, the data behind them, and stories of companies working hard to develop the culture, processes, and habits that drive innovation.

If you operate in the field of innovation or design, you are familiar with IDEO’s “User-Centered” design process and their earlier work with companies like Apple helping to design the first computer mouse and a “Grid” notebook style computer.



IDEO’s creative process experienced a shift with the on-boarding of anthropologist Jane Fulton Suri. The practice of observing before coming to a solution became a critical part of the design process. Another key strategy employed by IDEO was the pairing of business savvy thinkers and designers. This strategy helped them move into the realm of economics, making sure that the products they designed were marketable and desired.  IDEO operates under the belief that through design and prototyping there can be a greater understanding of what and how a solution should make an impact.

IDEO experienced growth by helping companies with Organizational Design. They have a passion for helping clients get over paralysis and have benchmarked hundreds of creative organizations and looked at factors that impact creativity. Here are the six essential qualities IDEO has identified to drive innovation and creativity for organizations:

Quality #1:  Purpose.

What to work on and what not to work on is a key element of purpose. The questions that need to be asked:  Is it useful? Does it help? Are we passionate about it?  Providing clarity on the purpose seeking process, Aycan shared the story of a large e-commerce company in Europe called Zalando. The company was struggling to find out what’s next for their organization. With the help of IDEO, they created a “Gallery Style” event that engaged all employees to uncover likes, dislikes, attitudes, and perceptions. This event helped the company discover that employees considered the organization a full member of the fashion industry and no longer a player in the start-up world. Through this, their purpose statement was born…”Fashion for the good of all”  with the goal to be a sustainable “Zero-Waste” organization. Aycan advises to “Use purpose as a prime factor in all major decisions it’s why purpose exist and organizations that have a clearly defined purpose are 20% more likely to achieve success.”

Quality #2:  Looking Out.

“Don’t get stuck on internal business like politics and attitudes. Connect with your users more than monthly.”   When “looking out”, Aycan says that companies have a 25% greater chance of being successful when insights are created more frequently. He shared a case study on LA County voting machines. There are 5 million registered voters in LA County.  The goal: make voting more accessible and intuitive. 1960 was the last time the process was improved. Voters were being excluded especially those with handicaps such as hearing, sight and language barriers. IDEO dove into these issues by talking to citizens and taking active videos of the voting process. Bernie Zorey, a blind man shared “I didn’t vote because I did not want to be a burden on the polling place officials.”  Another blind woman said she had to trust that polling officials were pulling the right vote for her. This research emphasized how important it is to “look out” and observe a variety of people during research.

Quality #3:  Experimentation.

There is a problem with looking at hundreds of ideas or challenges.  Aycan suggests that an organization should explore and test 5 ideas in parallel. Organizations that experiment before implementation are 50% more likely to experience successful outcomes. He shared the term “Cognitive Laziness”, meaning the brain is wired to protect ideas over time and after a while of this, it can slow down idea generation. The solution to this? Keep ideas fresh and don’t let them sit. The objective is to keep ideas flowing, experiment, and have three more ideas in mind before asking for feedback.

Quality #4:  Collaboration.

Collaborate across teams is key, and organizations that exercise this are 38% more likely to have successful outcomes versus those that employ a “waterfall” or linear approach. Exploring collaboration, IDEO created a “Co-Lab”; an “unholy alliance” of those who were teams but were really meant to work together. The goal was to leverage different skill sets, for example; Financial and Internet of Things groups came together to renew energy certificates on a blockchain or open innovation platform.  Energy companies were not excited about this, but teams wondered “Who might bring a different perspective?”

Quality #5:  Empowerment.

Another quality Aycan suggest is making problem-solving tools and skills available across an organization. Companies need to be transparent, fair and have a method that identifies tension and suggest improvement. Leaders of organizations need to provide autonomy and clarity of this process and foster an environment of support. When an organization makes it OK to challenge the status quo, they are 70% more likely to be successful. When communication is clear, and workers feel empowered high energy, goodwill, and project motivation will come naturally.

Quality #6: Refinement.

Organizations must keep the thread of vision alive.  Aycan shared the story of a city in Peru that was in desperate need of a better public-school system. Paying private school tuition was out of reach for most people in the area, so they wanted to emulate one of their higher-performing public schools into a school that more students could attend.  Some of the challenges they faced were the high cost of real estate, difficulty in attracting good teachers, the uncertainty of what technology to employ, and how to scale the system. IDEO was approached to help create an adaptive organization that can regenerate and constantly evolves.

In his closing statements, Aycan challenged the audience to think about:

  • What matters to you?
  • What makes your team different?
  • Create 5 to 7 design principles can constantly revisit them.
  • IDEO is successful because everyone was empowered by David Kelly
  • Looking Out need to be leveraged.
  • Rethink the purpose.
  • Reflect on you and your team’s strengths.
  • Identify areas for improvement.
  • Define a way on how to measure collaboration or creativity
  • Leverage teams or people, challenge them to think differently in order to identify hotspots


Written by Chris Lapata and based on a session at SXSW by David Aycan of IDEO.

Well-Design… at Work

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Well-DesignI have been interested that, on several recent occasions, the idea of designing for wellness principles has strongly come forward. For example, I was recently facilitating a change alignment session with 40 people who will move from private offices into a shared workplace. This level of change is abrupt for this group, and they have many concerns. One concern that came forward was a fear of germs, and the sharing of sickness because of more open settings and shared surfaces. The fear, though not completely logical, gained additional momentum after the session as a symbol that, “open space lessens wellness.”

I had been seeing a waning of interest in design specifically for wellness; particularly for programs like LEED, Well-building, Green Globes, etc. Upon deeper thought, I wonder what the gap is between what these standards promote, and what people need to be well in their work and workplace.

Wellness is a part of well-being, but being well is more than simply reducing exposure to germs to protect the health of the body. I recall a few years ago the phrase, “sitting is the new smoking”, which ignited a sit-to-stand desk revolution that is continuing today. While physical health has remained a core of well-design, physical health alone is incomplete. Even Well Building Standards seem short of a complete picture of what well-design could/should/would be.

Here are four well-ways to consider the value of design toward being a “well” person:

1. Physical wellness: Fitness, exercise, and aerobic health; The Body.

A few years back we designed an interior project for the new calls center with, what I would consider, an above standard fitness center for a corporate site of 1,200 people. Also, to promote stair use over elevator use, the developer of the build-to-suit core and shell built the stair towers outboard of the building core, expand the stair widths and landings, and glass enclosing the full height corners of the landings. A year later we measured the perception of people working to determine an increased drive to choose the stair over the elevator. We also built an interior strategy for design to include a “walking path” around the full outer edge of the floor plate and passed out pedometers on day one. A year later we observed people walking the path during their 15 minutes breaks from the phones.

2. Social well-being: Positive human interaction; Relationships.

It seems our design profession has centered on this reality with a design focus on collaborative environments. The idea has been sound in driving people together to share ideas and build culture. Yet, we know that ‘open’ does not equal ‘social’, and the backlash of the past few years has been resounding. Social interaction tends to happen in small social dynamics, while open expanses natural heighten the senses, causing eventual social exhaustion. There is much work for us to do in this area of designing for relationship well-being.

3. Psychologically well: Mental fortitude and reasoning ability; The Mind.

This is an area of great fascination involving workplace design. How do we, in what we design for people working, affect the nature of psychological fortitude? To be a well-minded person may best refer to feelings of emotional control and positivism. People that are generally perceived to be psychologically well tend to show themselves as secure, generally focused, and usually positive. In the workplace these individually well people seem to ‘belong’ and produce results for the benefit of others. Psychological wellness may represent alignment between the individual and the organizational culture into which they belong, generating an above average ability to think and reason in the face of complex work. Belonging comes about from shared vision, strengths-based alignment, and equitable exchanges of value within the work being created. Belonging reduces physical and social stresses so that thinking may come forward from psychological clarity. For design to add value to be psychologically well, we as designers must cross back and forth with business vision, aligning design to a branded experience in the workplace that creates mindfulness. I suggest, therefore, when we create graphic messages and images inside the workplace, the mindful actions and attitudes of the work may create psychologically well people. More work is needed on this.

4. Creatively and Intuitively well: Inspiration, aspiration, and the experience of life; The Spirit.

Of the four qualities of being well, becoming creatively and intuitively well is the most complex and difficult to conceptualize. This is spiritual in nature. Creative and intuitive well principles in work seem to connect with our inherent drive to produce results, based on our intrinsic desires, inherent strengths, and volatile passions. Every child is an artist without fear of criticism for their scribbles that tell their stories. The combination of maturing along with self-awareness and extrinsic criticism build rationalism that erodes these childhood creative and intuitive drives. Most work environments have, through trial and error, managed out creative systems in lieu of efficiency and effectiveness drivers. Teams are organized in hierarchies, and status symbols are assigned to space types. The results are an implied suppression of the intuitive nature of ideation. I believe this aspect of well-centered design remains vastly unexplored and full of potential as a design philosophy that would enhance the value of well-design.

These four key well-design criteria, to me, seem to play well in terms of space promoting a whole person experience. These four principles, in themselves complex, are an attempt to simplify and categorize the idea of abundance thinking over deficit thinking as defined by positive psychology.

Kim Cameron teaches from his research in organizational culture that, “Evolutionary theory suggests: If people ignore negative information, it could cost them their lives. If they ignore positive feedback, it only causes regret.”. He teaches that only through conscious effort can we overcome our learned deficit attitudes. Building on this, I wonder about the positive value of investigating the potential of well-design principles.

A focus on any one aspect, such as a fear in germ sharing, has too much potential to create an imbalance in well-design strategy. As we worked with the group of 40, we introduced the relationship, the thinking, and the creative value of the design. At the outset, the negative fears outweigh the positive imagination, but the business value was seen in the purpose of creating a well-design workplace for people. The team did decide to distribute disinfecting wipes on day one.

The Three Branches of Design: A look at history provides a glimpse of the future

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“Occasionally, in times of chaos and change, there is value in reconsidering and reevaluating foundations for a previously conceived or discussed idea. Facility design is one example of where this process applies. As work-place design continues to morph between the challenging demands of being more efficient and effective and providing a greater experience for people, everyone involved can gain value in design considerations by looking back in time.

According to the ancient Roman architect and author, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (De Architectura, 15 BC), architecture consists of three requirements: strength, unity, and beauty. They were referred to as the Vitruvian Triad. While the manifestation of these three constructs may have changed over time, it’s important to evaluate how a rebalancing of strength, unity, and beauty can impact the future value of workplace design in a positive way.”

Read more.


My Transition from Hard-Goods to Professional Services continues…

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My first 60 days on the other side of the fence have proven to be enlightening. The transition from sales leadership and consulting on the manufacturing side of our workplace “eco-system” to pure consulting with an Architectural and Design firm has been rife with “Fish out of Water” moments, but educationally stimulating none the less.

I have been blessed to have worked for a global leader in workplace research and workplace effectiveness that leveraged user-centered design to manufacture some of the most innovative products in the contract furniture industry.  It was that exposure to the IDEO research methodology and the implementation of Design Thinking that provided clients with a differentiated experience and have allowed me to comfortably settle into my new role at BHDP Architecture.

In its 80-year history, BHDP has become a leader in understanding how space impacts human behavior.  We not only design beautiful, inspiring spaces, but spaces that contribute strategically to help our clients achieve their business goals. Over time, BHDP has developed a culture of curiosity, problem-solving and thoughtfulness that has endeared them to clients and forged decades-long relationships with world class companies such as Procter & Gamble, Toyota, Macy’s, Nationwide Insurance, Fidelity Investments, JPMorgan Chase, Dow and many more.

Our clients have told us that we are truly different primarily because:

  • We Listen
  • We engage passionately with clients
  • We thrive on complex and challenging projects
  • We work deliberately to focus on results because we want every project to be a success
  • We employ a rigorous approach and a design process that is truly different
  • We bring a deep knowledge of how spaces need to evolve and how that impacts design
  • We are comfortable with change. We know why change happens and how to embrace it
  • We perform as a team to leverage our collective strengths
  • We value our clients and often become their trusted advisors

Should you or anyone you know be considering different approaches for designing workplace environments that achieve results, please feel free to connect with us.

Chris LaPata, MCR

Behavior By Design

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behavioral design

A private visioning session takes place with the client to understand the behaviors expected for the space. Questions like “What do you accomplish in a given day?” are asked.

There is no doubt whatever about the influence of architecture and structure upon human character and action. We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives. -Winston Churchill, 1924 

To design an environment is to know what will likely occur in that environment. The more capably a designer is able to get in touch with the intended purpose of the space, the more likely the designer’s final plan will create value for its tenants. Knowing the actions and attitudes that will inhabit a structure means going beyond the standard designations that usually apply. For example, designing an office space for a marketing team is not the same as creating one for a law firm. The specifics and the nuances are better revealed when the design looks past workplace form and function and zeros in on the actions and attitudes of the people who will work there.

Why design for behavior

Design has been analyzed from many vantage points. There seems to be a general consensus among industry experts that the structure of a building and its interior play a big role influencing behavior. Others believe attitudinal change precedes behavioral change. Either way, the conversation about designing for behavior is happening and open for discussion. Think about it. The lives of countless people play out inside buildings. The majority of thoughts people have occur there, and it is where their daily emotions unfold. Each of those activities comprises behaviors for which design can and should play a role.

There’s no question that design affects the brain. Different adaptations might include creating spaces that are green, encourage activity, or even promote social interaction. There are numerous frameworks that will arise in the world of design. For instance, with growing urbanization in United States’ cities, it is becoming more significant and preferable to work in a structure that was built with an emphasis on mental and physical health. As time goes on, there will be greater potential for this type of adaptive design.

Connectivity between action and attitude

One way to understand designing for behavior is by first answering the question, “What is a behavior?” A summary of the definition follows: “Human behavior is a function of the actions and attitudes of people within an environment.” Then, break that down further:

  • An action is “a sensory and cognitive process that is measurable and observable.”
  • An attitude is an “emotive and intuitive response that requires relationship and story.”

By looking directly at the actions and attitudes of people, a correlation can be drawn. For example, imagine a workplace with no doors. No conference rooms doors, no office doors, no storage closet doors, nor bathroom doors. From this dramatic point-of-view, the nature of a door drives behavior. Doors mean instant privacy, necessary confidentiality, solitude for focus, as well as for designation and status. Asking questions about built elements, like doors, allows designers to probe into just exactly who someone is. By gaining a feel for people’s attitudes, design can anticipate what actions will be taken as a result of those attitudes. For example, if a company is evolving toward flatter operation systems, doors assigned to individuals based on their status may drive the wrong behaviors in the future.

Additional attitudinal questions might include, “What do you accomplish in a given day?” “What do you look forward to most about your job?” or “What is it about your work that excites you?” Not surprisingly, the answers may be more tangible to design than those that come from asking questions like, “Which behaviors do you need from your people to generate better results?” What evolves from focusing more on attitudes and actions can be studied using a formula: Human Behavior = f (Action x Attitude) Environment—or “Human behavior is a function of the actions and attitudes of people within an environment.”

The “Environment” variable can then materialize through the design thinking process. Since one of the tasks of design is to create human environments, then one responsibility of the designer is to guide compassion, imagination, and mental power—all while making evident the relationship between physical parameters and the human response.

open space

An open environment with a variety of spacial elements encourages collaboration, imagination, and mental power. This space was designed with physical parameters and human responses in mind.

Gathering the data

Until now, relatively few studies have been conducted on the psychological implications of architecture. However, recently there’s been an upsurge of interest to determine if there is an ideal architectural structure for different types of thinking, or if one form of space influences behavior differently than another.

One experiment, conducted by Joan Meyers-Levy, professor emeritus in marketing from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, examined the relationship between ceiling height and thinking style. Levy learned some interesting facts. Low-ceiling rooms favored those whose need was to focus on the details of a subject or object. By contrast, lofty ceilings were conducive to abstract styles of thinking, brainstorming, creative solutions, and zooming out to see the panoramic perspective. Experiments like this say a lot about the effects of environment, and research on the subject is still in its infancy. The good news is that it seems to be a universally accepted notion that architecture has actual cognitive consequences that need to be exposed.

Some of the bonds that have been forged to study designing for behavior are certain to reveal significant outcomes. For instance, a research group of neuroscientists and psychologists has teamed up with group of architects and designers to examine the way spaces have psychological impact on inhabitants and why it’s vital to study them. The more the results of these studies continue to confirm the significant degree to which design affects the brain, the more the industry can count on the development of new design tools and methods that will be conducive to changing the built world that is the environment.

Industry support

Multiple associations and organizations are being established in an effort to improve the way buildings are inhabited. For example, Itai Palti, Director of Architecture and Design at Bartlett School of Architecture’s Centric Lab in London, used the science of developmental psychology to inform the design of Urban Thinkscape, a set of playful learning installations focused on language and math that can be placed among urban settings families are likely to encounter. Palti has recently teamed up with Bar-Ilan University neuroscientist Dr. Moshe Bar, to examine “conscious cities,” which Palti founded. These are built environments that apply the findings of behavioral and cognitive sciences to more actively respond to their users.

Another example comes from Colin Ellard, who is an expert in the movement of people. For more than 10 years he has studied how people make their way to places and how different types of environments impact their brains. Ellard is a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, where he serves as director of the Urban Realities Laboratory where he studies the impact of urban design on human psychology. The laboratory uses a wide variety of methods ranging from field studies of behavior in urban and architectural settings to the use of immersive virtual reality to test predictions about urban behavior in simulations. For instance, the lab analyzed responses to common cityscapes such as heavily traveled intersections, hiking paths, and downtown layout. From this data, they were equipped to draw conclusions about what causes a person’s fear and anxiety in an urban setting.

Another organization studying human response to architecture and design is ANFA, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. ANFA’s mission is to promote and advance knowledge that links neuroscience research to a growing understanding of human responses to the built environment. It is the only organization in the world devoted to the goal of building intellectual bridges between neuroscience and architecture.

As design evolves

It’s interesting to watch the evolution of design as it relates to workplace behavior. There are more mature management systems, higher degrees of agility and flexibility, and stronger emphasis on innovation grown from collaboration. As work transforms to meet this progress, the demands on the workplace will evolve to accommodate renewed behavioral actions and attitudes. Each variable plays an important role in bringing the industry to its current way of thinking. What can be gained by focusing on workplace behaviors, reflected in people’s attitudes and actions, will become an increasingly vital part of a designer’s planning process.

Article originally published in Work Design magazine

The Future of Work: Anticipating the Architecture of the Future Workplace

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Teams At Work

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Work has changed. Teams and their leaders have tried to keep up. The way organizations form and manage teams in the future will provide the foundation for high-performing teams. The issue is important because working in teams is no longer an option: business complexity relies on new levels of expertise and interdependence upon individuals’ strengths and diversity to create results. Work has become too unpredictable and constantly changing between centralized and decentralized models. As the correlating team dynamics shift from collaboration toward innovation, from tactical to strategic, and from transactional to relationship-based work, management faces a challenge in how to measure and lead the moving targets. The default settings of “teams” must adjust, but how? To what? Where will teams actually do their work? What will workspaces of the future look like, if we have them at all?

Read our latest white paper that answers these questions here.

Remote Working: A Work In Progress

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IBM, Yahoo, and Best Buy, among others, have felt the sting of criticism in recent years for requiring remote workers to come back to work full-time at company offices. Critics said these past innovators failed their teleworkers, who preferred the autonomy outside the office. Plus, research by organizations ranging from the London Business School to Gallup have suggested that teleworkers are more productive and engaged than their office counterparts.

Remote WorkingBut executives at Big Blue and other progressive companies counter that these benefits must be balanced with the need to create a company work culture that fosters innovation and collaboration.

Remote work is far from an all-or-nothing proposition. The recent retrenchments may in fact mark the start of the next wave of virtual work. Applying the lessons from their initial efforts, companies are training employees to get the most out of a technology-enabled world which allows team members to contribute from home, from co-work environments in the office as well as from traditional workspaces.

Remote Work Won’t Go Away

The pullbacks by Big Blue and others probably don’t reflect the future. A wide range of studies find remote work is increasing.

The Society for Human Resource Management says 60% of employers in 2016 were offered telework options compared to 20% in 1996. The federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics also found the share of people doing some or all of their work from home grew from 19% in 2003 to 22% in 2016. As long as statistics show that workers get more done at home — and appreciate the added flexibility — companies will look for ways to make it work.

Refocus On Results — and Relationships

The key is results. As the critics noted, IBM, Yahoo, and Best Buy all pulled workers back into offices as the companies stayed stuck in prolonged slumps. They weren’t getting the overall returns in company growth and profitability they needed, a function of much more than worker productivity. Their moves suggest that the most viable remote work programs require company cultures focused on a variety of business metrics — and that balance employee choice with overall company strategy.

Crafting a results-oriented workplace depends on establishing clear goals that everyone embraces. A good place to start may be the “Balanced Scorecard” popularized by Harvard Business School professors in the early 1990s. The approach calls for setting objectives based on a company’s strategy, in collaboration with employees. Work is then tracked using rational, measurable performance indicators that are agreed upon upfront. This allows employees to see how they’re contributing to the big picture.

Not every company is well-suited for this approach. Before launching any virtual work program, a close examination of your company culture and processes is recommended. Draft a change management plan based on a shared vision for strategic results. Bring together departments like human resources and information technology to scrutinize how the processes will work.

Above all, a commitment to connectedness and respect will deliver results in a remote work environment far better than barking orders and monitoring activity. If your managers work with their direct reports to establish clear expectations based on common goals, they will have less need to see them. But how do you get to that level of understanding and agreement?

Step 1: Build Understanding And Trust

First, managers and employees need to get to know each other. Each should grasp the other’s strengths, weaknesses, and work style before they’re opposite each other on a Skype call. In some cases, managers will learn their employees would rather work in the office, because they enjoy the workplace and its social nature. This “getting to you know you” step is especially important with new employees, so they get a sense of the company culture.

It’s also essential that a common language and vision be established before remote work commences. For large projects, start with in-person collaboration and team building, so the full group contributes to and understands the plan for the work to be completed.

After this groundwork is complete, offer employees choices — in how they communicate, where they work, and even when they work. That degree of autonomy breeds employee trust and their performance, in turn, will build management confidence.

Step 2: Communicate – The Inverse Proportion Theory

So what frequency of communication is appropriate once the foundation for remote work is in place, and everyone has agreed on clear goals and performance measures? It’s a case of inverse proportionality. The farther apart employees work, the more they need to communicate. This is especially true if remote workers are relatively distant from the office and won’t be visiting on a regular basis.

Successful work-from-home programs also leverage the variety of communication vehicles available from email to Slack to GoToMeeting, letting teams use the tools that work for them and are most effective. But it’s important to stay disciplined about frequent meetings, because that’s what keeps employees and managers trusting each other.

Step 3: Make The Workplace A “Magnet”, And Design for Collaboration

Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace Report”, based on data from 195,600 U.S. employers, found that while workers enjoy the autonomy of remote work, they also desire to feel part of something larger — something employers obviously want as well.

Productive remote work, somewhat paradoxically, depends on well-designed physical workplaces. The office needs to be a magnet, so virtual workers feel excited about about visiting with its cool and inviting feel. Inside should be a variety of workspaces that match the diversity of your workforce and their work styles.

Consider at least three to five options, blending everything from sheltered rooms and open spaces to stand-up areas and lounges. Employ a mix of quiet zones and active rooms. Vary the lighting and furniture. Every space should be designed so it’s easy for employees to connect their laptops, phones, and other devices. The food, drink, and educational areas should also encourage conversation.

The Delta Sky Lounge is an excellent model for how to serve the needs of a variety of users. With a similar approach, your workplace can transform from the closed offices and cubicles of the past to a vibrant space that promotes collaboration and an egalitarian feel.

Step 4: Be Sympathetic To Those Stuck In The Middle

As noted above, the biggest risk to a successful remote work initiative is related to people, not technology. And middle managers are the linchpin — from collaborating with their direct reports to maintaining communication. Since they may also be the one most skeptical of the advantages of a remote work program, facility management and other workplace design stakeholders will need to engage them carefully.

In many cases, it’s simply because middle managers are not used to remote work since they’ve never had the opportunity to do it. They may suspect they’ll be held responsible if things don’t go well, which contributes to a fear of change.

It’s important that the C-suite invests in middle managers to help them through the process and emphasize how it will benefit them. Training on managing to results rather than effort will be necessary in many cases. Also, it’ll be important for middle managers to understand that it’s relatively easy to adapt quickly to the technology that serves as the foundation for successful remote work.

Remote Work Research With Millennials

In conjunction with the four steps discussed above, the sidebar below share insights BHDP Architecture gleaned from recent research at the University of Cincinnati.

(Editor’s Note: Read Donnelly’s recent article for on designing the workplace based on the influx of employees from the millennial generation. His advice? Stop!)

(Virtual) Work In Process

As remote work continues to evolve, examine whether it makes sense for your company to re-evaluate your program annually. There are many pitfalls to sidestep that otherwise will have lasting implications across all areas of your business. And, just as you shouldn’t start a virtual work program hastily, you shouldn’t end one without a close review, either.


Originally published in Facility Executive.