MEREDITH Strategy & Design

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Five considerations for the places and spaces of the square-shaped organization

02_28_10 I’ve become increasingly interested in the spatial implications of what I’ve been calling the “square shaped organization.” But before getting to space, let me explain this term.

We have for so long tended to think of the classical modern organization as triangular or pyramidal in form. That is, we see them shaped by a relatively small leadership group at the top of the organization, a proportionally larger middle management rank, and employees in various staff roles forming a large base. This organizational design is now more typical of command-and-control enterprises.

Professional and creative services organizations have traditionally and typically had more of a diamond shape. That is, there is still a relatively small leadership composed of partners in the organization, a broad middle band of associated professionals, but then a relatively small number of support staff.

The spatial and formal footprints of each of these organizations have also been different. The pyramidal organization, usually large and spread across many properties in a portfolio, typically centers in a headquarters building and, most classically, this is a high rise. The corporate officers are on the top floors, the middle management fills in the tower, and the staff is mostly out at regional or manufacturing sites. In the more enlightened of these organizations, management ranks have been typified by the higher levels of middle managers getting offices in the interior of the plan, and the others in this processing and production group organized in hierarchically assigned space in an open plan “cube farm.”

Most of the professional firms have also liked the high rise form for their offices. Although smaller in scale and filling only a few floors of the tower, these firms have nonetheless organized hierarchically. Power is reflected in the assignment of corner and perimeter offices as in the form of the top ranks of the pyramid organization. Associates also get offices, but in many cases, these are located to the interior and with the distinction of not having views and natural light. Support staff and support functions fill in the great middle ground of the floor plan.

But this organizational form is changing. Over the past few months there have been stories about layoffs in law firms, architectural firms, advertising agencies and other similar organizations appearing almost every day of the week. Reading into these reports, it is surprising to see how single layered most of these reductions are. That is, the “associate” ranks seem to be the place of the largest portion of change.

With neither a clear command structure nor a significantly measurable support staff, the organization appears flat and non-hierarchical—they’ve become “square shaped.”

Combined with the adoption of more flexible workstyles enabled by technology, places and spaces that have characterized these organizations no longer make much sense. So what are the implications for space planning for square-shaped organizations? I’d offer these:

It’s now about how things get done, not about who does them Well, before getting to that, who does what is certainly much more important in this new organizational form. The thinness of the organization in most cases means that specialists now compose the firm. But the resources available to them to do stuff are now much more limited. The isolation of practice areas, the dedication of administrative support to individuals or small groups, the accessibility of support, and other characteristics of the recent past are no longer sustainable. To get things done, I believe these organizations need to become much more transparent, that is, much more visually connected.

Design for collaboration, not for direction The new composition of the organization means that older modes of production no longer apply. Just as office technology has put more productivity and in the hands of the professional, the thinning of the ranks of the middle ground in these firms also pushes more production responsibility “upward.” Counterintuitively, this also seems to be making work more diverse. Specialization of knowledge and reduction in production support means that work looks different now. In addition to focused work and production, the professional is increasingly engaging, motivating, and innovating with peers. Effective and productive work now includes socialization, collaboration, mentoring and learning, and these activities need appropriate places and spaces to be effective.

It’s now about place, not about power That is, it’s a good idea to reconsider place-making. In a firm, a community, of peers, and with the need to support more diverse workmodes, not only does work look different now, but place can (must?), too. The expressive vocabulary of the workplace is no longer binary, open or closed. The need to communicate, coordinate and collaborate breaks down walls. The office begins to look more like a city, a community of practice, where the articulation of what you do and how you do it shapes the look and feel of where you do what you do.

Express activities and rituals This is a long overlooked opportunity that I think now has greater relevance in the new organizational form. There will be a set of rituals, a cadence of events, that comes to define what differentiates the organization and supports how things get done. The places where these take place now are found by labels on doors—“conference room”—in otherwise undifferentiated space. The activities of the evolving place are about actions—collaborating, integrating, innovating—and not about hierarchy or formal processes. The right spaces for these activities may call for, or certainly accommodate, new forms and expressions. They can be as distinctive as churches, schools and factories in the urban landscape.

It’s a great opportunity to become a brand The design of these firms in the past has been about style, not about substance. That is, the organizational form was so consistent across these professions, that the formal vocabulary used in planning them became common. What differentiated one from the other was essentially the name on the reception walls and the materials used in the office halls. This new form, however—of specialization, collaboration, ritual, and differential place-making—offers the opportunity to professional services firms, and other organizations evolving to look like them, to be read as distinct brands. Whoever walks into these places will see what is different, and walk away with a visual impression that reinforces the unmistakable differences between them.

If there is this opportunity for a shift in the planning and design vocabulary for the evolving square-shaped organization, and if the firms of this new generation take advantage of this opportunity to see the world as fundamentally different, then other things also begin to evolve and change as well. The office building of today becomes obsolete. Where we choose to do work is less centered. Standards are not. Real estate shifts significantly. But more on this later.

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A postscript--

Just found this discussion today in Harvard Publishing's HBR Editor's Blog. It seems to be an interesting affirmation of the underlying shift in values and perceptions that might inform this shift in planning I address above.

What will help corporations survive? Here is Handy's prescription:

"....what enables a corporation to succeed in the longer term is a wish for immortality, or at least a long life; a consistent set of values based on an awareness of the organization's own identity; a willingness to change; and a passionate concern for developing the capability and self-confidence of its core inhabitants, whom the company values more than its physical assets. I suggest that those conditions are best met when organizations live up to the literal meaning of the word company--"the sharing of bread"--and regard themselves as communities, not property.....in time, the laws governing corporations will change to reflect (this) new reality." ("Looking Ahead," HBR September 1997)

So what does the future of the organization look like? In one of his very first books, Gods of Management: the Changing World of Organizations, Handy advanced the idea that the best organization operates most like a village--a place where people equally contribute their skills for the good of the whole, where culture matters most, where the initiative is bottom-up, where the shareholders are the people who do the work. "Villages are small and personal, and their inhabitants have names, characters and personalities," he wrote. "What more appropriate concept on which to base our institutions of the future than on the ancient organizational social unit whose flexibility and strength sustained human society through millennia?"

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