workplace as platform Six rules to optimize its design
In our new workplace planning and design model, The New Technical Workplace©️, we look at five key considerations that shape a different kind of place and space for companies doing technical work – Product, Project, Presence, Proximity and Platform. We articulate each of these almost as manifestos or, more practically, a set of guidelines for the design of space intended to yield a remarkably different kind of organizational performance compared to companies in conventionally-defined workspaces.
The last of the five, Platform, is especially interesting. It is, in fact, an essential component that activates and amplifies the other four.
We came to the concept of platform from the technology space where it is the holy grail for many. A platform is the technology-based business model that brings two or more groups together in efficient exchange – the providers of a thing or service and its buyers. Startup teams pitch “the ebay of x” or “the Uber of y” evoking the power and potential in the platform concept.
We propose thinking of the workspace as the physical manifestation of the platform promise. Why, we ask, shouldn’t landlords (or corporations or developers) provide space that is uniquely and deliberately valuable to the potential users of that space? Why shouldn’t occupiers seek space that augments and even amplifies their business or purpose? Why isn’t a floor of a building envisioned as a tech platform, rich with the resources that both producers and buyers, both developers and occupiers, both corporations and departments find compellingly attractive and efficient?
How would this work?
One way of visualizing the platform of The New Technical Workplace would be to derive design guidelines as lessons learned from the errors made by the great technology platform designers, to test a translation into positive physical terms the negatives of failed digital platforms.
In his article, “Platform Failure: Why the Mighty Fail” (http://platformed.info/platform-failure-why-the-mighty-fail/ and https://hbr.org/2016/03/6-reasons-platforms-fail) Marshall van Alstyne and his colleagues suggest six errors –
- Failure to optimize “openness”
- Failure to engage developers
- Failure to share the surplus
- Failure to launch the right side
- Failure to put critical mass ahead of money
- Failure of imagination
Here’s a reformulation of those errors as rules or principles for a new kind of workplace.
1. Optimize “openness”
When we speak of the “open office,” we use a different language than found in the groupspeak about the office.
Openness is a term that we use to comprehend the transparency of an organization, the visibility of its values, the speed and efficiency of information exchange, the clarity of organizational culture, the evidence of team commitment to solving complex problems, the richness of its creativity and the value of its innovations.
While we believe in the power of open space, our interest in the form of the office is to nurture the organizational and operational openness that activates and amplifies the achievement of the purpose of an organization.
When designing physical space, we are aware of the careful balance that Van Alstyne expresses. “If platforms are too closed, keeping potentially desirable participants out, network effects stall; if they’re too open there can be other value-destroying effects, such as poor quality contributions or misbehavior of some participants that causes others to defect.”
2. Engage project managers
When we reference “Projects” in our framework, we note that the organizational chart is dead. Projects are the new organizing unit of leading companies. It is in projects where people find meaning and engage with each other.
When we read of the 70% of the people in the workforce who are “disengaged,“ we believe they are speaking of organizations that manage around the abstractions of departments and functions. Unattached to higher purposes found in projects, people zone out from processing roles.
Project leaders, however, have goals to achieve. Appropriately expressed, those goals inspire energy and evoke commitment from others who can then envision a way to contribute their talents to the greater potential of the team.
Project leaders are critically aware of the resources they have to accomplish their mission. If the workplace is a barrier, the most successful managers find a better place, sometimes leaving the company for the organization that better understands the resourcing and experiences of work.
Van Alstyne’s illustration is a good one: “It’s not enough to open the door and set the table. Successful platforms engage in platform evangelism, providing developers with resources to innovate, feedback on design and performance, and rewards for participation. Think of it this way: To host a successful event you must plan carefully, invite the right people, have the right food, and manage competition with the party next door. If Android throws a Hawaiian luau with a five-course feast, free travel, and attendees get to meet Robert Downey Jr. and Sandra Bullock the same night that Johnson Controls offers crackers in Cleveland and asks attendees to cover their own costs, which party will developers attend?”
Our argument is that corporate real estate and facility managers need to become event planners. Project managers are their customers.
3. Share the surplus
The most valuable platforms succeed through powerful network effects.
We like quoting a portion of the subtitle to David Weinberger’s book, Too Big To Know. Speaking of the Internet of Things and the power of networks, he evokes the concept that “the room is the smartest person in the room.”
We are getting closer to that achievement as sensors move into the workplace. Already building systems are managed by sensors perceiving the occupancy and intensities of utilization of space. In those spaces and with our devices, there is also a tremendous amount of digital exhaust offering an opportunity to capture and reformulate the knowledge expressed and ideas developed in that space (the whiteboard with the note “save” on it?). Smart buildings now have the potential of getting even smarter.
The simplest visualization of the smart space comes form the sensors that provide insights about the spaces that work best for people in their quest to achieve their goals. Of course, none of that data is relevant if companies have standards related to entitlements and manage by assigning people to seats. Choice is essential to improvement.
When the workspace becomes “lighter” enabling reconfiguration by its teams and when its systems can capture data about activity, some very valuable insights – the “surplus” to be shared – can deliver the smart room concept and inform the next project team.
4. Balance the sides
Our argument is not to compel developers, landlords and corporations to spend out of balance with returns. It is, however, to request their consideration of concepts of value outside of conventional real estate metrics.
Almost every project we consider begins with a request that evokes those tired workplace metrics – square feet per person, dollars per share foot, etc. But these metrics are not at all about the purpose of the organization and its space needs.
The purpose of a corporate facilities project is not to minimize the cost of space. It is to advance the goals of the organization and the benefits it brings to its people and those it intends to serve. An effective and valuable real estate platform moves providers to new metrics aligned with the people and organizations it wants to attract. Occupiers will achieve more if they measure providers in terms of their own organizational purpose.
5. Put critical mass in front of money
Employee engagement is a key factor in the value the company delivers to its customers. The critical mass of engagement is achieved in the experiences people have with the quality of the workspace.
Benchmarks and standards, the metrics of money, introduce friction into the work. Corporate real estate acts as a spatial police force, and occupants spend more time considering the comparatives of space than the purposes of their work. Status achievement is not goal achievement except in the most personal and political terms.
Authentically aligned weight the purpose of the organization, the workspace attracts and engages people who see their purpose achievable there. The workplace designed by benchmarked metrics instead leads to “evaporative cooling” – people depart for places that remove friction and support purpose.
6. Engage imagination the design of the workspace
Van Alstyne’s observation is that “the most egregious platform failure is to simply not see the platform play at all. It is also one of the hardest for traditional firms to avoid. Firms guilty of this oversight never get past the idea that they sell products when they could be building ecosystems.”
Let’s put that in real estate terms. Developers, landlords and CRE functions that sell their buildings as products miss the “platform play.” When those who provide places and spaces that support and nurture platform ecosystems, the leading organizations of the future will want to be there. Higher value, the “surplus,” will be gained by both.
The imagination that generates the concepts for the next generation workplace for those engaged in technical work, The New Technical Workplace, begins with a new lexicon that embraces engagement-intended principles as the core of the design brief.
To paraphrase Van Alstyne, when a building enters the market, real estate professionals who focus solely on money metrics are not just measuring the wrong things, they’re thinking the wrong thoughts.