The Influence of a Workspace On Performance

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. For this post we agreed to write about the influence of a workspace on performance. The discussion should build on the ideas set forth in a previous parallax post Planning your Career or the Boundary between Private and Professional life. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

I have written before about the direct influence of our environment on our behaviour. I think learning professionals can learn a lot from people like Hans Monderman. This traffic engineer looked with a fresh eye at how people and technology relate to each other. This led to some ground-breaking traffic concepts (quote from Wikipedia):

His most famous design approach is Shared Space, also known as designing for negotiation or Shared Streets. Monderman found that the traffic efficiency and safety of urban streets improved when the street and surrounding public space was redesigned to encourage each person to negotiate their movement directly with others. Shared Space designs typically call for removing regulatory traffic control features (such as kerbs, lane markings, signs and lights) and replacing intersections with roundabouts.

The Architecture of Happiness

The Architecture of Happiness

Our surroundings change who we are. I was therefore delighted to learn that Alain de Botton has written a book about exactly this topic, applying it to the architectural domain: The Architecture of Happiness. In it he writes about one of my favourite architectural topics: Le Corbusier and his plans for the Radiant City:

By building upwards, two problems would be resolved at a stroke: overcrowding and urban sprawl. With room enough for everyone in towers, there would be no need for cities to spread outwards and devour the countryside in the process. ‘We must eliminate the suburbs,’ recommend Le Corbusier, whose objection was as much based on his hatred of what he took to be the narrow mental outlook of suburbanites as on the aesthetics of their picket-fenced villas. In the new kind of city, the pleasures of the town would be available to all. Despite a population density of 1,000 per hectare, everyone would be comfortably housed. Even the concierge would have his own study, added Le Corbusier.

There would be ample green space as well, as up to 50 per cent of urban land would be devoted to parks – for, as the architect put it, ‘the sports ground must be at the door of the house.’ What was more, the new city would not merely have parks; it would itself be a vast park, with large towers dotted among the trees. On the roofs of the apartment blocks, there would be games of tennis, and sunbathing on the shores of the artificial beaches.

Simultaneously, Le Corbusier planned to abolish the city street: ‘Our streets no longer work. Streets are an obsolete notion. There ought not to be such things as streets; we have to create something that will replace them.’ He witheringly pointed out that the design of Paris’s street plan dated from the middle of the sixteenth century, when ‘the only wheeled traffic consisted of two vehicles, the Queen’s coach and that of the Princess Diane.’ He resented the fact that the legitimate demands of both cars and people were constantly and needlessly compromised, and he therefore recommended that the two henceforth be separated. In the new city, people would have footpaths all to themselves, winding through woods and forests (‘No pedestrian will ever meet an automobile, ever!’), while cars would enjoy massive and dedicated motorways, with smooth, curving interchanges, thus guaranteeing that no driver would ever have to slow down for the sake of a pedestrian. [..]

The division of cars and people was but one element in Le Corbusier’s plan for a thoroughgoing reorganisation of the life in the new city. All functions would now be untangled. There would no longer be factories, for example, in the middle of residential areas, thus no more forging of iron while children were trying to sleep nearby.

This rational (at first sight) design for cities has an intuitive appeal. It is therefore not surprising that many municipalities have created whole neighbourhoods according to Le Corbusier’s principles. I have worked in one of these neighbourhoods for many years: the Bijlmer. The Bijlmer can be considered an urban design failure. Its giant apartment flats have mostly been demolished or rebuilt within the first 30 years of their existence.

Urban planners could (should?) have known better. Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, delivering a damning critique of Le Corbusier’s idea of separating the different functions of a city. De Botton writes it down very elegantly too (apologies for another long quote, I think they are worthwhile though!):

Ironically, what Le Corbusier’s dreams helped to generate were the dystopian housing estates that now ring historic Paris, the waste lands from which tourist avert their eyes in confused horror and disbelief on their way into the city. To take an overland train to the most violent and degraded of these places is to realise all that Le Corbusier forgot about architecture and, in a wider sense, about human nature.

For example, he forgot how tricky it is when just a few of one’s 2,699 neighbours decide to throw a party or buy a handgun. He forgot how drab reinforced concrete can seem under a grey sky. He forgot how awkward it is when someone lights a fire in the lift and home is on the fourty-fourth floor. He forgot, too, that while there is much to have about slums, one things we don’t mind about them is their street plan. We appreciate buildings which form continuous lines around us and make us feel as safe in the open air as we do in a room. There is something enervating about a landscape neither predominantly free of buildings nor tightly compacted, but littered with towers distributed without respect for edges or lines, a landscape which denies us the true pleasures of both nature and urbanisation. And because such an environment is uncomfortable, there is always a greater risk that people will respond abusively to it, that they will come to the ragged patches of earth between their towers and urinate on tyres, burn cars, inject drugs – and express all the darkest sides of their nature against which the scenery can mount no protest.

In his haste to distinguish cars from pedestrians, Le Corbusier also lost sight of the curious codependence of these two apparently antithetical forces. He forgot that without pedestrians to slow them down, cars are apt to go too fast and kill their drivers, and that without the eyes of cars on them, pedestrians can feel vulnerable and isolated. We admire New York precisely because the traffic and crowds have been coerced into a difficult but fruitful alliance.

A city laid out on apparently rational grounds, where different specialised facilities (the houses, the shopping centre, the library) are separated from one another across a vast terrain connected by motorways, deprives its inhabitants of the pleasure of incidental discoveries and presupposes that we march from place to place with a sense of unflagging purpose. But whereas we may leave the house with the ostensible object of consulting a book in a library, we may nevertheless be delighted on the way by the sight of the fishmonger laying out his startled, bug-eyed catch on sheets of ice, by workmen, hoisting patterned sofas into apartment blocks, by leaves opening their tender green palms to the spring sunshine, or by a girl with chestnut hair and glasses reading a book at the bus stop.

The addition of shops and offices adds a degree of excitement to otherwise inert, dormitory areas. Contact, even of the most casual kind, with commercial enterprises gives us a transfusion of an energy we are not always capable of producing ourselves. Waking up isolated and confused at three in the morning, we can look out of the window and draw solace from the blinking neon signs in a storefront across the road, advertising bottled beer or twenty-four-hour pizza and, in their peculiar way, evoking a comforting human presence through the paranoid early hours.

All of this, Le Corbusier forgot – as architects often will.

This is a very long pre-amble to the topic at hand: how the workspace can affect performance.

Shell's Learning Centre in Rijswijk

Shell's Learning Centre in Rijswijk

Most of my time I work in an office in Rijswijk that has been designed by David Leon. The longer I work there, the more impressed I have become by the attention to detail of its indoor design. The designers obviously have a very deep understanding of how people work nowadays and have created a work environment that enables people to get the best out of their day. How is this done?

  • The office space is open (no cubicles), but permanent storage areas and desks have been placed in such a way that privacy is ensured.
  • There are a multitude of different flexible rooms available: cockpits for one person (ideal for when you need to concentrate on getting something done), small rooms with two low chairs (great for having an informal chat), rooms with a table and a cornered bench (excellent for small brainstorms) and bigger rooms with oval meeting tables (sometimes with video calling facility). We even have rooms with wacky furniture to get the creativity going.
  • Connectivity in each room and at each desk. There are docking stations everywhere and each room has a speaker phone.
  • There is a lot of transparency: doors are made of glass and most meeting rooms are like semi-fishbowls with one or more walls completely done in glass.
  • The finishing is meticulous and natural. The orange colour is relaxing, cupboards have a wood finishing and in the heavy traffic areas (where carpeting can’t work) there are beautiful black natural stone tiles.
  • The overall layout allows small work communities (10-20 people) to form naturally. These work communities then share elevators, toilets, kitchen areas, allowing for broader networking too.

There are many similarities with the post I wrote about planning your career. Many of the things that keep you in the “Hooray!” zone on a career (macro level) are also relevant on the micro level when it comes to doing day-to-day work. Transparency, flexibility, the opportunities for networking and the use of technology are what make my office great.

People, Place, Process

People, Place, Process by David Leon

My company seems to understand this too. There is a reason why they hired David Leon, who write on their website:

Innovation depends on bright people. These people cost more and are far more valuable than the buildings they occupy… but it is a proven fact that the environment in which they work has a major impact on their effectiveness.

For that reason we design workplaces and buildings round the needs of people and the business aims of their organisations.

It is therefore stupefying that I am forced to use a locked down version of Microsoft Windows 2000 with Internet Explorer 6 as a primary workspace every single day of my working life (currently all employees are migrating to a locked down version MS Vista, this should be finished by the end of the first quarter). I think this is a big mistake and know that many people are not as productive as they could have been because of this.

I estimate that I am about 50% more productive on a laptop that is exactly configured to my specifications. The ability to use the applications that I want on the operating system that I prefer (that would be Ubuntu) would make a huge difference. It is the small details that make all the difference. I can’t use my normal keyboard shortcuts, I don’t have access to the command line to do things in batch, I don’t have a decent browser, I cannot edit images; I could go on much longer.

Many of the sites I need to look at don’t even work on IE6 anymore. The other day I browsed to from work and got the following message: IE6 message IE6 message (click to enlarge)

Embarrassing right?

So, here is my recommendation to all companies:

At all times allow your employees the freedom to use the technology they want

Yes, this means that you cannot standardise on hardware and software.

Yes, this means you have to allow access to your network from the device that your employee chooses.

Yes, this means you will have to support open standards so that people with a Mac or running Linux can access your applications.

Yes, you will need more bandwidth because you will have to allow YouTube and Facebook.

Yes, you will have extra costs because of all this.

But these extra costs will easily be offset by the extra productivity that your employees can deliver for you. In a couple of years it might actually become difficult to find employees that want to work for your company if you don’t heed to this recommendation.

Is your productivity affected by your workspace? Does your company allow you to choose your hardware? Can you install the software that you want and/or need? I look forward to any comments.

Why Isn’t There a Wealth of Business Transparency Literature?

The Naked Corporation

The Naked Corporation

In March 2007 I read an article in Wired magazine titled The See -Through CEO. It introduced me to the concept of radical transparency. Ever since then, I have seen transparency as a business value that should be able to provide significant competitive advantages in this digital world. Wired obviously thinks along similar lines. Quite recently, for example, they wrote about how transparency could have prevented and might solve some of the problems that we are encountering in our financial systems: Road Map for Financial Recovery: Radical Transparency Now!

A couple of weeks ago I decided to try and find some books that might explore these concepts further. To my surprise I couldn’t really find much. The most interesting book that I could find was The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency Will Revolutionize Business. Tapscott and Ticoll’s wrote this book in 2003. They tried to create a conceptual framework for transparency in the corporate world. In the book they build a rationale for companies to embrace transparency as the basis for a couple of new business integrity values.

To build trusting relationships and succeed in a transparent economy, growing numbers of firms in all parts of the globe now behave more responsibly than ever. Disgraced firms represent the old model – a dying breed. Business integrity is on the rise, not just for legal or purely ethical reasons but because it makes economic sense. Firms that exhibit ethical values, openness, and candor have discovered that they can better compete and profit. […] Today’s winners increasingly undress for success.


Today’s economy depends on knowledge, human intelligence, agility and relationships inside and outside the firm. The fuel is information, and the lubricant is trust. The revolution in information and communication technologies is at the heart of these changes. The Internet and other technologies enable thinking, communication, and collaboration like never before.

They define transparency as the accessibility of information to stakeholders of institutions, regarding matters that affect their interests. The book is chock full of examples of how companies can be successful by being open and transparent. It will help you attract the best employees for example, or can take inefficiencies out of the supply chain preventing overstocking. My employer, Shell, is mentioned in complimentary terms many times in this book (I didn’t realise this when I bought the book…):

Shell’s brand has always stood for reliability […] and consideration […]. Today, Shell places integrity at the center of its brand. Shell is now asking consumers to trust it not only to provide good gas but also to steward the environment and be socially responsible. It positions itself as an honest, transparent corporate citizen. Some critics allege that this is pure window dressing and that Shell’s commitment to advertising how well it behaves is greater than its commitment to behaving well. But there is no comparison between the genuine shift in thinking and behavior at Shell and the thinking at other companies such as Exxon that have just begun to make the turn.

(Look here for a slightly more neutral point of view on Shell’s corporate responsibility. Also check Shell’s values, especially the General Business Principles are an inspiring read.)

The book could have used some heavy editing (honestly: typos??), but still the authors manage to build a convincing case for more transparency and integrity in the corporate world. In short form: a firm should always try to do the decent thing. Doing the decent thing is not always easy and means you have to weigh options and make choices. Only by being clear about why certain choices are made can a company win the trust of all stakeholders: employees, business partners, customers, communities and shareholders/owners.

So back to the title of this post: Why Isn’t There a Wealth of Business Transparency Literature? I think this thinking is still ahead of the curve. Tapscott seems to have a talent for catching on very early (he wrote The Digital Economy in 1996, Growing Up Digital in 1998 and Who Knows: Safeguarding Your Privacy in a Networked World in 1996). When will we get a clear discourse on this topic? I predict it won’t take much longer: expect to hear more!

I would be very happy with any good reading tips on this topic in the comments.

Some transparency from my side: If you click the link to the book you will be taken to The Book Depository. If you then decide to buy something there, I will receive a 5% commission through their affiliate programme.

The Book Depository is a great online book store that has free shipping worldwide and a giant selection (bigger than Amazon as it will allow you to buy Amazon’s collection through its site). Try it…

Planning Your Career or The Boundary Between Your Private and Professional Life

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process.
For this post we agreed to write an essay of no more than 500 words.
You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

I am convinced that large multinational corporations are relics of a bygone era. And yes, I am happily working for one.

Advances in technology have made it incredibly easy to organise people into productive working groups on short notice. Large corporations owe their existence to the fact that they were the most efficient way to organise big groups of people and allowing them to facilitate complex processes. Nowadays the overhead that these organisations demand are not defensible anymore. Many of the functions inside these businesses will be done by much smaller organisations which “automagically” spring into existence wherever there is demand. The organisation itself will slim down to its core competencies.

This imminent change will have effects on the labour market and how people will plan their careers. It will allow for many more people to be an entrepreneur: being hired for their expertise and working in ever changing groups on a diverse set of knowledge intensive projects. For these people the distinction between their professional life and their private life will increasingly blur. Some work will be done for a wage, other work for a fee, some will done as charity and finally some will be done to study.

Increasingly I see this happening in my own personal career. I am a blended learning adviser at Shell (wage), occasionally I am hired by other organisations to consult around educational technology (fee), I spend a fair amount of time supporting people in their use of Moodle and in helping to make it better (charity) and do a lot of very conscious reading (and writing) to learn more about the things I am interested in, increasing my value on the job market (study). These things aren’t done between nine and five only and continuously change in their prominence.

A couple of weeks ago I encountered Bud Caddell’s wonderful Venn diagram (via Lifehacker):

How to be happy in business

How to be happy in business

It succinctly shows what is important in life: finding a way of getting paid for what you are good at and want to do. The model provides heuristics for whenever one of the three elements is missing (e.g. “Learn to say ‘No'”). So how do you make sure that you will stay in the “Hooray!” zone during the majority of your career?

I think you have to do the following:

  • Be 100% transparent. Only if you let people know what it is that you do will you build the trust necessary for them to engage with you.
  • Work on enlarging your network. Because, increasingly, this is where your knowledge will reside.
  • Try to always give more than you get.
  • Invest in your education. The investment should be in time, not in university fees.
  • Make career choices that increase your opportunities and give you more flexibility.
  • Only be loyal to companies that give you a challenging environment in which you can develop yourself.
  • And finally, in all of the above, make proper use of technology.

If you heed to this advice the “Hooray!” should come naturally.