Innovative, high-performing companies are dispatching with corner offices and cubicles in favor of open floor plans and “doodling spaces.” Doodling spaces?
“Yes, doodling,” Young S. Lee, Allied ASID, Ph.D., an assistant professor of interior design at Michigan State University, confirms. “It’s basically where people brainstorm or generate ideas.”
Lee is talking about her research at MSU’s School of Planning, Design & Construction, where she studies innovative workplace design and weighs the impact of interior work environments on human psychology and behavior.
Last year, she conducted a literature review and surveyed owners and CEOs of highly innovative Michigan companies asking what environmental features were most important for them to be successful. Her findings, part of a study with the Arts and Creative Workplace Project at the university’s Center for Community and Economic Development (CCED), identified Seven Creative Workplace Measures, design attributes that promote creativity, inventiveness and high performance among employees. Key indicators included disengage spaces, technology interfaces for collaboration, and doodling spaces.
Turns out, giving knowledge workers options and flexibility, making alternative work spaces available so that employees aren’t tethered to their desks all day, encourages creativity and productivity.
“If you hear about Google and AOL, there are places people can hang out and have a break, whether it’s the cafeteria or game room or break room — places where people can have a short mental break, so they don’t get burnt out and can recharge,” says Lee. “These are the places innovative companies in Michigan said work for them, too.”
Buoyed by her initial outcomes, Lee is pursuing more comprehensive knowledge about workplace design with support from the ASID Foundation. The recently announced 2014 Transform grants for applied study in interior design and human behavior were awarded to researchers at Michigan State University and Cornell University.
Applicants were asked to quantify the effects of design practices on employee retention, engagement and productivity. The findings will enable the design industry to improve workplace design and demonstrate its return on investment.
Technology firms have a reputation for designing next-generation products in offices-cum-playgrounds — workplaces that promote serendipitous interactions, free thinking, increased health and well-being and fun. But such anecdotes are of little use when scientific rigor is required.
As Lee’s grant proposal states, “outcomes attributed to design innovations at tech firms are often industry and individual organization specific, and provide little guidance to the interior design profession. Thus, it is challenging to define general workplace design principles/frameworks that are built upon identified key performance indicators to enhance and evaluate employee performance in a knowledge workplace.”
The MSU project addresses this gap in research. The goal is to establish a benchmark and evaluation tool for businesses, organizations and interior designers, policymakers and developers, as well, to help them envision and design high-performance workplaces that suit their particular needs and promote economic competitiveness.
The new online tool will draw on existing research: Lee’s Seven Creative Workplace Measures; Eight Indoor Environmental Quality Criteria (IEQ) for Performance, Health and Well-being (PHW), another framework Lee developed in 2012 that evaluates indoor environmental quality (these indicators include acoustics, furniture ergonomics, visual and thermal comfort, and indoor air); and measures used in CCED studies to assess high performance of innovative companies.
Lee is collaborating with Rex LaMore, Ph.D., who directs Michigan State’s CCED, and Tracy Brower of Herman Miller, who is donating time to the project. Brower specializes in the sociology of work — how people affect the work environment and how it affects them — and for the study will focus on connecting with companies and refining the tool to meet industry needs. LaMore, who has more than 35 years of community and economic development experience, is concentrating on how the tool can benefit entrepreneurs and ways to utilize the information in terms of regional economic development.
The team is determined to advance the practice of evidence-based design and demonstrate how the findings can contribute to the growth of local economies in the United States and around the world.
Globally, companies are trying to navigate their way out of the economic downturn with a sustainable business plan — budgets are tight, spending is conservative. Given this, how does Lee expect to convince knowledge workplaces that design should be a priority, that a doodling space will positively affect their bottom line?
“Without actually spending money to provide an environment where individual employees and teams can be creative and innovative, they will have a hard time sustaining their market competitiveness for the future,” says Lee. “In order to survive and grow, this is something they have to implement.”