Musings on Knowledge Work and Place
by James Ware
Follow James on Twitter @thefutureofwork
I don’t need a workplace; I need workplaces
Of course, I can only be in one place at a time. But sometimes I need to be in one place, and sometimes in another.
Like most readers of this blog I am a knowledge worker. I use my head to create value. Sure, I use my hands too, but mostly just to hit little square pieces of plastic in a particular sequence that produces images of text on a plasma screen. Sometimes I hold a pen and spread ribbons of ink on paper as another way to create and communicate my ideas. But however I record my ideas, it’s what goes on in my head that matters.
But here’s what’s bugging me: I use my head in a lot of different ways, and I’ve begun to realize that where my head is physically (and where it’s been) has a lot to do with how well that head produces what I want it to.
Sometimes I need to explore, to think, to create new ideas. Other times I need to express an existing idea, to produce an article or complete a report. Still other times I am searching for new information, often via the web, but sometimes in a book or magazine.
And everything I’ve mentioned so far is essentially individual work. When I’m interacting directly with others in a phone call, a face-to-face meeting, or a working session, I’m using not just my head but my eyes, ears, and mouth (and sometimes my nose) as well. That’s how I translate what goes on in my head into meaningful words (and body language) that make sense (sometimes, anyway) to other folks, and sometimes actually contributes to group creativity and innovation.
I’m not sure that any of us really understands or appreciates the impact that our physical surroundings have on either the quality or the quantity of the stuff that happens between our ears.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because not too long ago I had the good fortune to spend almost three weeks in northern Italy accompanying my wife and a group of her fellow artists who were exploring the history, the art, and the architecture of that very special area, and doing a marvelous job of capturing many of the incredible buildings, natural vistas, and people on paper and canvas.
The group was gracious enough to let me tag along, so I too got immersed in ancient churches, museums, 11th-century walled villages, monasteries, and wonderful country walking paths. The fresh air and light breezes during the day and the hearty food and rich conversations every evening (helped along in no small part by some of the best, inexpensive red wine on the planet) refreshed my spirit in ways that I hadn’t really anticipated.
During that trip I experienced a personal renaissance of thought and energy that mirrors in a very small way the grand cultural Renaissance that took place in the hills of Italy some 500 years ago. Surely the sun, the hills, and even the monks and barons of that far-away time had something to do with the burst of creativity that brought Western Europe out of the Dark Ages.
My experience of getting away from “the office” and the simple space inside the four walls where I normally do all that head work awakened me to how profoundly my surroundings affect the way I think, what I think about, and what I am capable of dragging out of that wet space between my ears.
Yet I, like most “knowledge workers” spend almost all my work time in a fairly traditional office environment – four walls, a desk, some filing cabinets, and shelves full of books. Sure, there might be a family photo or two on the wall, and maybe a picture drawn by a child, but the fact is that no matter what I am trying to accomplish on a given day, the place where I work is almost always the same.
What if I had lots of places to choose among, and could move from one to another as I moved from one task to another? My instinct tells me I’d be a lot more creative in some kinds of places (rooms filled with art work, or with outdoor photos, or with other people engaged in animated conversation), more analytic in others (a library, or a bare-bones office), and thoughtful and reflective in yet another place (a church? a mountain retreat? a sailboat?).
Now, to bring this back to the way we think about workspaces, I’ve also recently had an opportunity to visit several innovative corporate office facilities, some of them one-company endeavors and others multi-company shared “third places,” or what most people now call “co-working” operations.
One place in particular was exceptionally impressive – open workspaces with low or no dividers, light and bright colors, lots of windows and natural light. I can’t help but think I’d be creative and energized if I worked there regularly. The folks who are fortunate enough to have access to that place seemed highly engaged with their work and their colleagues.
But the deeper lesson for me was the incredible variety of spaces and places within that one facility. There were several different “zones” with different workstation layouts (some were traditional 8×8’s, some used the increasingly popular 120-degree workstations), but there were also several enclosed “personal harbors” for two- or three-person meetings, private heads-down work, and phone conversations.
There was also a “kitchen” and a café area with informal lounge furniture groupings; an outdoor patio area; and several more traditional conference rooms of varying sizes and designs.
How effective is that kind of workplace? In this case, it’s a pilot project that’s only been open for a few months, so the jury is still out. But the early reports are that the folks who “inhabit” the facility are highly satisfied, and their managers are too. It’s hard to ask for more.
I think you get my point. When there are so many different kinds of knowledge work, why do we so often try to do it all in one kind of place? How much creativity and innovation have we lost forever by plopping people who do different kinds of work from day to day and even hour to hour into those all-too-common, drab, one-size-misfits-all, cube farms?