Accept it. Embrace it. Mold it. Space is your friend.
This is the doctrine of Space, a forward-thinking workplace design firm that exists somewhere in the international ether. A true embodiment of its own guiding principles, Space outsmarted the traditional limitations of location and distance by launching three national headquarters (Chicago, New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area) simultaneously four years ago. Since then, the versatile innovators have opened four additional offices in an effort to accommodate corporations looking to maintain a universal brand across oceans and cultures.
The Space matrix – the company’s four interlocking departments including Systems Consulting, Research, Facility Management, and Design and Development – today serves more than 30 clients including Amazon.com, Leo Burnett, Charles Schwab, and Price Waterhouse. Each company, each project, each set of expectations is a unique experience for Space, says Founder and President Jean Bellas. In this Fast Company interview, Bellas discusses the evolution of workplace design and development, the importance of synergy, and the strategies Space uses to gather and synthesize employee input.
How have you seen priorities in workplace design shift during the last 25 years? And how do those shifts define the way you operate Space?
My shift in business had very much to do with my internal need for attracting and retaining staff. Space is all about creating an organization where people can really belong, agree with the philosophy, understand the work, and have the challenges in front of them that they can really strive to achieve. To explain the work itself, in response to the issues of the workplace, I’m going to have to take you through a little bit of historic thinking about space.
Go back to the ’70s for a moment. When corporations were building buildings in the ’70s, there was a view toward the long-term. They were putting up a building that was going to last forever. This was going to be a headquarters because business was basically run out of one central location, and the major emphasis was not on the interior of the space. It was on the building of the building. Trends were consistent up until about mid ’85, when we saw the first major influences of technology in the workplace. The portability of bringing a computer to the desk started encouraging some real significant re-thinking of what was going on in terms of interior environments. Buildings hadn’t been designed to accommodate personal technology. And in this first grappling with technology, there was money starting to be spent on infrastructure. How do you get the cabling to the desk? How do you get enough power to the desks? Up to that time, it was rather ad hoc. You’ll see old pictures of the terminal, PCs on desks, oceans of cabling and uncontrolled spaces, very little regard for the interface between people and equipment.
Then, as the equipment started to mount, even more complicated things started to happen, in that the environment around the people started to become less supportive of the work they were doing. The lighting was awful with glare problems. There was no air around people, and the equipment was generating heat. At the same time, companies were starting to pull people together in more collaborative, more interactive ways of working. So there are these workplace dynamics coming to play. The accumulation of information is also allowing decisions to be made a lot faster, and the decision making process is reinforcing organizational change at a much higher rate
Now we start introducing things like networks. Companies move very quickly away from being a single-location organization or a decentralized organization. Before, they couldn’t manage information in multiple locations, so they set up a series of leaders in various offices. Then, when you start to network information, all of a sudden you can start to rethink centralization, and reinforce consistency and standardize the company. Now, not only do you have dramatic changes going on in organizations at a single geography, you start to multiply it and have it going on at a global level. You also start to think about space as a tool of a business. Space becomes a fact of life. How you use that space, what it looks like, is a variable.
How have startup Internet companies accelerated the decision-making processes even more?
Internet organizations prove a point, but it’s not something that is absent from any other organization. Companies, for so many years, have been managing space as if change is a negative because the facilities were designed in a way that made it costly to allow change in a conventional and traditional sense. If you can accept the challenge, you get rid of that whole stigma of change being bad, and you begin to support the fact that ongoing and continuous change is the best thing that you could reinforce in your company. You set up the physical systems to allow that. You wipe out the expense stream because you do the planning to be able to accommodate that goal. With an Internet company, they go into the world saying, “Alright, we know we’re changing. The issue of counting bodies and worrying about whom is going to sit where doesn’t matter anymore. It’s an obsolete issue.”
We help the company anticipate what they are not able to see. That’s our job, to help anticipate and envision where they’re going as a growth organization, and then what are the set of tools that they’re going to require.
Is it challenging to make these decisions in real time as the spaces and employees continue to grow?
Yes. They’re growing. They’re changing. They are going through maturity. And this is the dilemma of “old world” versus “new world” in facilities. The future is recognizing that the workplace is made up of an incredible amount of diversity, and that you are not going to be able to keep all people happy with the same set of decisions. There isn’t the need to have a sameness in this world. People are no longer saying, “If I get a private office I will have arrived.” They are saying, ” If I don’t get an exciting assignment I’m going to be bored and then I’ll need something else to do.” It’s a shift in emphasis, and a lot of our work now concentrates on those synergies — what spirit can you build into space that ties back to the culture of that company? That’s always been the designer’s role, but you couldn’t quite celebrate it at a business level like you can now.
At the same time that sameness is not important, isn’t there a growing need for a universal look and feel, an image and a brand that can be recognized and expanded upon?
You want to use the facilities to signal who you are as a business and then send that message out to customers, send the message out to employees. Smart companies are recognizing it’s an asset, so why not use it to the maximum.
There were always smart companies using facilities to create image, to create identity. The most critical piece is a willingness to embrace change. A facility has got to be designed so that you can pick it up and move it around – or move your people around with zero cost, because that’s changed how we put in building infrastructure. It’s changed your attitude about where people are going to be located, what their space allocations are going to be, what the building infrastructure is going to be, changes and attitudes about meeting spaces, interaction.
When designing and engineering a space for a company, how do you take the employees’ comments and input into account?
We actually design that process unique to the business. A design doesn’t just happen, because first you must understand the characteristics and the way of doing business in the organization of that company. As a primary objective, you must get the senior leadership of the business grounded in where the organization is going, what their business objectives are. “If we don’t behave in this way we will lose market share, so we have to move with speed.” “We have to move with incredible quality.” “We have to move with great innovation.”
Then you speak with the leadership team, the people who are working and driving through the messages into the rest of the teams. You must understand what they need, because you’re going to get a very different set of pragmatic responses there. After that, we’ll go into the general employee team. We do that either in focus groups or we do that wandering through space and do one-on-ones and working with people in their space, and have them take us through how they’re working. When you go through the work process and they extract themselves from the workspace, then you can come back and talk about the space as a tool to that work process. You start to see where there is synopsis.
I’m interested in hearing about your work with Amazon.com, which is a quickly growing company that must operate at 110 percent without any glitches.
They didn’t know their size. They didn’t know their growth rates. They didn’t know where they wanted to be located in Seattle. So we began representing Amazon with a real estate brokerage team that was analyzing building options. They had previously been scattered in multiple leased spaces in the City of Seattle. We found a central building that was an old hospital. It’s on the top of a hill. It’s very beautiful and rather grand. It wasn’t grand at the time, it was an old abandoned hospital. But it’s a beautiful pink stucco building and Amazon wanted to reclaim the glory of this 1930s structure. Amazon had, as a standard, wanted to put everybody in private offices. So the nature of this building worked very well with its series of rooms down a corridor.
The project process was highly collaborative. Amazon is a very lean organization, and so the department directors – everybody who was actually running the business would be involved in giving their input with nominal interface of other facility real estate teams. And the result of the project, it created – as a result, they’ve actually created an infrastructure and now have a rather sophisticated real estate facility management group.
Space also works with more mature and traditional companies that are beginning to explore a bit.
Yes, Lucent is another technology business that’s busting all over the and destroying all of the paradigms of being a major organization that’s growing at an incredibly rapid rate. We’ve worked with Lucent over the last three years in transforming Bell Labs from being a research organization into a product development company. It’s big and it moves fast, so it learns from a lot of people out there. It’s acquiring all of these smaller companies very rapidly and keeping their best practices and building into its business. It wants to do good for its people. Lucent has the ability to make decisions in terms of their real estate and their build-out that has a longer life to it. It’s just more mature.
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