A Place of Purpose: How Workplace Design Helps Workers Find Meaning

Susan S. Szenasy talks with a panel of experts who specialize in workplace strategy, architecture, innovation-leading communications, and pharmaceuticals.

workplace meaning design
Gensler Philadelphia, Reception. ©Halkin Mason.

For the past three years, Metropolis’s director of design innovation, Susan S. Szenasy, has been leading a series of discussions with industry leaders on important issues surrounding human-centered design. At the coworking space MakeOffices in Philadelphia, she spoke with a panel of experts who specialize in workplace strategy, architecture, innovation-leading communications, and pharmaceuticals. They discussed interconnectivity in workplace culture and values, as well as broader questions of how design can provide employees with enriching, fulfilling and productive experiences. The conversation is presented in partnership with Corian Design, DXV/GROHE, KI, Sunbrella, and Teknion. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation, prepared by M. Nacamulli.

Susan S. Szenasy, director of design innovation, Metropolis (SSS): I hear from scientists about the importance of their jobs and how they’re motivated to get to the next level of collaboration and research.

Ray Milora, head of design and change management, GSK (RM): The notion of the lone scientist in the lab doesn’t exist anymore. Science is extremely collaborative. It’s about the sharing of ideas, equipment, and ways of working. Labs used to just be places where scientists would go to work. We’re transitioning labs to be another tool for innovation by applying principles of open planning to the spaces.

The four floors called SMART Lab represent a 50 percent reduction in space for the scientists, and a 65 percent net reduction in equipment—yet we’re starting to see increases in the lab’s output. In return, the scientists are getting labs unlike those that anyone else is building right now, and the satisfaction level is over 80 percent.

SSS: Those reductions used to make employees unhappy, until the discovery of the need for human interaction and collaboration. Is there a philosophical background to that at GSK?

RM: We don’t look at any of this as space reduction. The labs will support research and development objectives by bolstering innovative science and providing an energizing culture. All of this was implemented via a comprehensive change-management process that engaged our scientists in a hands-on manner.

SSS: Kat, how does nonprofit thinking filter into the work at your organization?

Katherina Rosqueta, founding executive director, Center for High Impact Philanthropy, University of Pennsylvania (KR): The Center for High Impact Philanthropy is the only university-based center in the world that is focused on philanthropy for social impact, or the use of philanthropy to improve the lives of others. We are on the very applied end of what you would expect to find at a university. My team cares about whether or not the knowledge and education we provide are helping real people solve real problems around the world. That mission has attracted different people than you might normally fi nd in a university; it has also meant that we have struggled with some of the limitations of a traditional university setting.

SSS: Amanda, what have you understood about nonprofits that is easily translated to the larger area of workplace design?

Amanda Ramos, principal, innovation director, and firmwide not-for-profit practice area leader, Gensler (AR): While we have been working for not-for-profits for a long time, about three years ago a group of us came together and decided to be more intentional about it. We believe that our greatest innovations can come out of this work.

We’ve been researching what makes this group different. How are they wired? What’s their DNA? The motivation of someone who works in this sector is typically more about the mission than about compensation. Yet within the not-for-profit sector, turnover is higher than in any other area. If people love this work and will do it no matter what, why are they moving around? There are things design can do to the everyday environment that can bring people back to the bigger “why.” Space can build relationships to create a sense of a community and strength.

workplace meaning design
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Open Plan Work Area. © Halkin Mason.

SSS: Emily, you’re creating ways of working with individuals and small groups, integrating skills. Tell us about the concierge system at MakeOffices.

Emily McVeigh, director of interior design, MakeOffices (EM): As our community managers, the concierges are the constant between every person who sits here. At this particular space, we have 150 private offices, potentially for 150 different companies. We’re realizing the importance of the community managers and their role in connecting the members. It goes beyond the built space—they can create a dynamic synergy among members.

SSS: You can be on your own forever in this space, but you probably have skills to share. Is there a plan to bring individuals with different skills together?

EM: You’re not in a fishbowl where you feel like everything is happening around you and you’re missing out. It’s here if you want it. We’re trying to capitalize and expand on opportunities. Depending on your interactions, you can choose your own adventure. And thanks to the community managers’ feedback, we’re understanding how frequently and in what ways people are using the space.

SSS: In Philadelphia, the culture of community and diversity seems to be endemic. What are you learning from being here?

RM: Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, so people get that. We modeled our building in line with that concept, so there are no walls, no cubes, and no offices. We have also made sure we colocated strategic capabilities so that the right people are talking to each other.

SSS: And how does the university understand this need for interconnectivity?

KR: Because of the legacy of Ben Franklin, the founder of the University of Pennsylvania, there has always been a drive for knowledge and real-world action. We have the raw ingredients for collaboration that other places can’t achieve because they lack the diversity of perspectives and assets. There are trends in how UPenn has tried to activate that collaboration, specifically in regard to space. Sometimes the first step is just awareness. For example, the School of Social Policy and Practice initially had its back to Locust Walk, the main artery of the university. Recognizing that it belongs to this broader community, the entrance was changed, and now a more diverse group gathers outside. People are starting to realize the need to unlock the potential for collaboration.

workplace meaning design
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Pantry and Dining. © Halkin Mason.

SSS: It’s important to remember that a minor change can push us forward. Amanda, how can this connectivity be strengthened at all levels?

AR: We are looking at a few things concerning that bigger connection question. The firm has dedicated resources to understanding, researching, and developing new practices to create more inclusive design.

We just did a workshop focusing on women and advocacy work at a cowork space called the Centre for Social Innovation where we investigated how design can make a difference. We’re clustering ourselves based not on traditional design disciplines, but more on those of advocacy.

SSS: As a design firm, you’re trying to understand the needs of humanity. Ray, how are you looking at inclusive design at GSK?

RM: Inclusivity is the cornerstone of our design. We have a lot of different options to suit the workday of our employees—quiet rooms, soft seating, sit-stand desks. We have people with different physical challenges who work in and outside of the lab without problems. Transparency, diversity, and inclusivity are in the DNA of GSK.

SSS: Just a few years ago, the ergonomic bubble was my chair and its relationship to the computer and the keyboard so I could work for eight hours a day. Now you have free-range, ergonomically smart offices.

AR: Sometimes only 20 percent of the office is dedicated to individual workspace, which can be quite functional and comfortable. It’s about a kind of social engineering as well as leadership— especially in a not-for-profit community where you should practice what you preach.

SSS: How can we think about creating a culture of connection instead of division?

RM: We have a strong culture in GSK; you can either add to it or detract from it. We try to understand the individual, and then understand the levers to enhance how to build on the team connections that already exist.

KR: It’s a human instinct to seek connection. It’s less about how we foster connection and more about how we get rid of what’s preventing it.

AR: As soon as everyone realizes that they can’t solve a problem alone, barriers come down. In the for-profit space, companies are moving in with competitors to solve problems. We’re creating neutral ground that space can help moderate.

RM: It’s getting more challenging as leadership has changed in the building. Without a leader present, there’s less reason to come in, no matter how cool the space is. The shadow of the leader can be a powerful energizer. We’re seeing some occupancy challenges on occasion around that. These spaces are built to drive connectivity, but we need to also amp up the leadership side of it.

workplace meaning design
Szenasy (left) poses a question to the panel at Gensler Philadelphia offices.

Audience member: How much flexibility is built into the initial design?

EM: Our ultimate goal is to give members what they need and will use. It’s a living lab. Being more open-ended allows for the community to build itself. There are a lot of projects that we want to do without many resources, and we’re trying to find the little things to hack the space.

SSS: Explain the ancillary use of “hacking.”

AR: Hacking a space is part of change management. Our role as designers is becoming less about control and more about creating platforms for people.

KR: Part of treating spaces like a living lab and understanding the roles people play is recognizing leaders’ capacity to allow their spaces to be hackable—to not be so top-down.

Audience member: What can the design profession do to promote the idea that design for social impact should be part of every project?

AR: People with strong beliefs feel compelled to make a difference in whatever it is that they do. We are large organizations with an enormous footprint of work. If we’re not taking advantage of that and doing better for the world in whatever way we can, we are not being responsible.

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