Offices Should Have “Authentic Centers,” Says STUDIOS’ Tom Krizmanic

What if workplaces were designed for thinking men and women?

When I asked Tom Krizmanic, principal at STUDIOS Architecture in New York and a juror for the Metropolis/Business Interiors by Staples design competition, about the Future of Work, he launched into a preamble before he got to my questions. Here he tells a brief story of the evolving knowledge worker, his own approach to designing workplaces today, and his thoughts about the future of work.

“For me the future of work is not where I am, it’s what I’m thinking. And if it’s something I’m thinking, then how efficiently and effectively can I get it out of my brain and into everyone else’s brain.

“Work for me is about ideas. Of course, there is other work I have to do, like respond to emails, write proposals, proofread drawings, attend meetings, etc., but when I’m really achieving something I am moving ideas around in my head, and frequently I’m not even at my place of work when this is happening! I’m alone on the subway, in a cab, the elevator, eating lunch, reading the Times on my phone (my mind wanders)—really, anywhere. 

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“What I need the office for is to communicate the ideas, massage them with the group, get input, and then make a collective plan for action. The workplace is a stage for this theater of work, like the theater of war! It must have all the sets for the variety of scenes to be performed—the monologues/solos, the one-on-one dialogue/duets, and the cast ensembles. On this stage there is no rehearsal (or the whole thing is a rehearsal?) and just a notion of a script and the knowing that at the end—there had better be a standing ovation!” Here he gets into the particulars about the evolving workplace and how the new generation is about to change it all over again.

Susan S. Szenasy: STUDIOS Architecture, your firm and you, yourself Tom, have a solid track record of creating some of our most iconic workplaces, like Bloomberg and Grey Advertising, both NYC headquarters. When you think back to these major installations, talk about how these offices began to redefine our current thinking about work. Please be specific.

Tom Krizmanic: The leaders of organizations today are asking for workplaces to house their companies—media, financial, technology, law, creative, etc.—that can differentiate them from their competition, can attract the people (employees) who work and think the way that’s valued by the organization, and can be/feel authentic to the current culture or even help create the desired culture.

Part of creating culture is creating an experience that people can feel when they see it. The headquarters projects you mention were about understanding the importance of space as an experience and understanding the desired outcomes of what the constituencies (employees—current and potential, visitors—clients and business partners) should feel. This is really taking work beyond just the business of the business—and making it about organizations connecting to people as people.

A workplace today and in the future is not about placing job descriptions in seats in the most functional way possible. It’s about creating a spirited place that embodies an organization’s culture with also the right amount of adaptability and flexibility. Design styles may change, but spaces that are created with an authentic center should always feel true to the people that inhabit them.

Today our design work is about making spaces that support creative thinking and problem solving. Most jobs are not about processing or item producing—they are about engaging a person/team and moving the idea forward, and by the way, moving it fast! Workspaces should stimulate and engage the mind and enhance the social behaviors that make great ideas and collaboration possible.

SSS: Were there any design decisions made on these two big installations [Bloomberg and Gray] that now, how many years later, feel old fashioned? Be honest and give particulars.

TK: For individual work areas, those projects used a panel-less bench style desk system and for similar reasons, to bring the maximum number of people together in a visually open and stimulating environment and provide an appropriate degree of flexibility with the minimum number of parts. The idea of an individual’s desk place was really a less-is-more approach, while the vibrancy of the experience of the entire space made it feel special. Today what you see (in the magazines and even sometimes in our office) is that a bench desk solution is the norm for planning; and since we designed these 10 years ago, it certainly feels old fashioned to us. It really must evolve into a more adaptable/customizable individual work setting.

The idea of almost total transparency is getting old, if not old fashioned. What can get lost in total transparency is the idea of surprise and spatial evolution. Transparency is a tool that in the wrong hands loses its effect and definitely its appeal.

One thing in spaces that can also feel old fashioned quickly is technology hardware. What is one year’s “state of the art” and “not even on the market yet” can look dated even two years later. It is best to figure out how to celebrate the content of the technology and let the technology device itself be as “quiet” as possible, and anticipate future hardware upgrades.

SSS: On your current projects, what stands out as the most innovative design move you are making today, and why?

TK: In our studio during project team conversations we talk about the true mobility that technology allows and therefore about body movement and position in the workplace. Furniture, especially seating, that looks awesome but does not function with the body in a variety of ways just does not work. I think a few years from now the sit-stand desk with the ability for the user to adjust at their pleasure will be the norm. Designers like making order and straight lines out of things, but when workplace users are in control (are the desks up or down?), the order drifts away. Embracing a certain amount of disorder and planned evolution (devolution?) feels like the most different move from the last decade. And we are making spaces functionally adaptable so that a variety of work styles and functions can be supported. Who knows how they will be used next year?

We also talk about what spaces would make us happy and will bring us joy. I mean, let’s have a little smile once in a while in the workplace. Let’s do something clever, but not kitsch! No slides, please. Although, we are doing a swing —that may be a first in the workplace! But again it’s about body movement and providing a different setting to break the body position during the day.

SSS: The last time I visited your office in New York, I noticed how youthful your staff is today. What are these young people bringing to the discourse of how a creative firm works now? And based on how they want to work, what changes might be coming?

TK: Well the perception of youth is only from where you stand. STUDIOS has always had a great energy that comes from the youth of the folks that work with us (I was once one, too!). But my experience was one of sequential learning of all the ways that things should be done and why. Today my perception is that the current young generation is exposed to so much visual “collection” of information that they are willing to start solving problems from any angle without beginning at the actual or perceived norms.

This new generation in our office and in the new workplace is ready to jump into the future—today. I find in our office that ideas are not just about moving concepts from the past through an iterative process—there is a willingness to start at the future and work forward from there. And, in a way, this is the generation whose attention organizational leaders are trying to get with the workplaces we are designing. I like to say that a project on the boards in our office today will be built in 2014, and with a 10 year lease, the last year of that lease the college graduates they hire that year will have been born in 2002—so we are designing today for the iPhone generation or whatever they will be called.

SSS: Is there a piece of furniture or equipment that only a few years ago seemed to represent advanced design thinking, and now feels hopelessly old fashioned?  

TK: I can’t remember when I first saw it, maybe more than a couple of years, but if I ever again see a mobile storage pedestal with a cushion on it that is supposed to double as a seat… argh. Perhaps the current rise of email-exclusive communication came from the choice to not go talk to someone if the only place to sit was that dopey pedestal.

Also, customized videoconference rooms with extreme technical set-ups seem old-fashioned. Now either our standards are lower (might be—thanks Skype!) or the technology is better and simpler and fairly any room can work well enough for a decent videoconference.

What I would really like to see are more technology-embedded smart spaces that can collate and communicate socially conscious information. For example, how much energy is that room using? How much weight in trash was thrown away? How’s the air quality, maybe even record the ideas/conversations happening in that space? Use the technology to inform and change behavior and enhance the places we work.

Read more posts about the Workplace of the Future: Q&A: Jan Johnson on the Workplace of the FutureQ&A: Lyndon Thomas, Facilities PlannerQ&A: Alison KwiatkowskiQ&A: Paul Darrah

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