Learning from the Worst Workplaces Ever

Sometimes the worst workplaces can inspire the best design solutions. Marie Puybaraud, JLL‘s global head of research, shares her experience.

Photo by Michael Vahrenwald for The New York Times.

At one time or another in our professional lives, we have all found ourselves in a work environment that was so uninspiring that it taught us something. That corner office that was in such a poor state that you felt the uncontrollable urge to rearrange immediately, shifting around filing cabinets and desks to create some sense of community. It can actually be a fabulous and enriching exercise to learn from the bad.

Several examples come to mind:

  • Picture an underground R&D lab with no direct light where only the white board (a real innovation at the time) sparks with bright ideas. Introvert researchers emerge only occasionally in front of this shiny white surface to share their latest ideas, which remained on the board for weeks. The space was terrible, but sustained focus on that one spot in the space yielded lots of inspiration.
  • Imagine a suburban office filled with cherished archives and redundant dark furniture that blocks everyone’s line of sight and creates territories that will eventually have to come down to make more room. The fix? A team-building exercise that suddenly broke down visual barriers and created more cohesion among the teams, thus transforming territoriality into a therapeutic exercise on the value of shared space. Breaking down those visual barriers led to more open collaboration.
  • What about the media environment where creativity is at the core of the business’ success and failure to perform means the end of your career? The “open bar” budgetary approach of some departments creates major disruptions (and nightmares for the facilities manager), but it also empowers teams to create their own cocoons of inspiration, which in turn boosts performance and creativity because they can claim a space as their own. An open fit out budget lead to more freedom of expression.

There are some important lessons learned from the above examples:

  • Rigid work environments do not always support high levels of creativity
    Clinical environments impose discipline on your teams, which is not compatible with creativity. Always allow for some flexibility in your design.
  • Too much control over the environment restrains freedom of thinking
    Low-tech environments are often the best productive spaces – even in 2015. You should always have at least one available on demand.
  • Inspiration often comes down to a single element or product in your environment
    Resist the urge to change it, even if it looks appalling. Your employees may love it.

The issue lies between offering a working environment that is focused on performance and productivity without stifling creativity.

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

How can this balance, illustrated in the table above, be embraced and achieved in any workplace design? Here are three places to start:

  • User engagement
    Users must be involved at an early stage because they will be the ones spending the most time in the space. This allows for a maximum level of flexibility in the design so you can embrace disruptive ways of working.
  • Allow for flexibility
    Freedom is at the core of the success of a team: freedom of movements, thoughts, ideas and creativity.
  • People-centric design
    People and workplace are the foundations of success and need to be in harmony.

By considering these three aspects, you’ll be able to create a workplace that supports performance and productivity without killing a creativity.

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