Browse Tag by design

The Power of the Architect – Part 2

Learning the lessons

In my last post I shared some insights on how architects can have a serious impact on our development and how we can make parallels in how we design our learning environments. Here I’m going to continue the comparison and discover how innovative and creative design can have a positive effect.

In the previous post we discovered how workspaces in the UK have been designed to amaze, delight and wow from the outside but there has been little thought about the people and what effect poor design has on their development and productivity.

The host of the programme, Tom Dyckhoff highlighted “we in this country don’t understand how broken our work culture is… it’s only by going into other cultures, other countries, other places where there’s much more emphasis on the individual work there and what they want…we’ve got to see other examples and by doing that we open up all our eyes to what is possible”.

This is very true.

So let’s return to the programme ‘The Secret Life of Buildings – how we work’. We reflected on three particular buildings in the UK and how although they were iconic designs from the outside, they had little going for the people on the inside. Bearing in mind it’s possible to learn from how others do things, the programme looked to Europe and in particularly BMW in Leipzig, Germany where the design of the building brought production line workers and managers together. The unusual conveyor belt design which allowed the car bodies to travel above office workers’ heads and throughout the rest of the building reminded and reassured employees of their vital roles in the production process.

But it was the Dutch insurance company Interpolis in Holland that was the most enlightening example of not only efficient but effective design. It bred a feeling of purpose, of value. Interpolis is a flexible workspace where the building was designed for the people by the people. That is, they were involved in the design process and actively participated in discussions around the use of flexible workspaces. The people were made responsible for what they were doing and there was a high level of trust within the organisation.

The building was designed so that there were various unique work spaces. Each was different and designed for different purposes. There was a club house which contained ten uniquely different areas. Meeting spaces blurred into social spaces. There were no institutionalised rows of desks in soulless offices. The idea was based on the fact that only one third of their work time is done at a private desk so they looked to find out what was being done the during the remaining two-thirds of the time.

When asked how do people know where to go when they got to work, Erik Vedhoen, the architect, of the Interpolis building said “your day starts with asking yourself ‘what am I going to do today?’. Then you re-think ‘what’s the best place I can do that? Alone or with colleagues?’ and then you choose one of these places”.

Because there are different zones to promote different activities: reflection, discussion, focus, inspiration or stimulation. There was a definite feeling of ‘people-power’. But there was also efficiency and high levels of productivity. It then begged the question that if everything was so flexible, how did the boss keep control. Veldhoen replied “control is not an issue any more. When you do this, you manage on trust. You make a good system so they have enough accountability so they can show what they did and more than 95% of the people will do the things in the right way. In the old system you think you can control everything but that’s impossible.”

The workspace is very different from our usual ideas of working places and it looked very expensive. However, because of the clever use of space and the informal working areas, this reduced the overall size of the building by half and there was actually a 40% saving in construction costs. Veldhoen pointed out “the people are connected with each other in a natural way which made for a lot of productivity which you don’t get when you put people bound in one place.” Productivity rose by 20%. When asked if the UK would ever be able to learn from this he answered in a long slow ye-e-e-e-e-s but added “it will take a long time”.

Because learning and working are so tightly entwined, this shouldn’t be any surprise to us. We can learn from this on all sorts of levels. Not only from a L&D perspective but also how management can help increase employee engagement. Increased engagement, feeling valued, treated fairly, trusted and given more ownership of their learning and working. Enabling interaction and collaboration more easily together with providing easy access to the right tools for the job and the most appropriate environments in which to use them will reap huge rewards.

To summarise:

  • trust more, control less
  • encourage social interaction
  • encourage flexibility
  • use the most appropriate environment or tool for the type of activity
  • provide a strong technical infrastructure
  • enable easy and quick access to performance support tools
  • encourage ownership by displaying confidence in others’ abilities
  • remove restrictions which cause stress and discomfort
  • provide informal working spaces that encourage conversations to happen naturally
  • support and cultivate
  • encourage a sharing and collaborative culture

If we continue to work in silos we’re in danger of becoming blind to possibilities. This may have a serious negative impact on our creativity especially when it comes to designing appropriate and effective learning solutions. We become swallowed up by the ‘it’s the way it’s always been’ culture and politics.

Sometimes it’s easier if we leave things be. It takes time and effort to change the way we do things. But if we are expecting our learners to change the way they behave perhaps we should lead by example by affording time and effort into creating environments fit for the purpose. Environments that encourage, challenge and inspire. When we take the blinkers off we can help ourselves to discover new and innovative ways to engage and inspire. We can learn from others who’ve already been down that road and learn from their experiences. Above all, remember that people are the heartbeat of our organisations. Without them there is nothing.

If you’re interested in finding out more how Interpolis got there, here’s a report produced in association with The British Council of Offices ‘ICT and Offices: Practised Realities and their Business Benefits‘.

The Power of the Architect – Part 1

Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

Designing environments that work

The other Monday evening, I was flicking through the channels of the hotel tiny TV looking for something easy and not too brain taxing to watch, when I landed on a programme all about the secret life of buildings and how they way they are designed can have a fundamental and often quite scary effect on our behaviour, health and well-being. I thought it would do until the second episode of Corrie came on (I told you I needed something inane and not too taxing to relax didn’t I?).

Here’s what the Chanel 4’s introduction for the programme says on its website ” Architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff explores the impact the design of buildings can have on us – on our identity and self-esteem, and on relationships, our chances at school, and even our weight and immune system”

Well, I was only watching a couple of minutes when I was hooked. This programme was fascinating. So much so I started writing notes (so much for relaxing then!). This was the second of three in the series. Unfortunately I’d missed the first one which was the designs of our homes. I’m going to catch that one on On-Demand.


Architecture’s influence on our behaviour

This episode concentrated on how architecture can change the way we feel and behave. It looked at how it can even change our brains. Wow – really?

Tom Dyckhoff visited several different buildings throughout the programme. Some of these have achieved iconic status such as The Gerkin designed Norman Foster. The Gerkin, which got it’s name from the its shape which looked like a giant gerkin, is a magnificent building but when you entered inside it became bland, soulless, uninspiring. The only thing going for it was the view. This was very different to Foster’s other iconic building in Ipswich.

The Willis building was iconic back in 1975 because it was one of the first truely open plan office buildings in the UK. It was column-free with reflective surfaces to reflect light back into the office space and a large rooftop restaurant which catered for all staff bringing levels together. There was even a swimming pool (later covered over to provide more offices). This structure was unique also in that it said there was more to people than work. It was very popular with the workforce.

We had a fascinating insight into how architecture can have a detrimental effect on us when Dyckhoff then took us to Deloitte’s offices in London. Apparently, when the staff moved into their current building, morale took a nose dive. Team work and productivity fell dramatically. Guy Battle, partner in Deloitte even said his “heart fell” when he walked into the building. From the organisation’s point of view, the space was very efficient but it just didn’t inspire people. It was, again, soulless. When asked what she would have like to change, one member of staff said “additional facilities for staff” and somewhere where all the other tenants could “congregate and mingle”.

It seems that because these structures were built to house many different tenants they needed to have a broader appeal and therefore a less interesting look and feel. Rab Bennett, architect of the Deloitte building acknowledged the direction office spaces need to go in should be better and “if architects were more like craftsmen again, making things properly with good responsible work” people would still buy that although still maintained that buildings would still have to have a broad appeal. Norman Foster also agreed that perhaps the internal space could be better and had even tried to influence his clients. “at some point” he said “you have to let go”.

So how did the programme prove that the way our environments are designed can affect our brain development? Enter Fred Gage, Neuroscientist at San Diego’s Salk Institute. Gage had carried out experiments on mice (apparently mice have a similar brain structure to humans). It seems that, contrary to the belief that we are all born with all the brain cells we need, we can actually grow new brain cells. Our brains cells can grow and mature by as much as 15% in a month. It appears that external environments do have a significant influence on our brain development.

As long as we are continually developing and we are moving within different spaces especially when those spaces are of different qualities and stimuli, our brains will constantly change and shift. Gage stated that “architects are impacting the structure of our brains by the spaces they are making but they’re not taking into consideration how”. He advised that both neuroscientists and architects need to work together because “we should be highly motivated to optimise our understanding so we can optimise our own performance and abilities”.


What has this got to do with learning?

Remember at the beginning of this post I said I’d settled down to relax and watch some mind numbing TV. This was so I could help my brain switch off. No such luck. With this fascinating programme, my brain kicked into to gear and revved right up. Well that’s all very interesting, you might say, but what has this got to do with learning, blended learning and eLearning? I say it has everything to do with it.

What I saw was all these wonderfully shiny new buildings, cleverly constructed and award winning in design. They were rich in texture, unusual in shape, flashy and looked very expensive. All the time and energy seemed to had been spent on how good they looked. How impressive they were on the outside. Applauded how clever and innovative the artist/designer/architect was who came up with these plans.

They are, indeed, things of wonder and (not always) beauty. But the one big flaw is that they were built for efficiency. They weren’t built with the people in mind. There was little thought in how people behave. There was no thought in how people feel. We’re people, not machines. We need social interaction, we need stimulation, we need challenge, we need emotional connections, we need to feel comfortable not constrained.

Have we fallen into the same trap when designing our digital learning solutions? Have we spent our energies on designing shiny new online/virtual learning environments full of ‘bling’. On the outside they look like they will deliver. They look expensive. They look clever and flash. They mesmerise and astound us with programming panache. Do they tantalise and entice us with wondrous award winning exteriors yet lifeless and cold on the inside with uninspiring information laden drudgery? Of course the look is important but once you’re through that fancy door, are they devoid of challenge, social interaction and emotional connection? Can you choose your own path or are you constrained and shackled at every step? Are they designed with people in mind? As architects for our learning environments, do we really consider our audience and their needs?

Do we really understand the serious impact we can have when we build learning environments? Fred Gage, the neuroscientist mentioned above, advised that architects and neuroscientists should work together. Very true. I say the architects of our learning environments should heed the same advice.

In my next post I’m going to explore a little more of this fascinating programme and how we can make parallels in our learning designs.

And for those of you who would like to see the programme here it is on YouTube or On-Demand on Channel 4