Why the question about the future of workplaces is so exciting

Far-reaching changes are currently taking place in our society; and these changes are also affecting our working environments. Company structures, work processes and office space are continuing to develop – the direction into which these things might develop was examined by Thomas during his Experience Journey in the USA.

Together with office furniture manufacturer Steelcase and selected architects, he spent a week in the US at the beginning of May. The starting point for the 15-member group was Chicago. The aim of the trip was to exchange knowledge and gain insights into various innovative working and office worlds. What impressions did Thomas bring back from the other side of the Atlantic, what insights enrich the concept of Enabling Spaces and what were the most important lessons learned on the trip?

In general – how has theLivingCore arrived in America?

Very well. I found the conversation with Steelcase’s Head of Research, Dave Lathrop, about “Strategic Workplace Consulting” right at the beginning of our visit very interesting. Strategic Workplace Consulting is about thinking beyond the architecture while including the organizational factors of a company and integrating them into the design of the working environment. However, newer approaches already go a step further, towards “Social Systems Strategy”. We have been pursuing precisely this concept for quite some time with Enabling Spaces: By means of a holistic (“systems science”) and future-oriented (“strategy”) approach, we make the organization fit for the challenges of the future. In a conversation, Dave was very impressed by our work and approach. He said “The world is ready for your business”. This shows that we are going in a very promising direction with what we do inLivingCore.

What are Enabling Spaces?

I developed this concept together with Markus Peschl. Current research show that processes that influence our thinking, perception and actions do not take place exclusively in the brain. Rather, the environment is also involved in all our thinking processes: we, as it were, “think with our environment”. This means that spaces not only strongly influence our patterns of thinking and knowledge, but can also support or even inhibit innovation processes. At theLivingCore, we therefore design spaces in such a way that they support, stimulate and inspire innovation. In doing so, we do not limit the concept of “space” to the architectural dimension alone, but integrate social, emotional, cultural and technological spaces of an organization into a working world that is sustainable.

You also visited the Steelcase headquarters in Chicago. What was there to discover?

I was already there three years ago, at the beginning of the Steelcase change process, and it was very interesting to see what has been implemented so far – both how Steelcase understands and interprets “new work” and how it supports cultural changes in management and employees. Steelcase CEO James P. Keane is constantly trying out new things – from experiments with closed vs. open offices, to working with sensors, to innovative, noise-absorbing materials. The design, in particular, has changed: while it used to be rather functional, it is now very high quality and atmospheric. More emphasis is placed on details. For example, a very beautiful, harmonious new chair was presented, and you can see the influence of IDEO, an American design thinking and product development company that was bought by Steelcase. I also met IDEO’s founder, Tim Brown, and had lively discussions with him about innovation and new working environments.

In the evening you visited the Meyer May House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. What impressions did this leave on you?

What I found interesting and “borderline” here was above all the very strongly prescriptive design. People were prescribed how to live, since they can’t really change the design. As Tim Brown explains in his book “Change by Design”, every detail serves an overriding goal – the preservation of privacy. In doing so, I remember the many small details and the exciting innovations of the 1920s, such as the central vacuum cleaner system, which was already integrated into the house at the time and has only recently found its way back into modern interior design.

In the course of the trip you also stopped by Stanford University, IDEO and Autodesk in San Francisco. What did you notice most about these different locations?

What I remember most about Stanford is the spacious and inviting campus. Companies like Autodesk, which are active in Industry 4.0 (= merging industrial production with modern information and communication technologies), work in an incredibly open manner, deal with topics that actually don’t even exist yet, try out and learn in the process. They practice failure as a culture. I was very impressed by that. For example, Autodesk in the Toronto Office had the office layout calculated with their generative software and also implemented one of the calculated versions as an experiment. Allegedly, the new office works well. The architects have turned a little pale when they saw it. At IDEO, on the other hand, we saw interesting gadgets and a very positive office atmosphere (with an inspiring view of the bay).

What lessons from your trip did you bring back to Vienna for theLivingCore?

First of all that we are on the right track with our work, our know-how and our approaches. Enabling Spaces is a concept that we developed 10 years ago, constantly adapting it and developing it further. Another insight is that even “cool companies” only cook with water and we don’t have to fear any comparison. I was inspired by their openness to try new things and their understanding that failure is an essential part of learning. I would like to support this mindset even more.

Image: Clay Banks at Unsplash