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Adaptable Organizations Invest in Empowered Collaboration

Designing and adapting the workplace to fit the needs of those working in the environment

Employees should have the opportunity to shape their future. That’s where enlightened organizations are headed. They’re asking their people what they need and want. Then they’re working with them to co-create it.

Diana Rhoten, Organizational Design and Innovation Strategist

When it comes to the open office floor plan, there are typically two types of people: Those who enjoy working in big, open spaces with the opportunity to bump into colleagues and make small talk, and those that hate every second of it. 

The fact that there will be differing opinions is an important consideration, says Diana Rhoten. As an organizational design and innovation strategist, Rhoten says it’s important to look at people’s behaviors to understand how to design and adapt the workplace.  

In a world where adaptability is a key ingredient of resiliency, companies need agile environments and teams who are deeply collaborative.  

Workplace design can be the make-or-break factor. 

With an open office floor plan, a common misconception is that “if we have open space work environments, people will naturally bump into each other and suddenly will have serendipitous, simultaneous explosions of innovation. It just does not work that way,” Rhoten explains. 

Instead, many people wear headphones or walk the long way around an open space office, rather than take a direct route that might require engagement with colleagues. Rhoten says this is the opposite effect of what an adaptable workplace seeks to achieve, which is a confluence of social, technological, and physical conditions that inspire collaboration. 

Collaboration, as she outlines it, is more than working together to achieve a common goal. It’s a non-siloed engagement process that empowers people to take collective ownership of their work — and the workspaces they inhabit. 

Diana Rhoten, Organizational Design and Innovation Strategist

Designing for collaboration and adaptability

As important as co-creation of adaptable environments and processes is, it can be challenging for workers to articulate exactly what they need or want from a space, Rhoten says. 

She recommends collaborating with employees through conversation and observation to determine how workplaces might best serve everyone –– a fitting approach considering 87% of employees actually list building relationships and collaboration with team members as their top-rated needs for the office, according to a 2021 survey from PwC.  

Employee behavior and feedback should be what drives the spatial design of an office, she says. Everything needs to be flexible and allow for many different modes of working. Options could include spots in the office for relaxed one-on-one work, intense, heads-down spaces, and areas for larger groups to convene. 

There are a few key characteristics of adaptable spaces that can act as a starting point for consideration, says Rhoten.  

For instance, ensuring employees have access to different, flexible workspace zones that are dependent on the type of work they’re doing. Ask yourself and your team, “Do you have enough quiet space? Do you have enough collaborative space?” 

A second characteristic is modularity. “Do you have the ability to configure and reconfigure not just for what we know today, but for what we might learn tomorrow?” Rhoten asks. “This includes being able to close off spaces, open up spaces, enlarge spaces, and being able to actually reshape them altogether.” 

These options should not only be provided to professional service and knowledge workers, she cautions. Experiences of more hands-on employees need to be equally considered. 

Flexible workplace zones depended on the work people are doing

IMAGE CREDIT: Tom Harris Photography, Partners by Design

Reconfigure what was the traditional organizational chart into more of a networks-and teams-based model. By doing that — if you have teams of folks that are working across functions — you can actually design the work day so that flexibility and hybridity is applicable and distributed across the whole organization’s culture, structure, and space.

Diana Rhoten, Organizational Design and Innovation Strategist

By definition, there is no one design solution for adaptive spaces, Rhoten notes. That said, there are some overarching, human-centered design characteristics that can be employed by organizations to help them be more adaptive, including shifting from a conventional, hierarchical model to one that is more highly distributed and cross-functional.

Focusing on purpose and wellness

In her two decades of helping organizations be both disruptive and resilient, Rhoten says success comes from being purpose- driven with a focus on customer needs and aspirations.

If we anchor on the customer’s needs there is something constant in a world of flux. It doesn’t mean we don’t need to change, but we know what we’re tracking against.

Diana Rhoten, Organizational Design and Innovation Strategist

IMAGE CREDIT: Sally Painter

Employees — and, by extension, their workspaces — play an integral role in fulfilling an organization’s purpose. Increasingly, leaders know they can’t foster productive, resilient work environments without actively engaging their teams in the process. 

“Really adaptive organizations are based on teams and networks that flex and mix and mingle, largely based on what the customer and the environment is demanding from the organization,” says Rhoten. This structure embraces the “bottom-up power” of employees, empowering them to better deliver on an organization’s purpose and performance in an environment facilitated by more collaborative, flexible approaches to both space and management. 

Rhoten believes that multidisciplinary integration and insight can accelerate an organization’s journey toward resilience. She suggests organizational designers work hand in hand with architects, engineers, and interior designers to combine their varied perspectives, in order to craft highly intentional spaces that are adaptable in both physical and social ways. 

IMAGE CREDIT: Sally Painter

Not surprisingly, the application of a framework or process that invites employees to shape their work environments — and also encourages cross-collaboration among various design and change management professions — leads to built space solutions that diverge from the status quo, Rhoten says. That includes a move away from traditional workplace design and toward flexible environments that reflect the varied needs of teams across an organization. 

Finally, Rhoten highlights the tremendous value of designing for wellness, which 84% of employees now expect of their work environment, according to a recent Armstrong World Industries, Inc. report.  

“What types of respite opportunities and physical locations are you providing people to close their eyes, to meditate, to breastfeed if they need to? People want those moments; they need those moments. This is not always designed into our offices right now and really must be key elements going forward.”  

People want those moments; they need those moments. This is not always designed into our offices right now and really must be key elements going forward.” 

IMAGE CREDIT: Marco Zecchin

As companies move forward, collaborating to create adaptive organizational structures and workspaces that will in turn further incentivize connection and agility, Rhoten reminds designers and business leaders of a maxim from Stewart Brand, author of How Buildings Learn.  

“Resilience is not because some designer has a brilliant prediction of the future. It’s just because they know how to design for the inevitability that change will happen,” she says. 

This article is part of a series on adapting for the human experience.

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