Musings on knowledge work and ‘place’

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By James P. Ware PhD

Edition 1 – August 2012 Pages 04-05

Tags: creativity • office • design • behaviour • knowledge-work

I don’t need a workplace; I need workplaces. Of course, I can only be in one place at a time. But sometimes I need to be in one place, and sometimes in another.

I am a knowledge worker. I use my head to create value. Sure, I use my hands too, but mostly just to hit some little square pieces of plastic in a particular sequence that produces images of text on a plasma screen. Sometimes I hold a pen and spread ribbons of ink on paper as another way to create and communicate my ideas. But, however I record my ideas, it’s what goes on in my head that matters.

But here’s what’s bugging me: I use my head in a lot of different ways, and I’ve begun to realize that where my head is physically (and where it’s been) has a lot to do with how well that head produces what I want it to. Sometimes I need to explore, to think, to create new ideas. Other times I need to express an existing idea, to produce an article or complete a report. Still other times I am searching for new information, often via the web, but sometimes in a book or magazine. Those kinds of knowledge work are a lot different from analytic or problem-solving work, where I am sorting out existing information, recasting it, or searching for an answer to a specific problem.

And everything I’ve mentioned so far is essentially individual work. When I’m interacting directly with others in a phone call, a face-to-face meeting, or a working session, I’m using not just my head but my eyes, ears, and mouth (and sometimes my nose) as well. That’s how I translate what goes on in my head into meaningful words (and body language too) that make sense (sometimes, anyway) to other people, and sometimes actually contributes to group creativity and innovation.

So what’s the point? Isn’t that all pretty obvious? In one sense, of course it is. But in another, I am not so sure that any of us really understands or appreciates the impact that our physical surroundings have on either the quality or the quantity of the stuff that happens between our ears.

I was thinking about this a few years ago when I had the good fortune to spend almost three weeks in northern Italy accompanying my wife and a group of her fellow artists. They were exploring the history, the art, and the architecture of that very special area, and doing a marvelous job of capturing many of the incredible buildings, natural vistas, and people on paper and canvas. The group let me tag along, so I too got immersed in ancient churches, museums, 11th-century walled villages, monasteries, and wonderful country walking paths. The fresh air and light breezes during the day and the hearty food and rich conversations every evening (helped along in no small part by some of the best, inexpensive red wine on the planet) refreshed my spirit in ways that I hadn’t really anticipated.

During that trip I experienced a personal renaissance of thought and energy that mirrors in a very small way the grand cultural Renaissance that took place in the hills of Italy some 500 years ago. Surely the sun, the hills, and even the monks and barons of that far-away time had something to do with the burst of creativity that brought Western Europe out of the Dark Ages. Now, my own artistic ability is presently limited to pointing a digital camera and clicking the shutter, but even that simple activity helped sharpen my sense of where I was and what colors, textures, and shapes were surrounding me.

And that thought brings me back, finally, to what is bugging me now. My experience of getting away from “the office” and the simple space inside the four walls where I normally do all that ‘head work’ has awakened me to how profoundly my surroundings affect the way I think, what I think about, and what I am capable of dragging out of that wet space between my ears.

Yet I, like most “knowledge workers” spend almost all my work time in a fairly traditional office environment – four walls, a desk, some filing cabinets, and shelves full of books. Sure, there might be a family photo or two on the wall, and maybe a picture drawn by a child, but the fact is that no matter what I am trying to accomplish on a given day, the place where I am is almost always the same (yes, I usually hold team meetings in a conference room, and sometimes I even have a meaningful “meeting” in a cafeteria or a coffee shop, but let’s face it, most of the time I use the same place to read, write, analyze, list, sort, file, talk on the phone, and even meet with colleagues – at least when I’m not on an airplane or in some drab hotel room far from home).

What if I had lots of places to choose among, and could move from one to another as I moved from one task to another? My instinct tells me I’d be a lot more creative in some kinds of places (rooms filled with art work, or with outdoor photos – or literally outdoor places), more analytic in others (a library, or a bare-bones office?), and thoughtful and reflective in yet another place (a church? a mountain retreat? a sailboat? a café?).

Now, to bring this back to office design and the future of work, I have had many opportunities to visit innovative office facilities; some of them one-company endeavors and some multi-company shared “third places.” One facility in particular was exceptionally impressive – open workspaces with low (or no) dividers, light and bright colors, lots of windows and natural light. I can’t help but think I’d be creative and energized if I worked there regularly. The people who are fortunate enough to have access to that place seemed highly engaged with their work and – when working collaboratively – with their colleagues.

But the deeper lesson for me was the incredible variety of spaces and places in that one facility. There were several different “zones” with different workstation layouts (some were traditional 8x8s, some used the popular 120-degree designs), but there were also several enclosed “personal harbors” for two- or three-person meetings, private heads-down work, or phone conversations; a “kitchen” and café area with informal lounge furniture groupings; an outdoor patio area; and several more traditional conference rooms of varying sizes and designs.

We don’t have detailed work behavior or productivity data on that workplace yet (unlike Tim Oldman, see page 23), but anecdotally it is clear that people are moving around frequently from one spot to another over the course of a day, as individual and team activities change dynamically from one hour to the next.

How effective is that kind of workplace? In this case, the early reports are that the people who “inhabit” the facility are highly satisfied, and their managers are too. It’s hard to ask for more.

I think you get my point. When there are so many different kinds of knowledge work, why do we so often try to do it all in one kind of place? How much creativity and innovation have we lost forever? Is our creativity ‘sapped’ by placing people who do different kinds of work from day to day, and even hour to hour, into those all-too-common, drab, one-size-misfits-all, cube farms?

About the Author

James Ware, PhD

A former Harvard Business School professor, Jim Ware has invested his entire career in understanding what organizations must do to thrive in a rapidly changing world – and enabling them to succeed. He is a workplace futurist, a meeting design strategist, an accomplished author, and a keynote speaker. He is a co-founder and Global Research Director for AndPlaces, Ltd., the Hong-Kong-based publisher of Work&Place, for which he serves as Managing Editor. Jim holds PhD, M.A., and B.Sc. degrees from Cornell University and an MBA (With Distinction) from the Harvard Business School. He is a former president of IFMA’s Corporate Real Estate Council and a member of the National Speakers Association. He lives and works in northern California.

email: [email protected]


I use my head in a lot of different ways, and I’ve begun to realize that where my head is physically (and where it’s been) has a lot to do with how well that head produces what I want it to.

Editor’s footnote:

You’ll probably think that this article was written by Jim maybe six weeks ago? It was actually written six years ago! The reason that we borrowed and updated it from Jim’s blog, was that we thought, how much has actually changed? Offices continue to get designed with ‘one person to one dedicated place’ in mind. Is that killing off creativity and innovation? Join the discussion with Jim and others on our Work&Place LinkedIn Group or right here.

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