How Architecture Can Lead to Innovation

With everyone from tech start-ups to financial institutions trying to foster a more innovative workplace, it is important to consider how office design can shape culture.  During my recent visit to the Stanford Design School, I saw how an open floor plan can foster a more creative workplace environment.  One prominent example of this growing trend is the new Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Headquarters in Seattle. In describing the impetus to build it, the New York Times notes that “private offices and expressions of hierarchy are of debatable value.  Less space per worker may be inevitable for cost-effectiveness, but it can enhance the working environment, not degrade it.  Daylight, lots of it, is indispensable.  Chance encounters yield creative energy. And mobility is essential.”

To better understand how office design can promote or inhibit innovation, I asked Tom Sieniewicz, a partner at NBBJ, the architectural firm that designed the Gates Foundation building for his opinion.  Tom is currently designing the much anticipated translational research and clinical facility in Boston that will collocate researchers and clinicians in order to break down the barriers between medical disciplines and help find the cure for diseases like Alzheimer’s.

“There is a movement to rush towards open space and tear down the walls, but I am already looking beyond that to ceiling heights as being another important factor that you can’t change once a building is designed.  Computational work is done better with lower ceilings. If you want a more humor-filled building with creativity, you want higher ceilings.”

Unless you can afford to build your office from scratch, you can’t change the height of your ceilings.  But is making your office floor plan more open worth the risk?  Yes and No, according to Tom.

“If you have a closed office you need 120 square feet for that employee to have what they need.  However, if you open it up, that same employee only needs 70 square feet of space. That frees up a lot of valuable shared space.  However, some buildings like the NBBJ Boston office are all open and many people feel that it is actually a very hard place to get work done.  For that reason, many of the partners of the firm find it important to have a personal study at home.”

One early example of creating an open floor plan involves Alfred P. West Jr., the CEO of SEI Investments, a financial services company with a market capitalization close to $6 billion.  In 1996, West built a brand new office that he admits was a deliberate attempt to make people uncomfortable to shake up the culture.  He noticed how his departments had turned to fighting each other for resources instead of collaborating as they had in the beginning.  According to West, the quirky environment of his new building “came from us wanting to encourage creativity and innovation….Today, you need more than Edison in the lab. If you go onto a trading floor, it’s open so people can communicate; they can share ideas. It was obvious this was a way to improve collaboration.”

Some of the more creative offices that I visited in Silicon Valley have white boards in every room, utilize moveable furniture, and place couches in the same room as desks, almost like a café.  One benefits of a thoughtful floor plan is the ability for serendipity.  In describing the Gates Building, the New York Times notes that “stairwells are positioned to land at hubs with coffee stations, copy machines and informal furniture groupings, so that employees from disparate departments can enjoy random meetings.”  86 percent called the Gates Building an “inspiring” environment, and 89 percent confirmed that it supports informal collaboration.

Office design is still a developing science, and some approaches might not work for everyone.  Siobhan O’Mahony, Professor of Strategy and Innovation at Boston University advocates for a balanced approach. “Offices need neighborhoods for heads-down work, and neighborhoods for heads-up work, and everybody needs assigned heads down space.”

Is the traditional ‘cubicles, corner offices, and meeting rooms’ framework no longer a viable option to inspire your workers to find the next great idea?  For many companies, coming up with their next big idea is critical, and the right office environment can be just what is needed for a breakthrough.

Dan Steinberg