An innovation team at work. Image: Tsoi/Kobus & Associates

Does your afternoon consist of sandwiching yourself between a fume hood and a PCR machine to complete an assay set-up? Do the noxious fumes from the hood and the constant buzz from the equipment lull you into a productive state of flow? Advances in automated processes and data accumulation have shifted the work of the research scientist from lab techniques to office-based analysis and mobile computing platforms. Brand new “Labs of the Future” have taken this workforce shift into account, allocating up to 60 percent of the program to office-type environments. However, lots of research labs are saddled with older facilities, and limited office space to work with. Throw into the mix outdated standards, and expectations that everyone gets their own office, and you have a perfect storm; WORKPLACE TASKS that don’t match up with SPATIAL CONCEPTS.

As architects, we are often called upon to design from an inherited program or established standards. Written programs leave very little space for flexibility, and may result in a dearth of square footage to create the types of spaces that will enhance the work that needs to get done. Will a senior faculty member spend the entire day in her office? Perhaps she has two dedicated offices in two locations. Perhaps supervisors spend more of their day working in small groups, coaching and problem-solving—where does this happen? Lab techs may spend most of their time in the lab, but must return to a dedicated workspace to run data analysis. Other techs may only need to touch-down at a computer in a clean environment, for an hour each day. All employees will want to share progress and meet formally and informally. Throughout the day, various types of gatherings must be supported by the infrastructure, be plentiful, local, and be easy to navigate.

Workplace Tasks data gathered and analyzed for presentation. Image: Tsoi/Kobus & Associates

As a Change Agent in your organization, gathering and presenting the data to support the questions above is your first step in gaining consensus up and down the organizational structure. Align the mission with metrics and present the findings in a rational presentation. We recently supported an institutional endeavor to decrease office sizes throughout the organizational structure. The program began with a series of private offices, all generously sized, with very few open, shared spaces. These standards made it almost impossible to accommodate the chance-collision-collaboration spaces the institution desperately needed. Through a year-long process, and plenty of compromises, the institution successfully negotiated new standards, with 100 percent buy-in by even the steadfast critics. Below are step-by-step instructions that we used to bring about this positive change.

  1. Establish an innovation team with a healthy cross section of employees and create a catchy name for the team. Be sure to define your problem - what is your mission? This may be specific such as: “Decrease office size by 20 percent across all departments” or, “Introduce four new types of collaboration spaces and reach 80 percent utilization.” Write these down and share with your organization. Communicate often, then communicate again.
  2. Gather your WORKPLACE TASKS—this can be done in a variety of ways. You can broadcast surveys to a large population or use your innovation team to conduct short brainstorming bursts. “A Day in the Life” activities are particularly helpful. “Time Maps” are exercises where participants are asked to record what they are doing at predefined intervals. These exercises tend to yield surprising results (do I really spend that much time emailing?!?). Cast a wide net and then spend some time with the data. Categorize, cull, and collate your results.
  3. Set up some site visits and don’t be afraid to cross disciplines. For example, a group of pathologists in a teaching hospital visited a cooking school to learn how to teach specimen dissection to a large group of students. Consider manufacturing centers, retail establishments, or construction sites. How do others work?
  4. Record impressions learned during the site visits, and analyze them. Are there trends or preferences?  Engage a design professional to help establish a vocabulary or menu of SPATIAL CONCEPTS that seem to resonate with the team; document the workspaces visited and other ideas generated. Spatial concepts can be components of workspaces, like a computer area of a desk, or a side table, or a couch with a laptop table. Be bold - spatial concepts can even be modeled after a local café. Use images to illustrate the definitions—photos from the site visits and images from web searches or magazines.
  5. Gather a large group together and have everyone map WORKPLACE TASKS against the SPATIAL CONCEPTS. What sticks? What resonates with employees, and what’s being rejected? Challenge the large group to be honest about matching tasks to spaces: what portion of a space is required to compose and read emails? Once again, be sure to categorize, cull, and collate your results.   
  6. Based on the data gathered, build a vision of the space. Pay attention to materials and be specific. Invest in quality but use modules, try not to customize. This is the time to test lots of looks and feels, and the chance to be artistic and deliberate. If you can bring in samples, do so.
  7. Construct mock-ups of the spaces; short-term cardboard mock-ups can serve as the initial first pass, when lots of ideas are being tested and analyzed. These mock-ups can be very detailed, using actual borrowed furniture and knick-knacks, or they can be representative and constructed out of sturdy cardboard and/or found objects. Don’t forget items like waste baskets and recycling bins, and coat hooks and staplers. If time and swing-space permits, long term live-in mock-ups are also extremely valuable. These should be as realistic as possible. If possible, use the same materials and furniture as the intended design. Ask volunteers to sign up to work for one or two week periods in the long-term mock-ups and cycle people through to gain a broad understanding of their impressions. Throughout the mock-up process, be sure to have surveys and feedback sessions so you can learn and adjust the vision of the space.
  8. Lastly, you are ready to roll out your new metrics, and you’ll be armed with specific data that align with your stated mission, first-hand impressions, and a team of champions to herald the future of the workspace to come.

Laurie DaForno, AIA LEED AP BD+C, has 18 years of experience designing healthcare and laboratory projects that feature complex and technically challenging programs. She implements Lean design to ensure an integrated and process-driven approach to programming and design, which oftentimes parallels the client’s own internal efforts toward greater levels of efficiency and effectiveness.