Culture Centred Design

Where Culture Leads, Space Follows

Ever thought about knocking 10 years off your age, taking on a totally different personality, finding a new job, and settling into a new role? Maybe you've always dreamed of becoming a CFO or trying your hand at IT support? Well, that was literally the experience of participants who attended this year's ICL City Conference. Facilitated by HLW's Senior Strategist Hannah Beveridge, attendees temporarily immersed themselves in new job titles and responsibilities to inform the planning of an imaginary workplace. Known as the sandbox, this exercise invited participants with various backgrounds to collaborate and discover the relationship between organizational culture and workspace planning. 

Organizational culture and its impact on work styles and space needs is a fundamental part of workplace strategy. For example, the culture of a law firm is totally different from that of a tech startup, and in turn, produces two very distinct workplace experiences. Without a clear understanding of who the stakeholders are and how they work, space planning can quickly go off the rails.

In this workshop, Beveridge introduced two frameworks to facilitate a robust planning process by first asking participants to take on a new personality, role playing, and then to apply this mindset in a hands-on planning exercise called sandboxing.

The combination of role play and sandboxing brought together an exercise in mental stretching, by forcing participants to think about the workplace from a different perspective to that of their own everyday experience, with a hands on design task which necessitated physically engaging in decisions about how the workplace should function and what it should say about their imaginary organisations. The sandbox space plans which were developed during the workshop varied amongst the groups; from Paradigm Group, a cutting edge law firm who required a large client focused meeting space on entry, to Go Bank, a Fintech company who preferred visitors to enter into an informal social and collaborative environment. Each space plan reflecting the cultural cues from the organisation’s profile.

No. 1: ROLE PLAY: Think like Someone Else for a Moment

By walking in the shoes of the stakeholder, workshop participants are more equipped to dive deep into the needs of specific end users. For instance, what kind of space does the CEO need to maintain a healthy work-life balance? Participants formed teams of 6 to play a range of roles like CEO, HR, IT and department heads. Provided with prompt cards, each team operated according to the assigned organisational and end user profiles; from fintech, NGO, fashion brand to law firm. They used these profiles when discussing and negotiating their space needs.

Imagine you are Ben, 39 years old, owner of 4 dogs and CEO of POP! a London-based fashion brand that represents trend busting, in-your-face style fused with high-quality materials and responsible sourcing. The challenge you are facing today is a chaotic and frenzied office due to fast growth and a lack of resources to keep up. Moving forward, your goal is to mature into a seamlessly integrated and flexible work environment.

As one participant commented “I would never have thought to put myself in the shoes of my CEO or CFO to imagine what their needs or priorities might be and that it made me realise that other people I work with probably have different perspectives and opinions.” It is not an easy thing to understand someone else’s situation. Through role play, participants become the stakeholder in the scenario, and reflect the concerns and mindset of that personality in their communication and interactions with others.

Role play is also a great ice breaker to bring people new to each other together. One of the participants said that she really enjoyed that the exercise allowed them to quickly form a team of strangers to make collective decisions – an experience she felt was rare.

No. 2: SANDBOX: Don’t Just Talk, Put it on the Table

It can be hard to explain your idea to the team without some visual support, especially for a group with such a diverse range of backgrounds including the editor of Lonely Planet, a college student, and a freelance consultant.  In this workshop Hannah introduced Sandbox, a participatory design thinking tool that invites people to place and constantly rearrange modular space cards onto a floor plan as they demonstrate and discuss ideal space adjacencies for their organization.

“I feel like using my hands to make decisions engages a different part of my brain…” commented by one of the participants. The hands-on nature of sandbox made the design thinking process playful and engaging. Unlike any design presentation or communication on screen, participants have to physically be in the room to see and get involved in the process. The low-tech approach provides a user friendly, unthreatening way to immediately see multiple possibilities. Equally, the activity optimizes individual creativity and ensures that every participant has a voice and can contribute to the big picture.

Working with a sandbox is really about working under constraints. The exercise forces the reality that the building has finite extents and that the spaces within have planning limitations. In a best case scenario, participants leverage the physical limitations as opportunities to create the dream workplace.

Key Insights & Takeaways

So what did we learn after everything was said and done?

Details of the space planning decisions indicated the playful engagement of participants, such as Hard Stop, a not-for-profit group who debated at length the feasibility of putting whiteboards in toilets to enable creative thinking at all times, the Go Bank group who wanted to embrace their ethos of on-the-go technology with the introduction of roaming concierge style receptionists, and the participants of Paradigm Group who explored options for the most appropriate design for their CEO’s office to strike the right balance between privacy and transparency.

The workshop was designed to give non-designers exposure to a design thinking approach, and to open up a discussion of the intersection between organisational culture and design to a broader audience. The feedback from the workshop suggests this was achieved, but more importantly that the experience gave people insights they will take back to their own organisations to view their own workplace environments through a new lens.