Robyn Lindsey, Geyer Partner & Innovation Thought Leader.
Interview in The Innovation Issue of International Towers Magazine 2017.
As a partner of Geyer - a leading independent interior design practice Robyn has worked with some of Australia’s leading organisations, including Westpac Group at International Towers to develop human-centred experiences and environments. She holds an MBA focussing on innovative leadership and strategy for competitive advantage which together with her creative design background brings a unique approach to creating new business opportunities and future focussed outcomes.
Robyn Lindsey. Coming from the industrial age to now, reflection on the transformation that has taken place across organisational models and human behaviours at work helps us anticipate where we are heading in the concept of corporate workplace design and its role in supporting working experiences in the future.
Organisations used to be based on processes that generated large organisational models, machine like structures with human cogs striving for efficiencies, where each department and group of people relied on each other transactionally, every day. That meant workplace environments were created around a pyramid hierarchy, with transactional style CEO leadership at the top, down to the people working behind the scenes, where they were rarely acknowledged for the contribution they made to the organisation. They didn’t need to be visible or move they were anchored to their assigned desk with their fixed phone and left their desk at assigned times of the day.
Workplace design was influenced by the way that pay-structures and incentives were organised.
Executives were rewarded not just through their pay, but also by being allocated enclosed offices in the corners with the best views. So the design of office workplaces evolved into this highly hierarchical physical setting based on those seen to be the most influential people, placed around the outside of the floorspace, and the rest of the organisation sandwiched between the offices and the central core of the building.
Then with new technologies came less human-based transactional jobs. Workplace re-arrangement enabled interdisciplinary activity in team settings with executive suites located nearby. Open planned workspaces placed employees on the perimeter to share more natural light and views. The competition for attracting new employees brought greater focus to the power of workplace design to elevate the corporate working experience, employees started to be respected more.
Further mobilisation of people movement enabled by mobile devices, sustainability measures, fixed cost reductions and space optimisation contributed to activity based working settings, where individuals and teams could select settings to suit activities and improve cross fertilisation of ideas and effectiveness of working in more project based teams.
A major change for our future rests with the impact that the human sciences can have to inform design intelligence and inspire creativity for new working experiences and environments.
Ultimately places to work must support more intuitive and socialised experiences for people to be able to transform into more creative and innovative ways of thinking, and that happens out of having conversations and being pushed outside or inspired out of your normal thinking paradigm. One of the greatest gifts a transformational CEO can have is where she/he has engaged, interactive teams, inspired to innovate, share knowledge generously, actively progress the business and care about the context of what they are contributing to the human and environmental-critical aspects of our world.
The next level is evolving, where working activities are enabled though multiple choices of settings, yet we still don’t feel satisfied that our potential is being optimised and we move through and across organisations continually seeking exposure to other people and opportunities - where we seek to engage in elevating experiences, where we need to be part of a highly dynamic and broader community each day. The role of design to create places and experience opportunities for this has never been so broadly profound and critical for human endeavour.
Design as a process of innovating and helping individuals and organisation’s build for the future through crafting experiences and places is exhilarating.
It. From an economics perspective, the opportunity to have teams relocated from head office, either closer to clients, or somewhere that’s a lot more efficient, has been happening for a while. Banks have done that with some of their teams for years.
Robyn Lindsey. That’s a great example of mobilisation. And now we’re seeing progressive organisations, outside of the finance world moving their innovation teams, their product development teams, and their sales teams - putting them into environments where they might even be closer to customers themselves, and be able to innovate or iterate much more efficiently. Some organisation’s that can’t re-structure quickly enough to compete with new market entrants or products, select some team to physically move into other environments including co-working and startup environments, so that they have different conversations and inspirations from diverse interactions within different communities.
It. So in terms of the cycle, many corporates had moved to fit as many workstations into their spaces as possible, but that severely compromised how people felt and performed, so they struggled to retain staff. Smarter organisations started improving their environments, and completely rethinking how their people can work, and how to make their people feel more relaxed, more inspired, more productive.
Robyn Lindsey. Exactly. There are always the leaders who are taking it to the next level. Some of it has been driven by smaller organisations and startups, who didn’t feel they needed to play by the old rules, and then the rest of the market started noticing, because these progressive organisations were attracting and getting the best university graduates, and the smartest talent.
There have been some organisations that have been more progressive, able to adapt faster, because of success and ability to spend money and invest it in the workplace environment. If you look at Australia, we have been one of the leaders in the world in terms of defining new ways of working.
Design should never start with the physical, until you have deeply understood what the needs of the people are. We now refer to it as human-centered design.
So this movement is ongoing, and organisations have gone from being an insular, hierarchial machine, through iterations into being brand and values based.
Because of the threats of change that globalisation has brought to people in a number of different ways - whether it’s through fear of terrorism, new entrants into markets, climate change or whether it’s through dying trades and professions through new technologies - there are new insecurities that we have, and in some ways it’s a lot more challenging for many to find optimism.
There’s been this burgeoning need for a sense of security, not just physical security, but security in diversity, relationships and being understood, so there is this strong need for people to believe and find values, things that they can really build into their own belief systems and empower optimism. And that then comes through to the change that we’ve had in how ‘work’ integrates into our lives – the questioning of balance. So that changed radically through enablement of mobility through technologies which in turn gave rise to ‘nomadic’ behaviours - to work wherever and whenever you like. This requires a lot of trust between individuals and their organisations.
It. That’s a really interesting point, because trust isn’t normally something that people associate with all corporations. In many ways, companies are no longer in control, they are answerable to their people and their customers, and if a company isn’t truly living its values, they become accountable to that much faster than in the past.
Robyn Lindsey. We conducted some research with Swinburne University on trust in the workplace. It is a really important element of the impact of increasingly untethered working environments and mobilised workforces. I believe it’s now progressed to the concept of shared values – how many values you truly share with those of your organisation, its leaders and their culture?
How does that impact physical environment? How do you have relationships with your working partners, whether they are within or outside your organization, and how does that link to a physical environment? It’s about translating values into behaviors - then designing environments in true placemaking style, that enables values based rituals and experiences to grow. What are the sorts of things you expect to experience within an organisation that sends not just a message, but authenticates those values.
If that’s not happening, they’re not values. They have to be shared. You don’t belong in an organisation unless you truly believe in the shared values of the people you are working with. If you don’t agree with the way they behave, how they think about the world, and how they drive change to improve the status quo, how they make decisions within the organisation, then why stay? And why would an employer have that person as an employee?
It. And shared values often stimulate great innovation and powerful collaborations.
Robyn Lindsey. Very much so. The old business model of organisations needing to do everything themselves has changed. First there was an increasing use of consultants responding to a strict brief and expected outcomes. Progressive organisations now have to embrace the need for innovation to stay alive, and accept there may be unknown outcomes to collaborative projects.
The brief isn’t predictive, but open to collaborative problem solving. So that sharing of minds and skills across unexpected and unique organisations can uncover new opportunities.
This is increasing exponentially, where great moments of innovation proof - when new, surprising products and services hit the market - is happening daily. This is because of unexpected partnerships.
We can’t solve all challenges alone, but we can by having the right people around us. The power of your own potential, is only realised through the company you keep. The challenge now is for organisations to embrace physical environments that can inspire and support behaviours that feed all the unexpected outcomes it can deliver.
It. That seems to be the key. Built environments are inherently inflexible, and usually completely isolated, so those essential ingredients for innovation to flourish - the need for flexibility, dynamic action and collaboration - are severely compromised in traditional workplace models.
Robyn Lindsey. Innovation is the gold nugget. We’ve moved on from just agile workspaces, to a new way of approaching experience design that can optimise people’s potential in their multitude of working environments – its personalities, organisational dynamics, cultures, values - the framework is people – get that right and the rest follows.