Design a human-centered workspace that supports flexibility, collaboration, privacy, innovation, creativity, and a culture of transparency.
Space matters. We read space like we read people’s faces. Space is the foundation for the expression of our cultural values. Space is an instrument of collaboration and innovation. At MICHR, we realized that our workspace was playing a big role in how we were functioning. As a result, the Rethink Space team was created as a grounds-up initiative to creatively and economically enhance our operating space into a flexible workspace that supports privacy, innovation, creativity, and most importantly a culture of collaboration.
The team is made up of five extremely passionate and dedicated MICHR employees and myself, all interested in enhancing the space around us in a human-centered way. I was the team lead.
Employees positively impacted
Square feet space re-imagined
The Rethink Space team has received positive anecdotal feedback from MICHR staff and guests suggesting that the new space is “more functional,” “matches their style of work,” “is more collaborative,” “is less intrusive,” “has more natural light,” and “is friendlier.” The team has won an Ergo Hero award from the University of Michigan for our creative efforts in building a multiple purpose open space, thus improving communication and collaboration among staff.
Space matters. We read space like we read people’s faces. Space is the foundation for the expression of our cultural values. Space is an instrument of collaboration and innovation. Situating relationships in space is instrumental to formulating better models of collaboration and information sharing in organizations. In the paper titled “Shared paths to the lab: a sociospatial network analysis of collaboration,” Kabo et al. have suggested that a design in which male and female bathrooms are situated on the opposite ends of a long hallway will cause an increase in the rate of same-sex collaborations while decreasing the incidence of mixed-sex collaborations.
At the University of Michigan’s Institute for Clinical and Health Research (MICHR), we realized that our workspace was having an impact on how we were functioning. MICHR is 1 of the 62 academic research institutions that have received a Clinical & Translational Science Award, which aims to accelerate discoveries toward better health. MICHR has over 100 employees functionally organized into more than 12 programs. In the 2013 MICHR employee engagement survey results, MICHR staff commented on challenges with the environment in which they performed their work. Some of these challenges included being physically separated from other team members, limitations on meeting space including size and availability and no lunch or break space nearby. The building was laid out with offices around the perimeter and all cubes in the center. With conference rooms open to everyone at the University finding meeting space was difficult. In response to these challenges, MICHR’s Managing Director created a team to study the issue of space and provide recommendations on how our physical space could help us improve communication, collaboration, productivity, and engagement.
Rethinking our space was a complex problem with a fuzzy goal. While we as an organization had a vague, nebulous idea of what we wanted our space to embody and stand for, there were too many unknowns to have any specifics. Our project involved creating a human-centered, participatory platform to support exploration and experimentation.
1. Hear — Assessment of Staff and Organizational Needs
This phase was all about generating empathy. We wanted to understand people and their lives at MICHR. We wanted to see them at work, hear what they hear, feel what they feel, and know what they think. Below is how we went about it. We did this through the following:
This phase involved surfacing themes from all the user research we had been through. It also involved spotting opportunities and converting them into stories to be shared. Here is how we did it and what we found.
In order to externalize our knowledge and use it in our discussions, we turned one of the empty offices into a team room. We used to the room to uncover and share insights gained from the “Hear” phase, identify opportunities, synthesize themes and hold meetings. The team room contained affinity notes created from our interviews, grouped by categories and marked with insights. It also contained the various artifacts that were generated from the “Hear” phase constantly reminding us of all that we had learned and making sure that we were always thinking about it. We also opened the team room to all MICHR-Staff, promoting transparency and co-ownership in the process.
The affinity diagramming exercise and insights generated from the other artifacts led us to see the emergence of the following high-level themes for staff and organizational needs the following:
This phase involved using the insights gathered from the previous two phases to dream an alternative future, share that future, and gather feedback. Some highlights of the design are listed below:
One of the first things the Rethink Space team did in this phase was to create a series of guiding principles based on our design research that could guide us in redesigning our space. See our principles.
Zoning is a device of land-use planning user by urban planners around world to designate permitted uses of land based on mapped zones. MICHR’s zones were created to use as a guide for space planning. They include an open zone, a collaboration zone, a quiet zone and a zone for a central services.
As discussed in the “Understand” phase above, MICHR’s staff was spread out in an unsystematic manner. As can be seen from the maps in the figure above where each color represents a different MICHR program, the proposal aimed at getting teams spatially together to boost productivity, communication, and morale.
Through our Hear phase, we realized that a pod-like cube configuration worked best for programs at MICHR. It allowed people to turn around and communicate with their team members, it made impromptu conversations possible, and helped to uncover and solve problems faster. In our old space, only about half of our cubes were set up as pods.
Dedicated Team Spaces
Our design research helped us see that there are teams across MICHR that need dedicated spaces to come together to perform specific tasks such as assembling packets, brainstorming and project management. The proposed design included assigning offices to teams that need them to be used as team rooms.
Open Area and Quiet Space
The proposed open area was a flexible space in the open zone where staff could have lunch with their friends, grab their peers and collaborate, stand and work, organize and participate in events, or simply enjoy beautiful views of the courtyard. The open area would be created by consolidating the open, unused cubes, and making the area by the courtyard available to all. Technology and prototyping materials would be introduced in the space to provide for random collaborations and a bias toward action.
To balance the open active spaces around MICHR, the proposed design also contained a shared quiet space in the quiet zone. The quiet space would be available for anyone to walk into when they need quiet focused time to work or reflect.
The proposed design allowed us to come up with multiple wayfinding mechanisms to help MICHR employees and visitors find people and resources at MICHR. These included branding signs identifying programs in their space, directional signs directing people to various programs and services, and utility related signs like “Kitchen” and “Supplies.”
A fluid and ambiguous project like Rethink Space required us to have a flat, multidisciplinary team structure. We were a team of five individuals from disparate organizational groups making us just big enough to handle the volume of change we wanted to make, but small enough to be nimble and flexible.
Our project management was deliberately fluid, visual and fun. Our most important project management tools included a large whiteboard depicting where we were in the process, a large calendar to denote our deliverable dates and timelines and to-do lists written on large sticky pads.
In the short time following the opening of the new space, the Rethink Space team has received positive anecdotal feedback from MICHR staff and guests suggesting that the new space is “more functional,” “matches their style of work,” “is more collaborative,” “is less intrusive,” “has more natural light,” and “is friendlier.” The project was nominated for a Medical School Administration team award by the staff. The team also won an Ergo Hero award from the University of Michigan for our creative efforts in building a multiple purpose open space, thus improving communication and collaboration among staff. In terms of usage, we have observed that the open space is almost always occupied, either by a single large group or by multiple smaller teams. Attendance seems to have increased at MICHR events like the monthly all-staff meetings, lunchtime enrichment presentations, and celebrations, which are now all held in the open space. The quiet area is also occupied often and the dedicated team rooms are in use.
This creates a more inviting and welcoming atmosphere where people can come together to visit, collaborate and create synergy — MICHR employee
It has really helped with team dynamics. — MICHR employee
From individual designers to large scale organizations, we have been inspired from a lot of different sources. We have also had the chance to read some great books and visit some cool places. Hopefully our collection of resources will help you as well.