Primo Orpilla Interview #2: Users are crucial to good office design
[June 27, 2017] BY Kazumasa Ikoma
“Our designs are the result of taking the time to meet with employees.”
In this article we continue the interview with Primo Orpilla, co-founder of Studio O+A. The interview focuses on how interactions between people and office design add value, the role of office design and, conversely, what is required of employees to make use of the design. We ask Primo for a designer’s perspective on healthy relationships between employees and the office.
Employees need to take the initiative and use the different spaces
The things that a company cares about can be expressed in office design. Obviously, employees don’t want to be a cog in the company machine. A single glance at the office is all it takes to understand how much a company cares about its employees, and whether employees can freely share their ideas.
On the other hand, I would say that the weakness in company design is that its real value only emerges if employees understand the concepts and try to make use of the space. A lot of people are under the impression that incorporating a design is all it takes to encourage collaboration and community building, but it is not that simple.
Two types of leadership are needed to capitalize on our designs. First, there is the kind of leader who takes the initiative and makes use of the space. Here, I’m mainly referring to employees in the management ranks or project leaders. The value of the office increases when they take the initiative, showing willingness to use the different spaces and encouraging other employees to do the same.
Conversely, if we design spaces that provide for different styles of working, our designs are totally meaningless if the boss says that employees always have to be at the desk assigned to them. In the end, that’s a waste of a design. You need to create an atmosphere where employees don’t hesitate to leave their desk to relax by playing a board game.
The 2015 design for the Uber office in San Francisco. The rooms with table tennis and table soccer facilities see a great deal of use.
Respect employees who ask questions
The other type of leadership is when individuals working in a newly designed office show their commitment by identifying points that can be improved. Both the designers and the bosses encouraging people to use spaces where new design elements have been incorporated must give employees opportunities to question whether there aren’t better ways to use the space.
We never impose our designs on anyone. Instead, we value constructive participation from employees in the design planning process because people who have been involved in the process are able to seamlessly adapt to the subsequent changes.
This is similar to everyday business. If a consulting company suddenly shows up and says, “Change this and this,” people don’t welcome the changes and improvements, nor does anyone make an effort to recognize their value. We respect employees who ask questions.
When working on designs, most of our effort goes into understanding the corporate culture.
The job of an office designer is not only to create designs; it is also important to undertake substantial research to develop an understanding of the corporation. This is why we think it is particularly important to observe the client company when we work on designs. This approach has now become one of our strong points. When clients hire us to do a job, they often have some vague criteria for the kind of office they want and how they want to present the company culture, but they do not have a full understanding of what they want.
This is why we normally spend two weeks actually looking around the office, listening to the opinions of the employees who will use the new office, and analyzing our research findings. Then we spend another two weeks on more specific research and analyses to shed light on the problematic issues at the corporation.
Sometimes we also ask employees pointed questions about what they don’t like about the office, or if there is something in the office that lowers their productivity. Depending on the corporation, employees run the risk of getting fired if they are too critical (laughs), but we give the opportunities to speak openly since it is our end goal to introduce improvements at the company.
Studio O+A remodeled its own office in 2014. Before the remodeling, desks were piled high with design sketches that were not only taking up space, but also making it difficult to share good designs with other employees. By making the desks smaller and storing the design proposals elsewhere, the usable desk space was increased. By pinning design proposals to the wall as suggested by employees, it is now easier to share good design with the whole office.
It is our job to gather as many opinions as possible and to create an office where employees can coexist. It is perhaps difficult to please all employees, but through design it is possible to remove the causes for complaints. When we question employees repeatedly, a lot of minor problems emerge such as finding loud voices disturbing or being unable to concentrate because of the smell of other people’s food in the office.
To deal with these kinds of problems, we work with employees to create an atmosphere that encourages communication throughout the office. We have to create an environment where employees can work together to resolve problems. It is also important to provide spaces and areas where employees can relax on their own, and to create an environment where employees feel free to choose such spaces when they need them.
It is the job of the office designer to enrich the inclusive experience of the employees in the office and to provide employees with opportunities that encourage them to grow. This is why we continue to pay attention to changes among the employees after we have completed an office design.
The 2016 redesign of the Cisco office in San Jose
We don’t really want to listen to complaints. But it is extremely important for employees that there is someone who will listen to their opinions. The first step is to take the time to build trust with employees and to closely observe the corporation to figure out what employees really think and to identify the issues. Our designs reflect the improvements. This is why we don’t work with corporations who don’t give us enough time to get to know the corporate culture, but only want a design.
Office design is a forum for mutual understanding between companies and employees
When we visit employees in the Bay Area to ask them questions, the Millennials share a lot of ideas with us. At the same time, they also have a lot of requests. If they don’t see any improvements, they find a job at another company. The highly mobile labor force in San Francisco is one of the reasons for the growing focus on office design. Employees don’t think about where they will be ten or twenty years from now. They don’t stay in one place, but hop from company to company in search of the family, organization, or corporation where they feel a sense of belonging.
This is why today’s employees quit right away if they see that the company isn’t making an effort. It has never been this difficult to retain excellent staff. People care a great deal about the willingness of corporations to listen. For employees, change alone is not the point—they expect corporations to change in meaningful ways. If not, there is only one response: they simply leave.
It’s in this context that companies now try to clearly express their corporate culture through office design and to be more selective about finding quality staff that will fit in with the company. Office design has become a forum for mutual understanding between companies and employees.
Office design for the new generation
The Millennial generation aside, new generations will emerge in the future. We will keep an eye on how they behave and what their interests are.
There are already five different generations working together in the office. There are the traditionalists, born before 1946, who built the internal hierarchical structures. There are the baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, who worked so hard that they coined the term workaholic. Generation X, born between 1965 and 1976, emphasize experience and performance over status. The Millennial generation, born between 1977 and 1997, value work-life balance while Generation Z, born after 1997, have a strong interest in remote work and social media communication. I think that the office of the future will be both more complex and more important because so many generations will work together.
These days, the workplace takes up a greater part of our lives. It is the place where people spend more time working together and where they form a sort of collective entity that creates a service or a product based on the methods of the company. It is for this reason that we try to increase opportunities for social interaction to get people to be more active.
We use design to increase the places and opportunities where the opinions of employees are heard. I think this is fundamental to the creation of a good workplace regardless of what service or product the employees handle. A good workplace inspires employees with a sense of confidence that they are in the right job and that they are doing something worthwhile.
(Continued in Part 3)
Writer of this post
Kazumasa IkomaWhile working as an office manager in San Francisco, he posted numerous articles about the office designs, corporate cultures, and working styles on the West Coast. He researches what constitutes comfortable offices for companies and employees every day and puts his ideas into practice at his company.
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