The persuasive influence of good workplace design

January 18, 2009
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The great thing about classical music is that it doesn’t explicitly tell the listener what to think or how to feel. Instead it allows the listener a certain ownership of the music, giving some direction but letting the listener fill in the details.

Joe Jeup, founder and CEO, walked through the manufacturing department of Jeup Furniture’s new home near Gerald R. Ford International Airport, seeing it in action for the first time since moving in Jan. 5. In the middle of discussing how the company finally had a home built specifically for it, how every work station has been purposefully designed and how even the tool racks were created for maximum ease of use, he stopped and smiled.

He was looking at a craftsman at work. “It’s interesting because I didn’t tell them where to put the racks. It’s so funny: I know what racks he’s using for the process he just got done with, and now instead of throwing (clamps) all over the floor where they used to be, they’re back on the racks.”

Like the effect of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 on a listener, Jeup’s simple, well-thought-out design for the shop has a subtle, persuasive effect on the craftsman — the effect good design can have when put to use in workplace systems and business strategies.

“I think it comes down to the most complex of systems and the most simplistic systems. The smallest of things breaks down into design every day,” said Jeup.

“Good designers lead people to their decisions; they don’t tell them what to do. I take those design principles and put them into my business. The business aspects of my company are about leading people through design so that they don’t feel like they’re being told what to do, but they’re given a direction.”

Jeup said that often employees and managers are disgruntled because of communication issues and a lack of empowerment.

“It’s because there’s a lack of communication, a lack of systems, and there’s too many variables — there’s too many variables for the employee to fail. The employer (should) stop and look at what they’re doing wrong first, and then say, ‘OK, how can I help them be more empowered?’”

It’s the same principle he found enhanced his furniture designs — restraint. Jeup said there is a tendency to want to put every good idea into one design, but that hinders the design of the piece. By simplifying some of the variables, his furniture is more timeless, he said.

Bryan Koehn, principal and director of design at Progressive AE, also believes in the strength of simplicity.

“We’ve kind of coined it as ‘design with discipline.’ With design, if you create a pretty clear process, it allows you to innovate along the way,” said Koehn. “So if you understand the steps, if you understand the tools, and you understand the information that you need to gather upfront to create a great foundation for creativity, that’s the discipline side.”

Progressive AE, an architecture, engineering, construction and consulting firm, sees workers as very adaptive to their work environment.

“It’s human nature that we’re going to adapt, so if it’s (a client’s) environment, we look at how they’ve started to adapt so we can have that insight when we start getting creative — making sure that the environment and the solution allows for that adaptation to be intuitive.”

Holly Nyland, workplace practice leader at Progressive AE, has been tracking the impact of workspace design on the culture and behavior of an organization.

“Culture is a big part of it, as organizations take a look at where they’re going strategically — and today, the top things on the minds of CEOs are around attraction and retention, around sustainability,” said Nyland. “It’s really important for them to have an understanding of their talents and their culture: who they are and how they want to express who they are through their brand.”

As an example of how the design of the physical environment affects those in it, Nyland and Koehn used the example of the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit that seeks to inspire both young students and adults. According to the center’s Web site: “The idea behind WMCAT is to create a mutually respectful culture between instructors and students … a culture that treats people with dignity and respect and affirms their sense of self-worth … that offers opportunity to urban youth and a fresh start to adults.”

Koehn said the center takes at-risk youths, mainly high school students in the Grand Rapids Public Schools, and exposes them to the arts in a way that asks more of them.

“We produced a space, and when you walk into this setting, it’s one of these big surprises. They are taking students who are not the top students but (those) at risk of dropping out,” said Koehn. “What we created was a space that celebrated and respected them. Their artwork is on the wall, but it’s in an environment that feels like a professional gallery. They are allowed to take the cameras from the space and use them over the weekend; they have not had any theft or vandalism. The space is respected, the space is clean. … It’s quite a different environment and it has changed behavior in these students.”

Respecting the value of the workers seems to be at the core of what design techniques can bring to the workplace: giving workers a voice about their work environment and making them feel heard. Jeup calls it “buy-in.”

“We’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes here. I don’t make these systems alone,” said Jeup. “That’s why they work: because they’re actually empowered by the people, and by asking for their inclusion, there’s buy-in.”

Jeup said the collaborative process is essential because of the different lenses through which different people view the same system. The more angles from which a system is viewed, the easier it is to identify its pros and cons and eliminate unneeded variables. This also gives each person and department a voice and adds to the company’s success as a whole.

“We certainly don’t want to elevate one area only to hurt another, and all interests have to be met. Then when we get a buy-in, the chances of success are far greater,” said Jeup.

“They feel like they’ve been heard. There’s so many forces combating business today, just from an interpersonal relationship standpoint.

“We’ve got enough troubles out there in the economy, but it’s a constant never-ending job to get your staff on pace and understanding the core values of the company. Everyone can go right back to the core value and say, ‘This is by design. This works because we all have a general interest in it, and I believe in it.”

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