(Work) Space + Culture = (Work) Place

In a number of my previous blog posts, I have mentioned examples where staff workspaces have been improved through Library development projects, such as Lancaster University Library and Freiburg UB.


I have always had great interest in the effect of the workspace on individual and team performance. As a Human Geographer, I am fascinated by the relationship between space, behaviour and culture. In my former role as Deputy Facilities Manager for SPORT Manchester at The University of Manchester, we transformed the staff workspace and reception area at the Armitage Sports Centre. This had a profound effect on how staff worked, collaborated and socialised and at the same time how our students and customers interacted with us and their overall experience. However, it’s fair to say that as with every project, we still learnt lessons on how to be better next time.

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From my experience, we often focus on improving spaces that relate directly to the services we deliver; shop floors, sports halls, restaurant dining rooms and tram stops. In ‘customer facing’ areas we consult, assess and engage with users in order to find out what they need and subsequently shape designs so that they are the best they possibly can be. We use journey mapping, UX (user experience) methodology and ethnographic studies to understand user behaviour and reflect our findings in the design.

However I think it is fair to say that we don’t always apply the same principle to the spaces in which staff and teams work, especially if it’s ‘behind the scenes’. Actually, this isn’t completely true. The approach to the design of workspaces and the effect this has on individual performance and the culture of an organisation differs from sector to sector. Feel free to do a google image search of the following phrases – it explains my point perfectly:

With the on-going evolution of academic libraries as service providers, we must ensure that our workspaces are evolving at the same rate too.

The effect that workspaces have on performance and behaviour mustn’t be underestimated. I recently attended a breakfast learning event run by BIFM North on “The Evolving Workplace” at the Alan Turing Imaginarium (MediaCityUK) and picked up a range of great ideas. Mark Catchlove, Herman Miller, refreshed us with the ideas of Robert Propst who co-conceived the Action Office in the 1960s and explored the current relevance of Propst’s seminal wisdom from his book The office, a facility based on change (Propst, R. 1968). Mark explained that how many workspaces are currently configured are primarily through accidents – the way we work has evolved but often our workspaces haven’t. He encouraged us to use data in order to understand the situation better but that any new workspace will not be perfect:

‘We must accept this’ and ‘We must be allowed to change the space and/or our minds’

Ian Ellison of 3edges then shared his findings from his own doctoral workspace research, ‘What matters to both providers and users about workspace?’, and invited us to consider the on-going implications for workspace design. Ian used a simple but effective equation:

(Work) Space + Culture = (Work) Place

Space is a reflection of both how/what you are (as an organisation) and what you could be, and it’s crucial to understand what matters to staff about space – what helps, hinders, delights or disgusts them.

Our own Main Library Redevelopment has provided us not only with the opportunity to radically improve and offer new, better spaces for our staff to work in, but also to start having greater dialogue about the role of our workspaces and how they affect both our operational and strategic ambitions.

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It is fantastic to work in such a forward thinking organisation. The University of Manchester Library is investigating current perceptions of our workspaces and how we operate within them. It is right to say that the library spaces we currently occupy are not those of the future and with this in mind, now is the time to start assessing, analysing, trialling and evaluating different approaches to our workspaces. There is more discussion taking place about how we need to work in the future and with this, the environments we need that will help us perform at our best, not least to mention spaces that will also make us happier and healthier.

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We’re currently piloting an agile working model in order to ascertain the effect of this new way of working on our staff, how we’re able to organise teams and use space in more efficient and effective ways for all library users. Defined by CIPD as ‘workforce agility’, our model is exploring how and where we work and how a change in approach to this may help individuals, teams and the Library. Having visited University College London to learn about the roll out of agile working across Professional Services staff, it was encouraging to see the success they had experienced. We are also experimenting with different approaches to furniture in workspaces. It is clear that there is no one-size-fits-all – what one team needs can be the same, similar or completely different  to another team’s needs; needs which will continue to change (in varying degrees) over time. The response from the pilots so far is very positive – a simple indication of this is the increased amount of discussions I’m having with people about workspace, often around their own ideas of how to make things better.

Google’s London office is a well-known for having a slide. Whole areas at Lego’s London Hub is dedicated to, guess what, Lego! UKFast’s Manchester office has a retro gaming centre. These things are all great for their organisations, but it doesn’t instantly mean that they will work well elsewhere. As with our approach to ensure that the design of our Library spaces (for students, learners and researchers) complement our institutional context, we must also make sure this is the same in regards to the design of our staff workspaces. Google needs a slide, but our workspaces may not. Lego needs Lego areas; your workspace may not. This relates to any discussions about layout, decoration and tidiness. What do staff need from their workspaces in order to work as easily, effectively and enjoyably as possible?

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I met with Ian Jones (Director of Facilities and Workplace, ITV) in December 2015 at his MediaCityUK offices. We chatted about how Ian has taken his organisation on a transformational journey of its spaces whilst continuing to support the needs of three different working cultures. In supporting this need, Ian and his team were brave and sometimes radical in both their thinking and approach. In became apparent that often workspaces in organisations stagnate due to the fact that nobody really owns them and those that do are often guided by parameters in squared meters, not productivity or happiness. Ian brought workspaces under his remit and focused on how improvements should be made in order to help his people work and feel better. To investigate this further, Ian allowed his staff to experiment with furniture in order to create spaces that worked for them. There are also rooms with completely mobile furniture so that any individual or team using them can organise them to their specific need, easily and quickly.

As a member of the British Institute of Facilities Management I was very interested to see the development and launch of The Stoddart Review. The report summaries a wide range of research and analysis undertaken that indicates that an effective workplace can improve productivity by as much as 3.5%. It outlines the problem I referred to earlier in that many organisations think in terms of space and square meters, not people and productivity. The review is very interesting and I encourage everyone to spend some time going through it, if not for the mere benefit of becoming more aware of the opportunities that our workspaces provide us to ‘do what we do, better’.

Even though Ian Ellison encourages us to accept that no workspace will ever be perfect, we might be getting closer. The Edge in Amsterdam is quoted as being not only the greenest building in the world but also “possibly the smartest office space ever constructed”. We will not have such a workspace overnight at the University of Manchester Library, but as they say ‘shoot for the stars and even if you miss, you’ll still hit the moon’! The first step for anyone on this journey is to begin dialogue about the role the workplace plays in the effectiveness of your organisation.

Mike Kelly, Library Space Development Manager at The University of Manchester Library.


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