Space to perform

Space to perform
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First Published: Thu, Feb 19 2009. 01 10 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Feb 23 2009. 11 18 AM IST
Peter Senge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s leading management guru, famously wrote in his best-seller, The Fifth Discipline: “The only significant competitive advantage is your organization’s ability to learn faster than competitors.” A learning organization, according to him, “is continually expanding its capacity to create its future”. MindTree’s founders (see lead article) were clearly reading from the same book when they listed learning as a core company value.
The office ecosystem
MindTree has constructed a “knowledge ecosystem”, a set of four interrelated factors that build its intellectual capabilities and positively impact customers. Interestingly for us, “physical space” is one of these resources.
According to MindTree co-founder Subroto Bagchi: “Looking at the physical infrastructure as a cradle for the intellectual and the emotional helps us create a very different organization. As you walk around MindTree, you will be enveloped in an integrated experience: The physical delivers an emotional message and together, they enable superior intellectual performance.” This approach is exemplified in the company’s latest facility, the Orchard learning centre, specifically designed to offer the emotional security of a “home” to recruits fresh off campus.
How does the space perform?
The Orchard illustrates a critical principle in office interior design, which we call “spatial behaviour”, i.e., how a space actually performs (as opposed to how it looks or feels), and is derived from the ways in which its occupants of that space interact with each other. The Orchard behaves as a home plus college—the architects researched the needs and behaviour of its intended end-users and developed a programme for the space in accordance with the company’s stated business objective: enabling better learning. The design logic of the office was not defined by surface materials or per-square-foot thinking, as in many office interior fit-outs.
Prem Chandavarkar of CnT defines this approach as the difference between the “aesthetics of expression and the aesthetics of absorption”. When an architect adopts the former approach, he is essentially motivated to make the space look innovative and express his creativity. When an architect designs in accordance with the latter approach, he wants a space to leave a lasting impression on its occupants, by “facilitating experiences and memories”. In practice, this means something as simple as providing an alcove in a long corridor for users to take a break during a phone call (photograph below).
How do your people behave?
Office spaces behave in ways which, to a large extent, are determined by the social dynamics of their occupants. Anuradha Parikh of Matrix Architecture used the metaphor of a “work village” to build a sense of community for Tata Chemicals (visit to read last month’s article reviewing this project). Kapil Gupta of Serie used intelligent interior architecture to transform the prison-like facilities of a jewellery manufacturer into a humane craftsmen’s workshop.
Many Indian office spaces behave like glorified versions of army barracks, with neat lines of workstations for foot soldiers, lavish quarters for the company’s generals and boundaries between divisional units to reflect a traditional command-and-control management style. In recent times, several companies have chosen to make their offices behave like art galleries or boutique hotels: providing comfort for employees and impressing visitors.
Even well-intentioned space planning efforts can misfire if there is a misfit between employees and environs. Some IT companies provided country club-like tennis courts and gyms on their campuses, only to realize that this culture was alien to the average software engineer.
To improve the performance of your workplace, consider how you want your people to interact with each other. Next, think of non-office environments where such behaviour is seen. Are there any aspects of those spaces that you can apply to your office? A concept of spatial behaviour, tailored to your organization, should emerge.
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First Published: Thu, Feb 19 2009. 01 10 AM IST