Let's talk about the iPhone for a minute. What does that have to do with office design and the modern workplace? Bear with me a moment, and it'll become clear.

Before the iPhone totally pivoted the cell phone market, people would have said their most desirable feature phone requirements were extended battery life and better cell reception for a crystal clear connection that didn't drop. People didn't even know they could have what's essentially become a pocket computer. But Apple considered the people behind the phones rather than what people did with their existing phones. The result answered needs consumers didn't even know to ask for: a calendar that would keep appointments and remind us of upcoming events, a music library to distract us on long trips or commutes, a texting app that would keep us more connected than ever before (with a QWERTY keyboard so we didn't have to press buttons multiple times to hit all the right letters). And then came the app store, and the rest is history.

The concept behind this is called Design Thinking, which seeks to put a human-centric spin on what products, services, and environments people utilize to enable the most productive and innovative use of our abilities. For the modern workplace, this way of thinking breaks employees out of their "talent silo" by recognizing that workers can form greater connections to their teams, their environments, and by extension boost their creativity to bring innovative solutions of incredible value to a competitive marketplace.

Human Energy Creates Leadership and a Pioneering Spirit

Put simply, innovation is risky. Voicing unconventional ideas requires employees to make themselves vulnerable to criticism, which, if we're honest, is hard to do. But if your company can foster an environment and company culture where that vulnerability is celebrated, and make safety to voice the unique not just a job perk but a requirement, the ground-breaking advancements that really shake up your industry are yours for the taking.

It's about creating a physical and emotional environment that promotes creative solutions to human problems and then implementing those solutions in a profitable way.

Building a Human-Centric Office

Office design is a foundational piece of the structural building blocks of Design Thinking, and it starts with the human element. Begin with a total overhaul of conventional ideas surrounding:

  • The value your employees bring to their job
  • Quality of their work-life
  • Diversity and perspective, not just with talent functions but life experiences
  • The consumer market and customer expectations
  • Business models
  • Societal shifts
  • Anywhere challenges in one area collide with another

Human beings can be rational creatures, but we can also be emotional. We can be logical, but we can also be creative and fanciful. Sometimes, a marriage of all these realms is where true innovation lives. Instead of favoring one element over another, embrace them all to see what emerges. It can be refreshing and mind-boggling, what we're capable of when conventional constraints are lifted.

People, Not Processes

Since the Industrial Revolution, companies have been in the business of improving processes on the basis of gaining the maximum benefit for the least amount of resources. This often leaves employees lower on the priority totem pole than they should be, and while yes, streamlining processes does make workers' lives easier, it also raises the bar on expectation. Technology has accelerated the concept, and now, employees are expected to complete more work faster than ever before. After decades of this attitude, people are facing burn-out at record levels. Add in globalization and technological advancement that puts our jobs at our fingertips without the physical constraints of an office, and it's no wonder true innovation is so elusive.

People need a workspace that helps recharge not only their batteries but their inspiration.

In changing our environments to a more human-centered focus, we break molds that have been entrenched for far too long. Just ask Google, when the design of their Zurich office reached the internet. Many people called their playful, unconventional workspace with slides, toys, game rooms, and nap pods childish. While that environment would not work for a law firm, or an engineering company, Google recognized that their employees were stagnating sitting at the same desk day-in-day-out for hours on end. You can't argue with the result: Google's now the gatekeeper of the entire internet.

How'd they do it?  They studied the people, not the work itself. Google took a deep dive look at what their employees did, and they saw a need: an environment in which employees felt safe to bring up new and never-before-considered solutions. By making it playful, Google's leadership effectively said, "Yes! Your ideas are welcome here, no matter how outlandish or different than anything before." It worked.

How To Sustain Advancement

Fear of failure drives many of us, employee and company alike, to hold back. Taking risks is absolutely required for an environment of innovation and advancement. If one isn't equipped to weather the risk-to-return ratio, it doesn't take long to lose purpose. But the status quo is not the way forward. Today's market demands change, opportunity, and the fulfillment of increasing expectations by consumers. Keeping with tradition in the office environment will not meet competitive requirements today. Design Thinking is what will set your brand apart and give you the competitive advantage necessary to lead the pack.

It begins with empathy.

Businesses must consider their diverse workforce's point of view from as many angles as possible. Buzzwords aren't enough. Real understanding of your workforce is necessary, which means you need to know the environments they need, from collaborative spaces, private alcoves for focus, brainstorm functionality of technology and furniture, and an ability for your employees to not only tackle problems, but identify them in the first place.

Next, define the purpose. What are you there to do, and how can you bring actualization of that purpose? This leads right into the next step.

Ideas make the world go around. Now that you know what your employees need, and what their purpose is, how can you go about facilitating that?

How can you inspire their ideas for forward thinking? A more comfortable environment with better lighting and air quality? More greenery in the office? A spa-like atmosphere in a high-pressure industry can help employees maintain calm, or a retreat-type space can inspire creativity, just like Microsoft did with their treehouse retreats.

To implement the new ideas to create a more human-emphasized office space, the next steps are to test them.

Implementation can be expensive, so converting a small area of your office space to the new design for testing and feedback purposes can save time and mistakes before committing to a whole office upgrade.

The best part is these steps can be completed over and over, not just on the internal company structure and environment, but on outward problem solving for clientele and customers. The agility to move from problem to solution in a unique, people-focused way will support a wide variety of work--not just to improve the office but to improve the work your company puts out into the world.

Employees can achieve more with the application of Design Thinking, not just for themselves, but for everyone they serve.

Awareness Abounds

Inherently, humans are evolving all the time. We learn, we adapt, and we are designed to innovate. Design Thinking helps lever us out of our ruts, interrupting our routines. The more we're aware of our capabilities, the more we can rely on those capabilities to communicate and connect for the active innovation we all seek in our work life. When companies are aware of the effect a dynamic and supportive office space have, employees will become more aware of their own dynamic and supportive abilities for each other and those whom they serve.

Spaces are symbolic as well as functional. It's why an environment has such a powerful impact on our behavior. When beautiful, dynamic spaces are provided alongside technological tools and resources employees need to complete their jobs, the results exceed expectations each and every time. That these same spaces are perceived as safe means greater collaboration, bigger ideas, and more unique opportunities can be created, which supports everyone involved in a self-fulfilling cycle.

Where Do We Start?

To begin, ask your employees three things:

  1. What are they doing and why are they doing it?
  2. How are they currently doing it, and in what ways are they stymied?
  3. What do they need to get around those obstacles and fulfill their needs?

Keep in mind they may not know what they need, just like pre-smartphone users didn't. Listen to what they're saying, what stories they're telling. Are there patterns, and if so, are they positive or negative? You might be surprised what you can learn.

The factory model is no longer viable.

People work best when they have the choice of a dynamic environment, and when that environment is comfortable, resourceful, and human-centered. Such a workspace can spark energy, which your employees can then use to carry their momentum onward and upward.

Published on: May 28, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.