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Designing a Campus to Drive a Culture of Innovation

Confidential Financial Services Firm, Photography by Christopher Barrett, Image © Gensler

This post is part of a series of blog posts on Gensler’s 2016 Workplace Surveys.

Innovation—be it disruptive, transformative, groundbreaking, radical, revolutionary, incremental, ad hoc, or just by itself—the word is everywhere today. So ubiquitous is its use that many people argue it doesn’t really mean anything anymore; a Harvard Business Review article suggests that we should retire the term altogether

But while innovation may be overused, vague and easy to ridicule, at Gensler it still matters. It matters because innovation is what our clients expect of their real estate investment, particularly with large campuses, that it support the business leadership they strive for—new products and new ideas, speed to market, higher employee engagement, better customer relationships, and so much more.

Every Client’s Goal

Whether implied or stated as an outright project goal, innovation is what brings every client to Gensler. When a company has made the decision to invest in a new or revitalized campus, they’re not looking for status quo. They want innovation—in the design process and in the design solution.

We take client goals seriously, and to that end we made innovation the main focus of our latest U.S. Workplace Survey, released in July. Using an innovation index made up of six questions focused on key facets of innovation, we were able to divide our 4,000 person respondent pool into high innovation and low innovation groups. Comparing the workplace environments of the two groups has helped us identify critical insights into what drives innovation at the scales of campus, building and workplace.

A Connected Campus = Connected Innovators

Source: Gensler U.S. Workplace Survey 2016, Image © Gensler

It sounds deceptively simple, but the more people see each other, the more likely they are to talk and to build social networks. This leads to trust, to being more aware of what others are working on, and to an openness to share opinions and insights. This is how ideas spread and grow through an organization. This is how leaders at various levels learn about and see the work teams are doing. The built environment is key in allowing this informal, unplanned interaction to occur.

Building scale and shape are critical factors to consider. Can 5,000 workers connect on 12 floors of a conventional high-rise? Unlikely. Could the same number of workers connect in a mega, single-floor building? Probably not. How about 5,000 workers in separate buildings? Definitely not.

We’ve found the optimal size floor plate to be between 60-80k and no more than three levels. Putting any more distance between employees, to paraphrase Tom Allen, is the equivalent of sending them into outer space. Density also matters. Not as a real estate efficiency tactic—a shortsighted approach that gave “open offices” an undeserved bad name—but as a means to create energy and buzz and most importantly increase the opportunity to connect with colleagues.

A Campus with Variety = Choice for Innovators

Source: Gensler U.S. Workplace Survey 2016, Image © Gensler

While building scale, shape and density create the foundations for connection, workplaces need to allow choice, prioritize socialization, and provide a network of amenities to truly leverage a campus’s innovative potential.

Advances in technology mean today’s workers no longer need to be at their desk to get work done. In fact, a growing number of organizations are giving up traditional assigned workstations and giving their employees freedom to match work task to the spatial conditions most conducive to it. This approach entails providing a wide variety of space types for individual work, collaboration, learning and socializing across a campus. The emphasis on designing the places beyond a traditional work neighborhood are more critical than ever and can be leveraged to drive employees’ productivity and satisfaction. From a corporate real estate point of view, less space can be provided to desks and more to support the daily life of innovators.

Amenities can play a key role in supporting each of the four work modes, and can be strategically placed throughout a campus to increase interaction and chance meeting, spurring “social serendipity.”

An Amenity-Rich Campus = Strong Social Capital

Source: Gensler U.S. Workplace Survey 2016, Image © Gensler

While the term amenity has connotations of being about perks or non-necessities, progressive organizations recognize them as a critical component of an effective workplace strategy and plan for them accordingly. Amenities that are used throughout the day—water, snacks, restrooms, focus rooms, informal collaboration areas—need to be within a 1-minute walk of an employee. Spaces that might be accessed one or two times a day—food services, retail, fitness, town hall, living rooms, training and development centers, outdoor areas—can treated as “destination amenities” and placed to maximize employee encounters; not so far away as to discourage use, but far enough away so employees encounter people they might not otherwise see.

Not only do amenity spaces indirectly impact innovation, a new breed of amenity is emerging, designed to directly move the needle on new ideas and new thinking. “Innovation Spaces” break the static traditional work process and allow a team to be together in a highly outfitted, choice-enabled environment tailored to their industry—software development, agile work rooms; tinker labs for product design companies or engineers; workflow management virtual collaboration rooms for process innovators, dashboard zones for executives, etc.

A Defining Moment

Creating an innovation culture is the defining goal for organizations today, which makes this a defining moment for workplace and campus design. Our innovation research and applied learnings on projects proves the worth of treating the built environment, not as an overhead cost, but as a powerful tool for achieving business goals.

But we have to be clear on what really matters in designing for an innovation culture: building and campus design to robustly connect employees; choreographed variety of where employees can be most productive as an individual and as a team; and lastly, but most importantly is to capitalize on the right network of amenities to drive social interaction.

Todd is a firmwide leader of Gensler’s corporate campuses practice and has worked with technology companies, professional service companies and top law firms to reimagine and enhance their workspaces. His more than 25 years of experience in designing complex urban and suburban corporate campus projects, along with his architectural background and deep knowledge of workplace design, promote a unique integration of spatial considerations and planning that support clients’ businesses and inspire their workforce. Contact him at todd_baisch@gensler.com.