design vibes

January 25, 2016 0 comments

Working out of the Box is a compilation of forty columns by Aparna Piramal Raje over five years for Mint in a column called The Head Office, which she started writing in 2008. In these profiles, she seeks to demystify the corporate lives of forty CEOs of India’s leading companies, to probe their personal and business values, and to seek insights into the significance workplace design plays in their success.

439-2The bigger challenge, however, that she has set for herself in this book is to construct a pattern-reading toolkit, one that categorizes the organizational types of contemporary workspaces, and connect them to a classification of work styles that she feels define individual CEOs. Her hope is that beyond satiating our curiosity about the seemingly larger-than-life lives of these industry titans, her book can contribute to the production of a discursive wisdom, useful to both aspiring corporate and design professionals, which emphasizes the increasing centrality of innovation in workplace design as a critical tool for business success.

What makes this book special is that while internationally there has been a lot of documented research on the evolution and design of the workplace, it is a first for India. Raje captures and reveals the cultural nuances and specificities of a local corporate landscape that, at the same time, is seamlessly integrated into a global economy.

So how effectively does her toolkit work? The classification of the workspace into four types is useful as it reveals how different businesses (law, media, finance, or manufacturing for example) demand different spatial organizations (cellular, open plan, or casual). The work style categories reveal how the author skillfully analyzes a CEO in each interview, expressing his or her business and personal values as well as specific styles such as agility, resilience, or innovation.

The connection between a CEO’s work style and his or her commitment to inventive workspace design is often most effectively demonstrated when their own workspace is either shared with their employees or is seamlessly accessible to them. This is when the relationship between business values and the mindful organization of space is clearly visible. This connection sometimes feels less vital within isolated C-suites where the author has to rely solely on the decor of the individual room as a point of research without the opportunity to examine the strategies that inform the design of the larger office. The layout of the C-suites of CEOs across different business sectors is highly diverse, oscillating between very generic to ephemeral and transient, and one senses that while workplace design is an important agenda for their companies, these enlightened and highly motivated folk could work equally and effectively in any kind of workspace given to them.

The book, interestingly, also makes visible other broader patterns and shifts in corporate economy of the country such as the rise of the knowledge economy. Almost half the CEOs in the book represent sectors such as finance, IT, consulting, ecommerce, and media which constitute an emerging knowledge economy; the greater half lies in the services and industrial economies such as FMCG, automotive, hotels, and real estate. These interviews reveal virtuous changes occurring across all sectors to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the workplace, enhance productivity, cost efficiency, and facilitate growth through the use of new technology and management systems.

The leading edge of workplace design innovation is however prominently seen in those knowledge sector economies where employee performance and well-being are critical components of business success. Employee workspace is the center of design attention, where the desire is to create an empathetic environment, which will nurture talent, foster collaboration, and promote flexibility. A recent Global Empathy Index survey by a UK-based consultancy states that “there is a direct link between empathy and commercial success. Businesses are more profitable and productive when they act ethically, treat their staff well, and communicate better with their customers”. In this survey, the top nine firms were knowledge economy companies. These companies significantly outperformed the bottom ten in the index based on an analysis of internal culture, CEO performance, ethics, and [presence on]social media.

This quality of empathy, the book hearteningly suggests, is increasingly visible in the corporate world as is a concern for the environment. The author suggests a separate workplace category for companies that value sustainability not as a marketing catchphrase, but as a tangible ethical principle. They not only benefit from reducing operating costs by consuming resources frugally, but also lead to an inventive use of technology and space. Employees could be encouraged to work from home and communicate through online meetings, which reduces permanent desks and allows office infrastructure to be leaner and highly adaptive to different uses and users. People become energized by the autonomy and responsibility given to them, to participate in creating a new work culture and a more sustainable world.

            Working Out of The Box is an insightful and important read which maps not only the transformation of contemporary work culture by these visionary CEOs, but also the dynamic and increasing congruence between design thinking and the diversity of work environments within the corporate world today.

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