Workspace: Is it physical, or mental?

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Bart Cleveland wrote a nice piece last week over at AdAge’s Small Agency Diary about moving his company into a new, more creative focused and eco-efficient office space.  The point of the article, however, is in what environment does one do truly great work, and how much of it is your physical space, and how much is simply mental?

“Thus, our work should get even better. But will it? Is this physical environment we’ve created that important to make us better? No. I’ve seen many agencies that have amazing offices, yet the work on their walls is the equivalent of a creative hovel. Physical workspace makes little difference if our “mental workspace” is ill designed and constructed. The mental workspace is where the will of your employees truly lives. If you design it correctly, you allow them to do better work.”

And even more to the point, this thought pretty much sums it up:

“It doesn’t matter how beautiful you make your mental workspace — if there are holes in the ceiling, the weather is going to ruin everything. Without proper shelter, weather (i.e. the concerns, questions and fear that inevitably come from clients) erodes good thinking and if left unchecked, the faith of the thinker. A good mental workspace doesn’t permit the continuous barrage to overwhelm the work or the workers. It gives them room to find an answer to the concerns and questions without compromising the work. “

I must admit I love his imagery- the dark corners of your mind broken up by holes in the ceiling from which the heat and airconditioning escapes, therefore leaving you to focus on that which is not the key to doing great work.

Other people have pointed out how an organized workspace helps you better to streamline the thinking process into getting things done, which sounds great, if you can avoid getting caught up in the stuff that goes into being organized, rather then the better mental functioning that one is supposed to gain from it.  But just getting your individual workspace functional and organized is not really what we’re talking about here.  We’re talking more along the line of The Seven Habits, being productive, working as a team toward a goal.  Does that require Aeron chairs and 24″ iMac with two screens?

Our friends at Barkley, here in Kansas City, found that de-siloing the office worked for them.  They also moved into new space, with a completely fresh redesigned building that had its own history, with the idea that updgraded technology and comfortable and design focused workspaces will help everyone be more creative, more fresh, more sound in their challenge to bring great ideas to their clients.

Many agencies, and in truth, many companies, find that the newness itself is enough of a catalyst to get their people thinking again, to bring on fresh creative thought, to start a revolution.  Clients usually see the upgraded and updated space as a commitment to solving their needs, not just an agency throwing around cash and spending their money. 

Then there’s Stan Richards, as quoted on page 114 of his book, The Peaceable Kingdom:

“When I talk about being an ad wonk, here is a caveat: You really can’t eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff, this advertising stuff, and expect to be all that good at it.  The office can’t be your life.  Advertising, as an industry and as an activity to occupy our days, properly exists to take in, process, and redisseminate influences from without – from our clients, from consumers, from the culture, and not to be all that much in and of itself.  We show up every day in a big building full of phones and computers, and we sell things.  Nothing is more boring than a bunch of ad people sitting aorund talking about The Business like it’s somehow more important, per se, than any other random person’s business.  Insular is insular, not matter how hip you look.  It’s the outside stuff and how we bake it up and serve it that makes this business interesting.”

What do you think?

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