Do you think the below image depicts a living room hang-sesh or a business meeting?
Image via Steelcase
If you guessed living room hang-sesh, you're wrong.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Steelcase's Munich-based Learning + Innovation Center, which is a counterpart to the office furniture company's Grand Rapids HQ. As someone used to working in a traditional office setting and who spent many hours learning in dimly lit classrooms, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw how bright and casual the Learning + Innovation Center's set-up was. As I walked through each open concept floor filled with plush seating, standing desks, orange magnetic chalkboards, and a few scattered glass cubicles amidst glamorous courtyards, I found myself wondering if this environment can truly harness innovation or if it just encourages a little too much relaxation.
I began to understand and appreciate Steelcase's office culture vision, though, after hearing Senior Industrial Designer Alban Moriniere explain how the Learning + Innovation Center is successful not only in its comfortable design, but in how teams are formed to work within it. Below, Moriniere explains Steelcase's "Pod" team building system:
"At the moment, we are experimenting with a new way of working, which no longer involves being divided by departments or floors. Instead, we are now by grouped by what we call "pods". Pods are groups of different people all working on the same goals, tackling multiple projects at once. They are for instance composed of two designers, four or five engineers, two marketing people, one buyer, one person from quality, person from sustainability, a project manager, etc. When a new project is coming in, instead of picking resources based on individual availability, we assign it to a whole Pod. This group has to learn how to work with each other at the beginning, build trust, set up their own meetings and meet together in a space of their choice within the building.
We have been using the pod method for about a year and a half now. What is really interesting about this way of working is that I get to know people that don't have the same job as me. My buddies at work are now from other departments rather than just designers. All of the designers still meet together and share what we are doing sometimes, but I am no longer sitting in a specific design area surrounded by just designers. I am surrounded by people that have various backgrounds and expertise. It challenges my thinking everyday."
Moriniere's description of the pod system has started to change my thinking on the Learning + Innovation Center's 'working not working' environment for a few reasons. As we all know, personal relationships typically result in higher quality work. Besides having different job backgrounds, the center brings together over 230 employees representing 25 different nationalities from groups previously dispersed throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa. So, wouldn't it be nice to sit on a couch instead of in a cubicle when working with new groups of people from different disciplines and backgrounds? Or to grab a coffee at a cafe instead of fill paper cups at the communal water jug? Soft textures and warm colors seen throughout the space, along with meeting spaces like the full-sized cafe, encourage getting to know one another instead of skipping to office small talk.
A beautiful courtyard is the centerpiece of the office. Photo Emily Engle
There also tends to often be some distance between different departments in large office seating, so forcing them to work together in small teams is a natural way to bridge that gap (as long as the different personalities and skillsets mesh well). On a similar note, when working for big organizations like Steelcase, employees can easily feel like their decisions have no impact on the bigger picture. Pulling various departments together works as a strategy to scale down the overwhelming feeling of a massive organization.
While the space does cater towards small group meetings, Steelcase made sure to carefully place nooks and crannies that encourage individual work, like emails or phone calls. Photo Emily Engle
"The LINC design is based on this principle—that rapid learning, creative work and agile teams are the building blocks of innovation, and the physical workplace can promote and nurture these kinds of activities." —Steelcase
Would your office/studio benefit from a change in team and/or structure like Steelcase's pod system? Give us your thoughts in the comments section.
Emily is a freelance writer based in NYC with an interest in all things design, specifically the design process. When she's not writing about design, Emily can either be found taking care of her 31 houseplants, going on "nature" walks in her neighborhood or studying Japanese. Before going freelance, Emily was an Editor at Core77.