Whither the Workplace?

Silicon Valley and San Francisco combine to make the most vibrant technology center in the world. Both startup and established companies recognize they are taken more seriously when they have a Silicon Valley presence, and increasingly companies that peripherally rely on technology are adding think tanks and research centers in Silicon Valley as a way to stay on top of the head-spinningly fast rate of technological change.

Over its history, the nature of the workplace has changed radically, in response to changes in the companies who inhabit them. The early Silicon Valley companies were semiconductor pioneers like Fairchild, MOS Technology, and Intel. They were focused on electronics, manufacturing, and hard technology. I worked at Fairchild’s Palo Alto Research lab in 1987, and at National Semiconductor’s headquarters on Central Expressway in 1988 and 1989. Neither of these facilities could be described as employee-friendly. Security was tight, accommodation was rudimentary, and all the emphasis was on the creation of product and the science and technology that enabled it. With a few exceptions, this approach to the workplace continued through the emergence of the Internet, and the next wave of companies like Silicon Graphics, Sun Microsystems, Oracle and Cisco.

But in the last decade, consumer-facing tech. companies have become a larger and larger part of the culture of the valley. Companies like Yahoo, Google, Apple, Facebook, Jawbone and Netflix are very conscious of the importance of their consumer brand, and at the same time, are engaged in a fierce battle to attract and retain top talent. This is leading property developers and architects to re-think the way commercial office space is designed.

Today’s office space is rich with amenities for employees. At the extreme are the wealthiest companies like Facebook and Google, that invest a massive amount in laundry service, award-winning cuisine, game spaces, and an environment that sometimes seems more like a resort than an office. But even small companies with a much more limited budget are increasingly demanding indoor-outdoor space, recreation, a rich mix of casual and more formal workspaces, and a style that owes more to hospitality than traditional office design.

Silicon Valley’s demographic is young. This is not surprising, given that recent graduates best understand the latest technologies, in fields that are evolving at breakneck speed. But members of this cohort are less interested in working nine to five, and going home to a family that they haven’t yet had time or opportunity to build. They spend a lot of time in the workplace, and they appreciate the ability to move in and out of focus work, and to enjoy facilities that support relaxation and creativity. At the same time, companies are reducing the amount of desk space available to each employee. This trend for densification makes it harder to find quiet and privacy. The result is a need for more shared amenities, like phone rooms, collaboration spaces, and touch-down workstations.

Research has shown that there are four distinct modes of work that must be supported in the workplace: focus work, collaboration, learning, and socialization. Focus means the heads-down work that is done as an individual, while collaboration is work with others. Learning and socialization have to do with building a community, creating a culture, and the sharing of ideas. But this set of four categories fails to distinguish between two important types of focus work: invention and production.

Production is easy to understand – generating code, running tests, writing documentation, creating construction documents, running experiments – these are all examples of production work. Most people are well able to do this work at their desks, even in a dense layout, so long as they have some way to manage auditory and visual distractions.

Invention is more difficult. It happens in the shower, while jogging, during sleep, when relaxing with friends. It is not so likely to happen at the desk. This is one of the reasons why the modern office is so varied. I can do production work at my workstation, but I need to get up, walk around, doodle on a whiteboard, argue and joke with my colleagues, in order to generate creative ideas. Once ideas start to come, back to the desk I go, to produce something usable from those ideas.

We have a pretty good handle on how to support production in the office. We are still learning how to support creativity as a consistent and properly respected part of the work process. In future posts I’ll suggest some specific ways to do a better job of supporting invention in the workplace.

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