Art cannot change the world, but it can change the way people think
New Work becomes mainstream ...
New Work has evidently transitioned into mainstream – not a single event today misses out on the chance to subsume practically everything under this term. Besides genuinely cultural issues such as new style of leadership, ambidexterity, holacracy, and – my favorite buzzword – “agility,” it is stretched to encompass concepts such as home office, mobile working, and open-plan office. “New Work” appears to be a blessing for the consulting business in particular because approaches once decried as “old school” such as restructuring and efficiency programs can be wonderfully disguised in the new clothes of this designer label – and that is really a dubious undertaking. You have to look very hard to find anything of Frithjof Bergmann’s original idea.
About thinking space and functional art
But I have no intention at this time to fire up the next discussion about terms and definition rhetoric and to turn fundamentalist New Workers and “robber baron New Workers” loose on one another; I want to illuminate another aspect of the subject, that of space or the working environment. Not really new, you will say; after all, we have been preaching the significance of the harmonious interplay of the dimensions People, Places, Tools, and Regulations in our studies and, most recently, in our book New Work – Auf dem Weg zur neuen Arbeitswelt since 2013. Nor do I wish to take part right now in the discussion about the sense and nonsense of open-plan offices and desk sharing that has recently flared up again; in my opinion, it is one-sided and naive in its simplification, anyway. I would much rather provoke a little thought about this question: To what extent can the design of the working environment, especially the deliberate use of artistic elements, create thinking space and thereby foster innovations and creativity – which are ultimately the lubricant of the digital revolution?
The direct impact of the working environment on creative skills and innovative power is generally acknowledged. Legions of furniture makers and architects have concerned themselves with the design of office buildings and incorporated the latest scientific findings into their concepts. But do they succeed in fostering creativity and inspiration without neglecting productivity and efficiency? And what does all this have to do with art?
Inspiration at the workplace? Forget it.
We believe that the topic of “inspiration” has found little to no entry into the working environment, especially in Germany. Many workplaces are dominated by strict functionality, dreariness, and sterility. The headquarters of a DAX corporation looks just like the office of Karl-Heinz, the tax accountant around the corner. Standard furnishings, open space, and zoning in combination with desk sharing as an apparent panacea to bring about more cross-departmental collaboration. Functional office furniture in boring pastel shades (and sinfully expensive) that naturally conforms to all health and safety as well as ergonomic standards. And a dash of CI (corporate identity) in the form of wall posters. And there we have it: the office monotony of the 21st century. Bravo!
Art in architecture? Art as a prestige object?
Art sometimes finds a use here – in part as a relic from better days. Whether the Rembrandt in the reception area or an abstract-bombastic art in architecture project that prompts employees to ask themselves: “What do we need that for? Why spend money for that?” or the typical wallpaper with “happy people (but preferably models and not employees) who walk around looking even happier.” Completely detached from the identity of the company where they are installed – without the least relationship to anything and frequently no more than the expression of abstract greatness and (long since faded) financial endowment. The only person to understand the sense and purpose was the management board member who loved art and who passed on the baton of leadership to his successor 10 years ago. About as meaningful in their expression as many of the leadership principles or “corporate values” that can be found as interchangeable posters on the walls of corridors everywhere – but that is a subject for another article.
Art and functional art – source of inspiration for disruptive mavericks
Yet art and artistic creation actually do offer a virtually unending source of inspiration and creativity – it is no coincidence that artists are members of a professional group that is one of the least affected by automation. Anyone who has ever had the opportunity to work with artists will have quickly understood that theirs is precisely the creative power that is lacking in so many companies. Inspiration, a culture of mistakes, (entrepreneurial) freedom, creative destruction, and change of perspective are their daily bread and not a component of entrepreneurship training for executives. So why not trust this creative power and allow artistic composition to flow directly into the working environment – as an integral component and not as “decorative accessories”? So: bring in the artists and redo the office? Unfortunately, that is not quite so easy (in many cases) after all. This is yet another situation where the right mix and the specific realization produce success.
The 70/20/10 rule – operationalization of “New Work(places)”
A few years ago, we tried it out at Detecon and quickly experienced the inspirational effects of art on the design of the working environment in our own lives. With all its risks and side effects. It all started with the remodeling of our offices and the simultaneous introduction of New Work structures. In cooperation with a team of international artists and Orange Council (our partner in the meantime), we transformed what was then a stifling building (completely contorted, incredibly dark and bleak) into a New Work environment.
During Phase 1, artistic design elements were placed in the lounge and communication areas and in the corridors. In Phase 2, we extended the concept into the meeting areas. During conceptualization, various activity clusters (concentration, being creative, relaxing (digital detox), communication, collaboration, organization) were identified on the basis of a comprehensive need analysis and supported by appropriate types of working environments. At the heart of the artistic-creative design was so-called up-cycling: old furniture or inventory items were redone, turning them into stylish, modern furnishings. The decisive point here was that these elements reflect the corporate culture and represent a major point of identification for the company.
Does that mean artistic design all over the place? Not at all. Our experience indicates that a good approach is to apply the 70/20/10 rule. About 70% of the area is equipped with standard furnishings from furniture makers who supply the bulk of the market – with maximum scalability and functionality. About 20% consists of communications and collaboration areas that are artistically designed and use the up-cycling products – although with a strong focus on functionality and flexibility (e.g., writable, rollable, foldable) and in conformity with specific artistic standards. About 10% – and the impact of these areas must not be underestimated – serves above all a disruptive purpose. Optical stimuli prompt people to think about their own ways of thinking and can unleash a substantial motivational effect.
The tremendous radiant power of the 20+10 share
The 20% in collaboration and communications areas and the 10% in disruptive spatial interventions mentioned above, designed by (genuine and not wannabe) artists have above all a huge impact on the outside world, including multiplication effects. Their visual storytelling provides unusual content and compelling stories for journalists and other disseminators, and the unusual communication in the space frequently offers the images photographed and used in the media most often.
The innovative room installations created by this means can be used by companies as visual image transfers. Our Detecon project, in no small part because of these deliberate art disruptions, won a number of different awards (German Design Award, ArtDirectorsClub Award, nomination for HR Excellence Award) and was featured in highly respected publications such as BrandEins, which also had positive feedback effects within the company. The important point here – as mentioned above – is finding the right mix and quality of the works of art.
In this context: Ergonomics 4.0 and employee involvement
Here two short tips for realization. You will very quickly run up against the boundaries imposed by regulations (fire protection, ergonomics, health and safety, works agreements), especially in large corporations, when you pop up with new concepts that deviate from standards. This is especially true whenever art is involved. So here are two factors we consider essential for success:
1. Employee involvement. During the implementation of ArtDesign, we had the experience that employee involvement can be easily and effectively realized in the design of the 20+10 areas – by jointly purchasing the furniture and taking employees along in the artistic up-cycling process. Sometimes a group visit to an art market, the selection of the appropriate furniture, and the subsequent design in cooperation with artists can work miracles in generating the identification of the employees with the new environment and the underlying concept (cf. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RwJRntX3q0).
2. Ergonomics. Another topic that frequently ensures intense discussions with representatives of health protection experts. The question is asked almost immediately: “Is this antique wooden chair (price: €130) or the cube seat (price: €80) not completely unergonomic in comparison with the fully ergonomic conference chair from the standard catalog (price: €950)?” We like to respond with a question: “What is especially ergonomic and fosters good health?” Answer: Sitting as little as possible and moving around. And that is exactly what is achieved with this or that “uncomfortable” seat or with conference spaces without any kind of seating at all. The 70/20/10 principle applies here as well, and that means 70% is comprised of standard furniture, and of course people with physical limitations are provided with a chair or desk appropriate to their needs.
We consider art to be a highly successful lever for more inspiration and creativity in the working environment and consequently a means of promoting the “skills of the future.” If you follow the 70/20/10 rule, you can ensure a pragmatic and realistic implementation of the right concept for you. We clearly argue in favor of turning away from standardized and soulless office settings that offer neither identification elements with the corporate culture nor inspiration for more creativity and ideas that we so desperately require in the digital age. Ultimately, a working environment that fosters creativity is a fundamental element of a successful New Work concept and releases creative energy that previously was asleep and buried deep in your employees. And we are speaking from our own experience.