One of my mentors is Jim Hackett, the CEO of Steelcase. Among the many things that Jim taught me is how space can be an accelerator of an organization’s mission. I am passionate about how work environments can change the way employees, organizations, and communities come together to solve problems. The United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s office space was meant to reflect the core tenets of our culture.

I vs. We: While we designed our environment to recognize that everyone has different work modes – some needing wide-open space and some requiring complete privacy – we asked everyone to contribute some of their “I” space in order to have more powerful “We” space. We ask residents in the community every day to give up some of their “I” – time, talent, or money – in order for us to have a stronger community (We). We felt our space should speak to that directly. The most impactful space people always comment on is the “We” space at United Way.

Transparent: In organizations and society, transparency is often missing. When an organization is stewarding individuals contributing time and money, we must be transparent. Our space is meant to model that. While we understand and accommodate the need for privacy, we didn’t design 90% of the organization around that. Rather, we created a space that fosters and promotes transparency.

Leverage the Informal: Within organizations, often the attention is placed on the formal processes, protocols, and structures when in fact the informal network creates as much value. We believe at United Way that the formal systems within our community are critical, but equally so are the informal systems. Our design is meant to support the formal systems, but to create a greater likelihood that the informal systems will have strength. For example, we thought about how to create intersections within the space to increase the chances that people from different areas of the organization would bump into each other, resulting in more communication and cross-functional teamwork.

Performance: We are measured on our results in the community. I often say I am not interested in employees being “at work” but rather being “on the work.” We designed the space so that no matter what type of work you were doing, there would be a location that would not only meet your requirements, but foster high productivity.

Talent: We are only as good as our talent. I wanted a space that would serve this generation well, but put us in a position to attract the next generation of leaders. Stellar talent leads to higher success, and space matters when trying to attract talent.

Our space continues to evolve as we learn how to better leverage it to help fulfill our mission. We are increasingly using our space as one large storyboard. That is, our space ought to help us tell the story of our mission.

There are so few tools in the toolbox of CEOs to affect the culture of the organization that the importance of space should not be ignored. Space is often viewed as an “employee storage system” versus as an accelerator of the organization’s mission. With the limited resources we must steward, I felt strongly that our space ought to play a vital role in helping Southeastern Michigan make progress on the toughest social issues.

There is a great article in the New York Times on office design that is worth the read. If you want to learn more about how space accelerates a mission, feel free to contact us at 313-226-9411.

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