Sunday, October 31, 2010

Workspring and the benefits of Third Places

Last summer while attending NEOCON 2010 in Chicago I visited Workspring just a few blocks away from the Merchandise Mart.  Prior to visiting I had been talking on and off with Mark Greiner Workspring's General Manager and the Chief Experience Officer (CXO),Steelcase Inc. and a Senior VP. 
 Entry looking into reception area 
He told me how the business developed out of an idea he and a group of  others at Steelcase's Workplace Futures consulting group had, how they found support within Steelcase and Venture Capital funding to build a functioning prototype of research work to test ideas on the value of collaborative work experiences in and  off-site from traditional workplaces.  As Mark and others I've met at Workplace Futures have said, this projects comes out the Steelcase business ethos of Understand, Observe, Synthesize, Realize, Prototype and Measure.   The purpose of the space, equipment and people providing services there are to assist businesses in having memorable and valuable collaboration experiences bettering their organization.  The space has been online for over two years now and the positive reviews are coming in as seen from customer testimonials on the website.

I'd missed seeing it the year before and wanted very much to see Workspring, "a high-performance for fee work experience".  Or saying it another way, a "Third place" to hold collaborative off-site meetings whether for an intimate group of 2 or 3, a large geographically dispersed project team working on rolling out a new product or service, or renting the whole space for a large multi-faceted multi-day work experiences. 

Passage leading into collaboration spaces
A third place describes the places we go to do work, meet with others and collaborate together away from the normal 4 office walls.  It's a different kind of space, usually off-site from your workplace in places like coffeehouses, restaurants, libraries, bookstores with a cafe.  Increasingly with our wired world, it's outdoors, at parks, beaches, a courtyard with a terrace.  The common theme is it's different from ordinary workspace or conference rooms with their walls, workstations and the like.  Find a table with four chairs in a quasi public space and you've found your third place.

Breakout area / Lounge
Workspring, as you can see is both an experience for hire as Mark says, but it's also a living laboratory where research ideas about workspace, collaborative behaviors and work equipment come to life.  It's an expression of the DNA of a set of companies under the Steelcase umbrella committed to continuous learning and development in, as Mark says, the very nature of "Work, Workers and the Workplace".

Having visited Workspring I really began to understand the collaborative power of third places as a stand-alone business experience offering as a fee for service.  As Mark explained while giving me a tour, the staff which works there builds an extremely close service oriented relationship with its customers to collaborate together building collaborative experience tailored for their business, whether it's a single, stand-alone off site meeting or a set of reoccurring events or activities.   This attention to service and individual focus is at the core of the business model.  The staff can tap into the brain trust of Steelcase's Workplace Futures group and bring creative facilitators, business specialists and workplace strategists to assist in enriching client meeting experiences.

Small meeting space 

Another aspect which I think is crucial, is the subtle but ever present integration of technology to support on and off-site collaboration, whether it's utilizing smart white boards provided by Steelcase subsidiary Polyvision, to adaptations of Media Scape, a highly collaborative screen based with video cam linkages to name a few.  As touched on earlier, the whole purpose of the space, the equipment and the people providing services is to assist businesses in having memorable and valuable collaboration experiences bettering their organization.

The images I took exhibit different qualities of best practices in creating highly collaborative meeting spaces ranging from small, intimate spaces to ones for 3-4 to larger spaces of 15 to 20.  I can imagine very productive meetings occurring in with the combination of service focused staff and use of technology scaled appropriately to each room.

Large meeting space
The lighting is understated, tasteful and very even, there's ample exposure to daylight to reduce eyestrain and energy use.  The HVAC is easily controllable on different zones to ensure comfort and performance in large, small and open spaces.  There's access to balconies for breakout moments overlooking a small green courtyard.

In many of the spaces, movable multi-layer white boards on tracks enable brainstorming and note taking which can flip back and forth with ease and a flip of a hand against a panel.

Stand-up workspace
There's one space with high collaborative tables and chairs with Media Scape technology providing a more stand-up and vigorous meeting experience suitable for building more in depth project planning and brainstorming.  The lounge area which is immediately adjacent to the meeting spaces in a long rectangular bar has many intimate seating areas suitable for individual work or small groups of 2s and 3s in a breakout mode.  Its warmer atmosphere suits its double performance as a reception and party area.

There's a book shelf out front in the passage leading into the meeting areas which I took a photo of.  It had many interesting titles from authors such as Jim Collins, "Good to Great", to Dav Patnaik's "Wired to Care",  "Emotional Design" by Donald Norman, "Authenticity" by Gilmore  & Pine, "Strategies for the Green Ecomomy" by Joel Makower, "Total Leadership" by Stewart Friedman.  Dan Pink's "A Whole New Mind" previously reviewed here on designcultivation to name a few titles.  They're there to help those who use the space brainstorm new ideas and connect to writing about innovation to inspire new ones!

Books to inspire

Workspring as a business collaboration experience seems to be onto something crucial to business success going forward.  Workplaces which promote easy idea generation, cross-collaboration and ease of communication across multiple platforms and technologies can be a business differentiators and produce more value per square foot of workspace.  By enhancing ways workers collaborate and meet together better more effective business happens.  It will be interesting to visit Workspring over the years.  Hopefully, it does prove to be a living laboratory  perpetually tinkered with, adapting to the changing work landscape!  We'll see.  Perhaps, too, some of the ideas here can be adapted to your workplaces to help your team become more effective collaborators!  Regardless, if you're ever in Chicago Workspring is certainly worth the visit to see for yourself.

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