Making Space for Leadership

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Image courtesy of HASSELL

In an ever changing world, conventional leadership seems to be challenged by changes in demographics and culture, as much as digital and physical environments. Can a bricks-and-mortar leadership style survive the digital era? 

As technology enables us to work anytime, anywhere, we see companies such as Yahoo and IBM bringing back their distributed workforce, but why? Between 1995 and 2009 IBM reduced their commercial real estate by around seven million m² and saved US$100m in real estate cost. IBM’s Chief Marketing Officer, Michelle Peluso reportedly said “There is something about a team being more powerful, more impactful, more creative, and frankly hopefully having more fun when they are shoulder to shoulder. Bringing people together creates its own X Factor.”

Why is working side by side still important in a digital era? What are the attributes of space that enable leadership?

The Knowledge and Strategy team at HASSELL is researching how space affects leadership and leadership affects space. As Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” This rings true as we see new ways of designing and building space for our office teams to enjoy their work environment and perform to the highest levels possible. Trends such as open-plan, activity based working, co-working, and now even diversity based working are all attempts to find the best solutions for achieving team attraction, retention, and the optimum working environment.

At HASSELL we understand that the office is becoming more of a stage, a place that is going to evolve from the place where we go to do work to more of a social stage that communicates and supports the necessary social cues for us to do our job. Cues such as pride, curiosity, leadership, culture.

True leadership has always been complex and understanding how to navigate these complexities has always been almost an art form to do successfully. But the goalposts are changing and as Ilze Zigurs said in his book Our Virtual World, “Leadership is challenged by digital environments because leaders make their presence known in a variety of ways, including their physical placement at meetings, office locations, body language, voice, style of dress and so on.” This explains why Yahoo and IBM, amongst others, have decided to bring their workforce back to a bricks-and-mortar environment. Even Apple have just built a $5 Billion dollar campus to ensure their teams perform in one space, albeit a massive space.

The physical attributes of leadership are essential to performance. The non-verbal signals we all give off are vital in bringing teams together. Leaders are always under the microscope from their teams, peers and bosses and our actions and words are always remembered by someone around us.  Maya Angelou famously said “People don’t always remember what you say or even what you do, but they will always remember how you make them feel.” Although a lot of people do remember what you say as a leader, this quote is so true and the emotions we are made to feel by our leaders are also reinforced by the space we feel them in. Many times we walk into a space and feel the vibe of the place which is driven partly by its design but also the buzz of the people, the atmosphere. Space, leadership and culture are intrinsically linked.

We know that amazing spaces can attract and help retain an engaged workforce, even help drive certain behaviours and performance, but we also know that as humans we are affected by habituation. Over time, as we become accustomed to what’s around us, in this case our office space, we pay less attention to our surroundings and the effect it had on us when we first went there, basically our response to the space diminishes. This diminished response is habituation. Habituation is actually one of the simplest and most common forms of learning. It allows people to “tune out” non-essential stimuli and focus on the things that really demand attention. In my opinion that’s when great leadership steps in. Done right a great leader stimulates their team every day and drives performance. There is no denying the right space can complement this leadership, so understanding how space affects leadership and leadership affects space is critical to business success. We also know through studies that even in an environment designed for activity based working where people don’t have assigned desks and are encouraged to move up and down the building, over time people will find a spot they like and ‘nest’ and do everything they can to secure their “spot” each day. This is counterintuitive to the design and purpose of the space so we are even exploring “prodding” the space by designing areas within the building that can be moved to other floors, therefore helping break the ‘nesting’ and habituation cycles.

Everyone is looking for the Holy Grail and I don’t believe there is a silver bullet, or a one size fits all solution, for how to get the best from our places of work and the people that work there. Our Knowledge and Strategy team is linking research into the social fabric of a business, how they communicate, where and when with the space they work in. We’re also overlaying this social fabric with noise, by recording areas in the space but also individual noise so that we start to understand the value in the sound of collaboration or the cost of silence! Therefore instead of designing innovative areas and quiet areas we start to design around how individuals and groups interact.

We don’t have all the answers yet but our research is giving us a fascinating insight in how space affects leadership and leadership affects space. Stay tuned.

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