- Working at Home
- Customized Furniture
In conversation with Guido Rottkämper and Gabriele Church, Design2Sense – The workplace reimagined
Established by Guido Rottkämper in Leipzig in 2010, the chief focus of the architecture firm's planning activities is improving the working environment and creating customized, integrated spatial solutions. Embracing a participatory ethos, workshops are held with the contractors and eventual users, to carry out detailed needs analyses and initiate change processes. Guido Rottkämper specializes in administrative buildings and holds qualifications in moderating and NLP. His business partner Gabriele Church is a structural architect and business mediator.
As your slogan “the workplace reimagined” suggests, you are dedicated to designing workplaces. How did this come about?
Over time, we realized that what we are doing isn't creating administrative buildings, it isn't interior design and it isn't furniture planning. Our task is intrinsically bound up with the work process. By engaging in a participatory process, we are able to delve into every aspect of the world of work, to the point where we initiate a change process which, in turn, alters leadership behaviour.
At the Bauhaus-Universität in Weimar, I focused on administrative buildings and, for many years, worked on major construction projects for a general contractor where, at the end of the day, a building was seen as a shell. But the participatory approach existed even back then and it was always patently obvious to me that an administrative building cannot be reduced to an empty shell. You have to think about it from the inside out, starting with an understanding of how people work. The transition from the interior design to the exterior must be seamless. The solution must be integrative. During workshops, I realized how rare it is to find structures that are a good fit for the people who work in them. In a new building, many companies are looking merely to “copy and paste” the current working environment. This isn’t the way forward.
We came up with the name Design2Sense because designing is, to a degree, about sense and sensitivity. There's an incredible amount of literature on creating a more beautiful living environment, but none on creating a more beautiful work environment. We spend more of our waking hours in the office than at home. Everybody has the right to feel happier at work. And that's how we embraced our ethos. We’ve made that our mission!
My background is in classic architecture, a field in which I completed many different construction projects. I found it extremely frustrating at times, because users’ opinions were hardly ever sought and they ended up dissatisfied with me as the architect in charge. That's why I think the participatory approach makes a great deal of sense. I’ve also amassed a lot of experience in conflict management, am a business mediator and understand how conflicts arise at a company. So we joined forces and said: we can do things better!
It's so simple too. We can tap into intrinsic knowledge of a building, because the people affected have experience of the past and have certain preferences for how it should be in the future. Basically, we leverage that potential, it's that straightforward.
Isn't there a risk of pseudo-involvement – surely the management just does what it wants in the end?
That is a big risk. After the participatory workshop, the people in charge often try to go back on their word when they're setting the budget. Guido acts as the employees’ advocate and warns against trying to dupe the workforce. We insist on even the most vociferous critics being involved from the start.
If, as consultants, we sense that we aren't being taken seriously, for various reasons I caution against failure to respect the process. It simply makes the decision-making process more democratic. Individual decision-makers at management level are always out of their depth, because they simply can't come up with the answers on their own.
How exactly do you approach your planning tasks? How do you find solutions together with customers and users?
Usually, the customer's objective is for us to build a space that is better than the existing one and, ultimately, enables people to interact better. Goethe said “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be.” We help them to do this. We treat our customers as they ought to be and the space as it ought to be. Of course, it's essential for the customer to become who he ought to be and crossing that bridge involves a cultural shift. In effect, we're building a Trojan horse; people change as we sneak through the defences.
The workshop ignites the spark and covers everything up to the preliminary planning. First, we clarify the building blocks of office planning, the fundamental ways in which individual spaces and applications work. This is followed by the workshop, where we use symbolic picture cards we have created of the typical features of the space. Images are more effective than words at creating associative links. Participants in the workshop make decisions that are more about the activities they want to perform, where they will do that, and the interaction involved. When everyone has stated their needs, it's easy to fine-tune and create shared spaces. At the end of the day, lots of people are keen to ditch the silo mentality and grow beyond the confines of their own department.
Users would rather work along project lines than departmental lines and, during the workshops, will often say that their structures are simply no longer fit for purpose. Employees use the cards to completely rethink the structures. It ends up with the boss saying: “I dread to think what would've happened if we hadn't gone through this process actively, together.” This is the trigger for change and is the reason why we work with these cards on the floor. It’s also a fun approach. Scenarios can be laid out and, at this stage, nothing is set in stone.
»In our workshops, we always use picture cards since these are more effective than words at creating associative links.«
How do the ideas then become a reality, how do the images in people's heads become the finished rooms?
Later on, we put everything together in layouts; the decision on whether or not to use a cubicle structure is made in the second step. We present several alternatives, which are as varied as possible. The range of possibilities is discussed at a workshop. Then we start transforming various approaches into ideal scenarios. It's a process of compression. After all, many people can't read architectural plans. It is our responsibility to ensure that the customer has been able to run through his daily routine in his head based on our illustrations, before he approves the plan. If he can’t have a say in the plan, the planning is worthless.
As we don't want to be going round in endless circles, our method is quick and more likely to deliver consensus. Individual decision-makers often waver but, if they rely on the collective intelligence of employees, they can proceed with confidence.
What do you do to support customers’ powers of imagination? How do you feel about virtual representations in 3D?
Great question! We try to get by largely without photo-realistic illustrations. This is because, in our experience, the images created at night at the desk of an overtired rendering specialist become burned into a customer's mind, at a time when there's no rush to make certain decisions. It creates the impression that everything is “pretty much already built” - resulting in a whole lot more discussion later on, when these issues actually are on the table. We shape how people co-exist and start from the sociological level. Our spatial designs are an expression of the zeitgeist. This process of tweaking and refinement can be done entirely without visualization. We want participants to develop their own mental images.
»Listening is key to our approach.«
So your customers are the architects of their new working environment?
We embrace the co-creative ethos and are careful not to impose our own signature. Each of our projects have ended up completely different from one another, because we build what the customer wants. We give them choices and inspiration. The exploratory process takes place within the company. The customer is our designer. When we take on a project, the endgame isn't to get it featured in a magazine, but for the users to feel comfortable in the space we create.
»We embrace the co-creative ethos and are careful not to impoose our own signature.«
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge today when creating working environments?
Acoustics and lighting are two complex areas. The issue of acoustics is always on our radar, but we are noticing a need to bring it into the process at a much earlier stage.
Acoustic issues aren't solved by products. We look at the physical, social and temporal factors. There’s often overlap between the various aspects. We always involve an acoustics expert to clarify these issues early on. Using products as a solution at a later stage always costs money. But sensible zoning doesn’t. Customers also need insight into how interruptions happen. An interrupting culture is one factor. Where do I make phone calls, when etc. For example, we have introduced “quiet Tuesday” in the office. Lots of business partners won't, as a general rule, call on Tuesdays.
At a later stage, how can organizational changes and changes to room structures fulfil this need?
With room-in-room configurations. Later on, the customer has to take account of these acoustic issues himself when changes are made. We're developing a lot of box solutions at the moment. This enables smaller units to be accommodated. The products on the market aren’t quite up to scratch because, in most cases, proper thought hasn't been given to the issue of ventilation. Relocating these modules in their entirety is the ideal solution. Zone first, then retreat. The furniture does the rest. This creates lots of flexibility and the space becomes like a big stage that can be adapted at will. Product development is an essential element of this. Integrative solutions have to be found: Can I sit comfortably? Where are the plug sockets? Are the ventilation, acoustics and light OK? So we have to agree on an extremely condensed solution!
Where does corporate identity come in and how it is incorporated structurally in your projects?
Space and culture are identity! What we develop are spaces for each company’s specific culture. Corporate identity is the set of values presented externally and practised internally. Internally, it becomes employee branding if the employee has an active role in designing his workspace.
Has all the furniture that the modern working environment really needs already been invented? Your projects involve lots of individual solutions and customized furniture. How willing are your contractors to go along with this?
Roughly a third to half of all the furniture we use is individual and the rest is serial furniture. Staff kitchens, for example, are a key consideration as one of the main space-dividing elements. Seating for all-hands meetings with integrated storage space is very important. These are always individual solutions. Reception desks also make a statement. Hand-crafted solutions with dovetail galvanization are very popular right now. Individual, special furniture in solid wood... We're aware that our clients are very keen to get on board with this, so we do a lot of product development because, increasingly, customers want solutions that aren’t available “off the peg” on the market.
Right now, there's a lot of demand for large shelving units in the reception area to serve as an extended pigeon hole. More and more employees are having personal online purchases sent to their work address, where they then have to be stored. IT employees like to take off their outdoor shoes, so a shoe rack is needed. New mobility concepts, such as increasingly popular folding e-bikes, also require storage space. Last but not least, lockers are much in demand for people who come to work by bike and want to get changed. All of these requirements are reflected in a holistic office concept.
And contractors are willing to spend money on these special features?
Yes, they really are! And the reason is that lots of companies are afraid that, going forward, they won't be able to recruit the staff they need. So they are investing in making their premises attractive. That's the main trigger. Business owners won't invest to avoid potential burnouts, but they can be persuaded by the argument of attractiveness as an employer – playing on their fear! Nowadays, lots of applicants bail out when they see their “unattractive” future workplace, so space is hugely important as a recruitment tool. Additional spending on interior design and fittings pales into insignificance when compared with the costs of headhunters and induction phases.
We once had a contractor who said: “Design a building for us that convinces the applicant as soon as he walks through the door – even before the interview - that he wants to work for us.” We’re aiming for more smiling faces, for people to feel better at work.
That's quite a task!
How heavily does employee health feature in your plans?
Well, we work a lot with standing desks and tables, which are now the most popular choice for meeting situations. We incorporate incentives to move into the typical daily routine. If you spend 20 percent or more of your time in meetings, you can automatically change your posture. People intuitively move more if the set-up enables them to configure different room and furniture constellations and they can constantly seek out different rooms.
It's also proven that satisfied employees suffer less illness. Recognition, being asked and having an influence are the opposite of powerlessness. Good mental health reduces staff turnover and sick days. Works councils are no longer insisting on height-adjustable desks either, as everyone normally works in a seated position anyway. We have had employees who were keen to have a gym on their floor, only to complain that not everybody had a parking space nearby. So, in a cunning move, the Executive Board decided to completely close the company car park so that everyone had to look for available parking spaces in the town. The longer walk to the car or travelling to work by bike became a more sensible fitness measure. The Executive Board nailed it.
However, when you’re looking at permanent workstations and repetitive postures, there’s no escaping ergonomic seating solutions and fitness facilities. Some rooms can also be (temporarily) put to different, multifunctional uses: as a yoga room, prayer room with toilet and tap, or as a relaxation or quiet room. A solution is always found when you work together.
»Today, space is hugely important as recruitment tool. We weave together the diversity of opinions within the company to determine what will ultimately be viable. This is how we achive consensus and a sense of identification.«
You describe yourself as an “interdisciplinary boundary-buster”?
Architecture and construction are a particularly closed-off field. We always take account of other aspects and topical issues, to accommodate progressive thinking. When we look at projects, there's always the “feasibility” angle but also the “meta” angle. We always look at what's going on, if there any issues that aren't yet on the customer's radar which need to be considered. Lately, for the first time we have started integrating broad topics such as mobility for large companies. How do people get to work? To do this, you have to take the broader view, looking beyond the walls of the building.
When you try to take a holistic approach, the boundaries become very blurred indeed. To enable us to work this way, we have to dispel the customer of any notion that we can be pigeon-holed. This results in interesting calls from large companies along these lines: “We know what workplaces are but we don't know what “new workplaces” are and what new working environments mean for us.” The potential solutions to this cannot be found in any textbook. So you have to give things a good stir and see what rises to the surface. That's our task. We help them ascertain the lay of the land and offer help, right down to the communication structure. It always involves addressing the burning issues and a lot of self-scrutiny. We give expression to all of this in spatial concepts. Companies are grateful to us for busting the boundaries.
We aren't the sort of consultants who generate paperwork; we actually get things done.
We weave together the diversity of opinions within the company to determine what will ultimately be viable.
What does this mean in practice and how do you assemble your team?
Listening is key to our approach. Men are focused on leaving their mark, which is why we don’t have many men working for us, mostly women. This is also due to the fact that interior design and decoration tends to be a female-dominated field. We reimagine the workplace as a team - which is why my name doesn't feature in the company name. This notion is important to me. We are all about “WeQ”, not “IQ”, and women are stronger at this. What's more, everyone in the team has completed communication training. For as long as we are working with a company, we become a part of it. That's a paradox, arising from the approach that is vital to us.
Thank you for talking to us!
Interview: Dorothea Scheidl-Nennemann
Photos: André Bolliger