Spaces as a Company’s Body Language

Interview with Raphael Gielgen

Even some of his own colleagues think he’s a little crazy. His irrepressible curiosity, his restless quest for explanations, and his delight at upending everything can occasionally make him an uncomfortable companion. When he appears at the office after returning from a long trip, he recounts things that sound more like a virtual utopia than a reality that has been experienced. He visits over one hundred companies in a single year; the world is his workplace, the future his area of research. David Streiff Corti spoke to Raphael Gielgen, head of research & trendscouting at Vitra.

Before we talk about the best place to work, first we should define what kind of work we are discussing here. Where does work begin for you, and where does it end?

If we’re looking at work from a temporal perspective, then for me there is no beginning and no end—just intermittent interruptions. There are phases of not working, like sleeping or sports activities. But the fundamental question has to do with one’s own understanding of work. My aim is to make a positive contribution to achieving progress not only in our own organisation, but also for our customers. Of course, this is a very privileged understanding of work, which contains a high degree of freedom.

You are on the go more than two hundred days a year. You make sporadic appearances in the office and live on a farm almost five hundred kilometres away. Which is the best place for you to work?

When I need inspiration and want to understand new connections, then it could be anywhere. The less familiar the cultural context and the more people I am surrounded by, the better—for example, in the transit zone of an airport. When I’m travelling, I absorb things just like a piece of toast in olive oil until I’m totally exhausted by all the impressions. But if I need to concentrate and focus intently on something, I do this at home. There I have a large office with a lot of books and windows looking out on the woods.

And what purpose does your official office serve?

At the Studio Office in Basel, I usually take a seat over there at that table—where I can see a lot of people coming and going—in order to get an update. That’s my personal spot for experiencing community, because it enables me to participate directly in the workings of our organisation.

It could be concluded that the best workplace is more a question of temporary needs and attitude rather than a concrete physical location.

The right attitude is important, but the physical place definitely plays an essential role in this digital age. Although many of us have the opportunity to work whenever and wherever we please, companies continue to invest a great deal in administrative buildings or a campus. Architecture can create a sense of orientation and generate lots of ideas and feelings in us, if it is done well. The same applies to an intelligent, flexible, and appealing interior design. This is the fundamental idea behind Vitra products and where their strength lies. The aim is to create a location people can identify with, to give them a place that feels like home, and to provide a stimulus that inspires them.

What could that kind of stimulus look like?

We have a very strong perception of places or physical objects, and many memories are associated with such things. People who have this awareness will design their interiors accordingly. I like to visit MIT, for example, because they have big glass panels that give you views of the labs even from the hallways, making them at least visually accessible. You can see people and the things they work with. If you have a basic level of curiosity, that immediately triggers something in your brain. Your synapses start to establish connections. But there are also furnishings and objects that have this effect because they have a strong aura. This usually emerges from their aesthetic and structural quality, but also from their history. Consider the work of Ray and Charles Eames, George Nelson, or Konstantin Grcic, whose designs not only represent a particular era, but are also a germinator for future ideas.

So digitalisation is not making the office entirely obsolete?

Technology today offers us maximum freedom in regard to work to a degree that is unprecedented. But we don’t just love autonomy—we also have a need to belong. You want to be part of a larger community. So while we want to work in a self-determined manner, we are also strongly oriented towards community. Work takes place somewhere in between these two poles.
"When work becomes visible and true participation is possible, that’s where the best work is done!"

How can a space accommodate these seemingly contrary needs?

This can be achieved by architecture that demonstrates the company’s understanding of its employees’ desire for community as well as their individual needs. I should also ask the right questions. What do rooms that promote freedom and a sense of belonging look like? How big should they be? What kinds of activities should they facilitate? The key here is to find the correct scale—the human scale of architecture, not one that is based on technology. It’s not about what is technically possible, but about how a room feels. I have always experienced the biggest surprises in places where interdisciplinary groups were able to work in a very free and agile atmosphere, where something was always happening, and particularly where work was visible to the collective. Work is invisible if people are just staring at their own computer screen. When it becomes visible and true participation is possible, that’s where the best work is done!

Can you give us a specific example?

In the New York ad agency R/GA there are thirty-two large screens hanging from the ceiling, which enable employees to share their work with the click of a button. By making your own work visible and being able to observe what others are doing, you gain inspiration and become part of something greater. You automatically get energised. It’s sensational! Furthermore, this kind of transparency creates direction and orientation, because employees gain an awareness of where the company is heading and understand the common goals.

At the moment, the campus concept in particular seems predestined for organising and presenting work in this manner. Why is that?

In earlier times, churches were conceived as a place of community where large numbers of people gathered, and ancient Greece had the agora. This idea of coming together in order to share and generate knowledge lies deep within us. These communal places are what define today’s buildings. However, the contemporary campus also has many other functions and roles. It replaces the former company headquarters as the place in which decisions are made and also serves as the so-called “brand place” or “cult site” of a company—helping people to identify with an authentic corporate identity. So that everyone has the feeling: “This is Vitra” or “This is Roche.” Such spaces could be described as the company’s body language.

But this degree of exchange, openness, and self-determination also requires employees to adopt a new way of thinking. Doesn’t that stir up fear and anxiety?

Absolutely. That is the greatest challenge, at least for long-established firms. In the past, a corporate building served the purpose of giving employees instructions and exercising control over them. And suddenly people are confronted with a completely different view of work. They ask themselves: What’s this all about? What is my role? Who is supposed to give me guidance and direction? This is a process, an evolution. People must be introduced to this new way of thinking and working, and that’s the task of the management. You can’t just take a company that had a hierarchical organisation for years, move it into a new building overnight, and then say, “Welcome to freedom.”

So you mean that many companies change their look without changing the corporate culture?

That’s a very crucial point. Architecture alone simply isn’t enough. You can’t just say, “Now we’re going to do that, too.” It involves a culture of caring on the part of the company, whether it’s a family-owned business like us or a large, publicly traded corporation. In the context of digitalisation, questions about freedom and community must be answered in terms of how the company contributes to the welfare of its employees. The entrepreneurs, executives, and architects who accompany me on a learning journey through Silicon Valley—where we take a look at over twenty leading companies—must hash through these issues for themselves and try to understand what everything they see can mean for their own organisation. The architecture of work has evolved into a key resource in the modern world. Many companies recognise this, and by investing in these real locations, they are also investing in the advancement of their own organisation.
Whether sitting, reclining, reading, or writing, David Streiff Corti, journalist and editorial director for the magazine Z, the weekend supplement of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and the NZZ am Sonntag, devotes his attention to topics of design.

Publication date: 11.7.2019, first published in «Where To Work Better», for Orgatec 2018
Author: David Streiff Corti
Images: Christoph Duepper, Ariel Huber, Marek Iwicki, Eduardo Perez, Tom Ziora

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