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The Startup

How Does (Did) Your Office Location Influence Your Access to Innovative Ideas?

You might be surprised how the neighborhood contexts you were embedded in before the pandemic shaped your relationship to transformative ideas and insights.

This post builds on: “What is the Value of an Office Location” and “What is the Value of an Office Space

The pandemic has challenged many previously unchecked assumptions about work. Discrediting the notion that we need to be in the office five days a week to be effective has been one of the most liberating. This realization has inspired many organizations to reconsider the future of their physical footprint and the very need for a traditional office. What most companies are not factoring into these considerations, though, is how pulling out of the neighborhood they were embedded in before the pandemic, even if just partially through a hybrid approach, will impact how their organization thinks, acts, and evolves long-term.

Organizational Learning // Adaptation & Evolution

Developing transformative products and services requires an organizational culture of persistent curiosity. However, what employees learn and expose an organization to is not equally effective in generating novel insights. New information either fits within established interpretive frameworks (simple information), providing resolution to existing concepts and ideas. Or, it requires us to expand our field of vision by learning new interpretive frameworks (complex knowledge) that offer us new ways of connecting ideas and concepts. Not surprisingly, these two forms of learning demand different kinds of interactions and exchanges with their sources.

Simple Information fits with our preexisting interpretive frameworks. This enables us to make sense of this information without the need for additional explanations. Consequently, simple information travels quickly through vast and loosely connected networks of individuals. Apart from being connected to the source, either directly or indirectly (which is more often the case), and possessing the appropriate interpretive frameworks, we can instantaneously deploy the data. These exchanges can happen quickly and impersonally, without jeopardizing the integrity of the information. So, whether we are in the office, at home, or halfway around the world, we can consume it.

Complex Knowledge,by contrast, travels slowly between people because it is unfamiliar, challenging to understand, and often transgressive to our beliefs. To grapple with these kinds of ideas and concepts, we need help from others to translate, interpret, and convince us of their value and utility. This is a highly interactive process that is most successful when played out between individuals who share a high degree of trust and vulnerability. We also need time to build familiarity. As we know from personal experience and research, the more unfamiliar something is, the more exposure we need to it to gain comfort and understanding. Physically proximate to the source of knowledge is critical for this learning style, a feature of successful exchanges that we cannot replicate through digital technologies.

Accessing Complex Knowledge // Shaping the Future

Transformative concepts that are genuinely novel (i.e., not having previously existed in our imagination or experience) are not out there waiting to be stumbled upon. No matter how hard we search, we will not find them, because the elements that make them up have not yet been brought together. And as hindsight often misleadingly suggests, new associations between ideas are not obvious at the outset of exploration. We only come to know what we are seeking to construct through the process of experimentation and exploration — which is the fundamental paradox of innovation.

Speculative experimentation and exploration of the above nature more often than not start informally between curious individuals. This is because unstructured exchanges offer a sense of conversational and exploratory freedom rarely possible during formal collaborations. Whether at a bar, loosely structured meet up, or in line at your favorite lunch spot, informal interactions allow for spontaneity. Everyday interactions also offer us the possibility to become acquainted with new people. We have all experienced this: the friend we are with bumps into another friend, and all of a sudden, some new idea or perspective captures us, and we fall deep into conversation. Our mutual friend acts as a trust-node, allowing us to feel more comfortable and vulnerable with the person we just met — making us more receptive to sharing and learning about unfamiliar things.

While these brief exchanges are insufficient to translate challenging and unfamiliar concepts, it makes their existence known within the community. And in some instances, visions and ideas collide that plant the seeds for enduring exchanges that transform fields or create new ones altogether. The history of Building 20 at M.I.T. is a testament to the role that unstructured exchanges play in the initial ideation phase of some of the most transformative innovations in U.S. history.

Patterning Interactions // Context Matters

Before the pandemic, offices entrenched employees into neighborhoods. Neighborhoods are ideal for forming close relationships and sustained exchanges. For anyone who has been onboarded since the pandemic started or worked with someone who has, they can relate to the struggles of developing close relationships with people they have only chatted with over Zoom and email. Neighborhoods also channel people from different offices together, increasing the likelihood of spontaneous, unstructured encounters.

With wildly varying characteristics, every neighborhood exerts a unique influence on the patterns and rhythms of interactions that take place within it. Some are more conducive to bumping into others, while others feel desolate and lonely. Some beg you to linger, while others feel transient and sterile. The list goes on. Ultimately, these characteristics influence how — if at all — complex knowledge moves between individuals, and in turn, organizations. And in most industries, this directly shapes how companies think, act, and evolve.

Visualizing Industry Clusters // Exposing the Hidden Topographies

The clustering of architecture firms in New York City provides a striking visual. Drawing data from the American Institute of Architecture’s New York chapter, 450 studios are mapped across the city’s 245 official neighborhoods. While this is by no means a complete list of studios in the city, it provides a good illustration of neighborhood clustering and the power of visualizing it to expose the hidden topography of the field. It also demonstrates the dramatic variation in neighborhood contexts that the different clusters of offices are embedded in. Physical contexts breathe life into hyper-localized communities and the rhythms and styles of interactions that they enable.

Not surprisingly, most of the studios in New York City are concentrated in Manhattan below Central Park. There are two notable exceptions, Dumbo and Gowanus in Brooklyn.

Zooming in to the densest concentration of studios, 9 distinct clusters come into focus.

Some clusters are defined by neighborhood boundaries, while others cascade across multiple neighborhoods.

The stark contrasts in neighborhood contexts create distinct differences between the clusters. Even for those immediately adjacent to one another, like the Financial District and TriBeCa Clusters, changes in density and types of amenities differentially pattern the rhythms and styles of interactions within them.

When layered with other forms of data, which are not shown here, this becomes an even more powerful tool for strategically selecting an office location. Yet despite revealing many hidden aspects and dimensions of an industry, this is rarely explicitly done. In place of this, hunches and assumptions based on incomplete information are more often than not used to inform decisions that ultimately influence how your organization thinks, acts, and evolves.

Why This Matters

An entirely or partially remote work strategy will change our long-term relationship to new and innovative ideas. We will have fewer opportunities to form the relationships shown to transmit cutting-edge ideas and concepts between people. Gone too will be the unstructured, spontaneous moments, where vague visions and seemingly naive ideas can be discussed — unencumbered by deadlines, client expectations, or industry convention. This reduced flow of cutting-edge ideas and concepts represents an invisible threat to an organization’s ability to adapt and evolve.

It is now more important than ever to understand how the neighborhood contexts we were embedded in before the pandemic shaped our relationship to new knowledge. We need to define our organizational needs for complex knowledge and how we fulfilled them before the pandemic. Who were we surrounded by? How did we engage with our local communities? Where were we positioned relative to other clusters within our industry? Were we embedded in an emergent community or one that was calcifying? What were the environmental features? Getting a firm grip on this will help us understand how to design the future of work within our organization — particularly how we will learn.

Even if you are planning on returning to the same office, the neighborhood contexts will undoubtedly change. Being proactive in understanding how it is shifting and what the impact will be on your organization will help you find new means of acquiring complex knowledge to supplement those that have disappeared.

Bottom Line: We need to fully understand what removing an organization from its current context, even if just partially through a hybrid work strategy, will have on the way it operates. What will the impact be if everyone around us leaves or reduces the number of employees in the office?

Atelier Kultur is an organizational and behavioral design studio. We create cultures and environments in which transformative ideas can happen.

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Andreas Hoffbauer, Ph.D.

Andreas Hoffbauer, Ph.D.

Founder & Director of Atelier Kultur, Doctor of Organizational Innovation & Creativity