Abhijit BhaduriGuest Author

Flexibility of Space, Form and Usage

By | Abhijit Bhaduri |Keynote speaker, Author and Columnist

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In a Clubhouse chat called Trends and Weak Signals, I join Estelle Metayer (look for @Competia on Twitter) and her polymath guests in discussing what caught their attention. The conversation meanders and turns like the road that wraps itself around a mountain of an idea. I have built upon some ideas that triggered my imagination.

This week’s chat was all about space. By changing form and usage, spaces are being reimagined. From shopping malls to kitchens and rooftops, the patterns are the same. Will flexi-form become the norm for Spaces?

Dropping footfalls not revenue

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The pandemic seems to have changed retail in more ways than one. Everyone learned to order everything online. From food, groceries, medicines to clothes and jewellery, everything could be ordered online. No surprise that Amazon is biggest clothing retailer in US.

Here is the intriguing factor about retail in India that my friend shared.

Malls saw dropping footfalls and yet, several retail outlets in the shopping malls report that their revenue is almost back to pre-covid days.

Hypothesis: The mall is no longer a place to simply hangout. People go there when they definitely wish to buy something. A visit to the mall means the consumer knows what they wish to buy.

If malls are not a place to gather, which place is taking that spot? What have you observed? Malls and parking spaces are being used in innovative ways across the world. They are being used as vaccination centres, examination venues, logistics and warehouse solutions.

Is the retail space becoming more fluid in its usage or is it a deeper shift in human behavior. Can we leverage it?

Make your firm’s HQ “fluid”

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Having the headquarter is a concept that some firms have challenged for a while. Does a firm need to have a HQ in the world of work that we have today? Does that make a firm’s leaders too far removed from the customer?

A big four consulting firm has done away with a “Head Quarter” altogether. The Managing Partner sits out of different offices and that prevents little silos and power centres that headquarters are infamous for.

Leadership teams stay more connected to the frontline when they keep themselves out of their comfort zone. Maybe we should question why a firm needs to have a HQ. Flexi-form in offices could be the next trend or is it just a weak signal?

Digital platforms are forcing this change

On digital platforms like Roblox and Minecraft, the kids are experimenting with designing clothes for different avatars. These clothes can be sold for currency. (Read this). It allows the teenagers to supplement their income. It is also a sign that the next generation maybe comfortable with identity being a fluid concept. If the future workers’ identity is fluid, would the office space need to be fluid to attract that worker?

Offices can change their layouts and design by using Augmented Reality or Virtual reality and then driving the change in the physical layout of the workspace. Digital spaces are safe spaces to experiment. They are often precursors of the upcoming shift.

Prediction: Expect to see a startup creating these avatars and workplace environments for your Zoom chats. Maybe they are already there and I don’t know.

Will offices and schools need more space or less?

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Will office space requirement change because of the pandemic. Will offices need more space or less? Will we need offices at all if work can well be done from home.

The space needed for the office has been done with the assumption that offices are places to “work”. The same has been the assumption behind the design of a classroom. It was built for a sage on stage model where one teacher ‘taught’ a classroom full of students. Flip the assumption on its head and suddenly the classroom and office are spaces waiting to be reimagined. Here are two ideas:

  1. Community Building: Using the office as a place to socialise, changes how we look at how much office space we could need. Several firms are using the slump in property prices to buy up office-space in prime locations at throw-away prices. But the real opportunity lies in using offices as places for community building.
  2. Peer-learning spaces: Allowing people to riff off another person’s creation (as TikTok allowed users to do) allows many more people to become creators. Using this insight to encourage your employees to create content for subjects they do not know will incentivise them to be curious, learn by themselves and teach other colleagues.

Hypothesis: Content creators create content because social platforms allow creators to become famous (think follower count) and to make money. Ryan Kaji, made $26million dollars in 2020. He is eight years old. Letting employees gain fame and make extra money will encourage more people to reskill their peers in a creative way.

Flex-form in the design

Motorised Height Adjustable Tables allow people to stand and work. That is the power of adding flex-form to the table’s design. From being able to manually increase or decrease the height of the table to the motorised version was a short stop. The next design step is to make it all wireless before humans hand it over to AI. The machines will be able to automatically adjust the height of the table based on what is good for us. Will this happen to the spaces that we use? What if shelves and flat surfaces were all designed to be flexible?

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Making the kitchen counter flexible is a new trend in home design. That makes it accessible for senior citizens or the taller/ shorter family members who can use the space without having to stoop or stretch. Adding flexibility to one element ie height makes it accessible to individual family member may make the kitchen a more inclusive space.

The trend of each family member eating at different times may change the way the space at home is being designed. Design of a space is based on the assumptions we hold.

Read more: Individualisation

How do we build flexibility in design

  1. Look at unintended consequences: Offering mid-day meals in schools can dramatically impact the literacy rates among the poor. Better nutrition is a pre-condition that impacts the ability to learn. An interesting by-product of this experiment was that it incentivised a younger sibling to be sent to join the older child. The younger child often gets a head-start in education as he/she sits there absorbing the lessons of the older sibling while waiting for the mid-day-meal.
  2. What are the incentives: Take learning and development strategies in an organisation. When employees go for a three day offsite, the leaders believe that the employees love sitting through a day of presentations. The participants look forward to the evening when they can socialise with their colleagues. That is the incentive that made them pack their bags and go an exotic destination.
  3. Change the motivators: Asking a YouTube star or stand up comedians to make explanatory videos may be great way to make business related content interesting. It challenges the belief that learning for adults must be deathly serious. Fun is a powerful motivator for people that is so often ignored. Design changes can include incentives when it comes to driving adoption.

Flexi-form – a trend or a weak signal?

The pandemic made us accept that most white collar jobs can be done from home. Assuming that people will want to never come back to the office may not be equally true for everyone. There is a social need that drives many people to go the workplace. Most ideas that go into designing workplaces – from how we signal hierarchy (eg bigger offices for the senior leaders) or allocating a particular floor for the executive team are obsolete. The nature of work has changed. The way we use the spaces in the office must also change.

Maybe it is time to make flexi-form design the norm.

Republished with permission and originally published at Abhijit Bhaduri’s LinkedIn

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