The situation manifesto

Walter Knoll Headquarters

What is it that actually determines the way we work – the way we organize our offices and projects? Is it the process? The function? That’s not looking at the whole picture, says Markus Benz, CEO of Walter Knoll. The third dimension is missing: the situation. It is time to start thinking differently

It is companies that create a mindset – and it is offices that harbor identity. If you go to the doctor tomorrow, the moment you step into the office you’ll know – consciously or unconsciously – whether you feel like you will be well cared for, whether you can trust the doctor or not. Even, perhaps, if you have never seen the doctor before. The same rule applies to other spaces, like legal firms, hotels and, of course, offices. People read spaces like they do faces – in a split second – and react correspondingly: with affection or aversion, trust or mistrust.

Our environment changes the way we think and act. In the age of the brand, digitalization and demographic change, it should be no surprise that offices are no longer a matter of secondary importance. On the contrary: the office is the powerhouse of the company. People should, at the very least, feel comfortable there. But for a long time even that was not the norm.

Offices used to resemble dreary prison cells. Endless rows of gray tabletops, beige laminate floors, spaces for the strict eight-hour workday. Design and materials were geared towards durability and exuded an infinite dullness – and it was no different in the upscale furniture segment. The approach was functionality: here is the boss’s office, there the conference room; here the coffee maker, there the employees’ cubicles. The value of the furniture was based on the status of its user.

In the mid-1990s, a new attitude towards life took hold and, bit by bit, conquered the world of offices, including in Germany. At the dawn of the new millennium, our way of seeing things became more international. Architecture, art, design, internet and digitalization began their victory march around the world. And so the bar was raised for design in general – and office design in particular.

But something else happened: paper disappeared, there were fewer and fewer documents and folders, screens on desktops shrank, and in their place were screens for video conferences and presentations in meeting rooms. White boards, flip charts, presentation kits. Suddenly people were talkative in the workplace because what happened needed to be recorded and processed. Work became more and more digital – and our tools followed suit. It is here that we began asking ourselves questions about processes. And we are still dealing with those questions today: What function do people have? What do they need in order to fulfill that function? How can a company foster an individual’s creativity, performance and motivation?

These were good, pertinent and important questions. But up to this point, space has been basically treated the same as process. However, in order to achieve the above-mentioned effects – that is, to boost creativity, motivation and performance at once – it is necessary to have open and organic spaces. Surroundings that create connections. Rooms that are flexible. So we can work in the way the situation calls for.

People working in an office have an average of four to six meetings per day – and they are all different. At the same time, there is often a limited number of rooms in companies’ offices. And that is why, today, we are designing offices and conference rooms to be able to offer more – different areas for different situations. A state-of-the-art conference room can host a large group at the conference table; we can have private meetings in a carpeted lounge area nearby; across from that, we can hold quick team meetings at the standing desk or the padded bench near the window.

That is how the situation – a mix of furniture and zones – becomes relevant to the office. Places for different types of encounters, sometimes private, sometimes casual. Conference tables become slim and foldable because that allows the room to be used without a table, too. And traditional desks can also become standing desks for small morning meetings.

This is the time for leaders to be sensible. Today a manager’s chief task is communication. It is thus even more important that managers can find and take advantage of the right situation for their meeting: the conference room, the sofa, the bench, the standing height table. So in order to spread this communication and foster creativity, performance, ideas and success, it is essential to create pleasant, open, valuable and flexible spaces. How can you recognize such spaces? You will be able to tell as soon as you walk into the room.

By Markus Benz