Burtt-Jones & Brewer began ten years ago over a cup of coffee. So, to honour our birthday and celebrate our tenth year, we thought we would talk through some key workplace issues whilst having a coffee with some influential thinkers. In the first of a series of coffee conversations Steve Brewer shares an espresso with Brand Guru, Stewart Redpath of Liminal Marketing.

[STEVE B] So, Stewart, when I talked to you about the article we were putting together for Workplace Insight you told me that in theory you “can ’smell’ the culture of an organisation within three minutes of entering their offices.” Did we get that right? What did you really mean?

[STEWART] OK, so in your piece you were talking about how design can impact on a workplace, making it better. But you also talked about the idea of people in that space needing to be valued – having a reason to be there in the first place. Well, if they are valued – respected might be a better word – and enjoy being at work (no matter the nature of the space itself) then you can tell. When you walk into an office, factory floor or even a building site you can immediately gain a sense if that place has sense of purpose. There’s a buzz. You can’t always define it, but you know intuitively. Just like you can spot when a workplace lacks that energy.

[SB] Ok, so how does design play a part in creating that buzz?

[SR] Design comes second after leadership. One of the things we all relate to is other people’s behaviours. What we need to aim for is more mature emotional behaviours rooted in respect, an idea of responsibility and the ability to listen and converse with each other properly. That might be a human instinct, but in the 21st century workplace – and even society as a whole – we have lost touch with some of these basic instincts. So, we need leaders in a working environment to demonstrate high level emotional behaviours.

[SB] Because as a member of the team we will be inspired by the actions of the leaders?

[SR] Yes, exactly. That’s why leadership is fundamental to a successful workplace. Despite arguments about low productivity 90% of people at work want to work hard and do a good job. But what they need is that little bit of extra inspiration. The design and shape of the workplace must then create an environment that encourages mature emotional behaviour.

[SB] I’m glad we’re getting to the design issues now. But can we drill down a bit more into these behaviours?

[SR] Ok, so respect is the first one. We must tune into the individuality of ourselves and each other. We all need a bit of space, mentally and physically. How we act will affect how much ‘space’ we give each other to work, think, relax and just hang out. Design can have an impact on this, obviously, because we need places to do certain tasks, recharge our batteries, escape and think or meet for a coffee informally, by accident or by appointment.

[SB] Responsibility is the next one. How does that differ?

[SR] They all relate. Responsibility is about accepting you are part of a team. This is something we tend to forget in a workplace. Work is a team environment. We might have different duties in the team, but We are all on the same side, working for the same organisation and pushing for the same result – hence we have responsibility to play our part.

[SB] What’s the last one then?

[SR] Listening and communication. It happens less now, thankfully, but too many workplaces are sterile. They sit people back to back; Ok they might have light and warmth, but there is no personality. There is no interaction. People like to talk. It’s healthy, it’s natural.

[SB] So, I might know the answer already, but how does design create a work environment that’s going to encourage conversation and provide the space for different activities?

[SR] The first task is to trust our instincts. That goes for all of us. It’s an open secret now that despite being healthier and wealthier in the developed world there is an epidemic of stress. We over complicate things – you’ve said this yourself Steve in print and online – and lost touch with how we navigate our environment. We are operating too much in our limbic brain, which means we are in permanent flight or fight mode – hence all our stress and anxiety. We can’t perform like that, which might have an impact on productivity rates by the way. If designers can gain an insight into how our brains are working, then they can help us all by creating spaces we can be more relaxed in.

[SB] But none of this works without the right leaders?

[SR] That’s right. Leadership first, then design. The way we work in the UK is very professional, but nowadays quite informal with a flat structure. It means leaders are more exposed. But it also means that the spaces you guys design must reflect the more relaxed nature of UK workplaces. That’s why open plan might be a good thing generally but in some instances because of how one or two people work it might be hugely disruptive to others. As a designer you must come up with a flexible model to deal with those behaviours. But the management in that workplace must take leadership decisions about respect and responsibility to ensure the physical space works.

[SB] The key to this is about trusting your instincts isn’t it.

[SR] Yes – but also one more thing.

[SB] What’s that?

[SR] It goes back to that point you said about over thinking stuff. Just open a window. Because, as James Brown once said: “its too damn funky in here.”

[SB] Thanks Stewart, let’s leave it there and have another coffee.