To continue our birthday celebrations we’re catching up with friends, colleagues and influential thinkers and talking through some key workplace issues whilst having a coffee. In part two of our coffee conversations, Steve Brewer shares a flat white with Pamela Knudsen of Brand Nurture.

[STEVE] Pamela, thanks for joining me. What did you think of Stewart Redpath’s idea that we have lost touch with our instincts and how we navigate our environment?

[PAMELA] I think Stewart is right, because most work spaces fit a pattern that says we cannot work how we want to. We kind of put up with it and so gradually accept it. But in far too many cases the structures, fixtures, fittings surrounding us are geared towards a very general way of working or an unnatural one.  They are not sympathetic to how we might like to interact as human beings.

Take open plan – it’s a very 20th century concept, which despite all of us having increasingly different functional jobs, it demands that we work the same way.  Yet, we all have a different personality, a different work style and communication style too. Most of the layouts we work in don’t really accommodate our differences.

[S] OK, I get that, but like what?

Think about ‘hot-desking’. It can feel like forced collaboration. What is important is to create an atmosphere that doesn’t add another layer of perceived pressure. For example, you need to renegotiate your relationships with co-workers every time to switch desks or areas. That, in turn, puts an extra strain on people because we’re always striving to make sense of what surrounds us: our environment, and most importantly, our relationships

[S] What do you mean by sense-making?

[P] It is about being at home in a space. It is the difference between a space and a place – where the former is the physical entity and the latter, the emotional one, and what matters most. Stewart explained brilliantly about the sense of purpose people need to experience when they are at work. A space needs to reach out and establish that positive association with the organisation/the brand that it represents so that we, as the users of that space, are inspired and engaged. We all want to feel that we’re on a winning team.

After all, ‘meaning, flexibility and challenge are the very things that are key to engaging the hearts and minds of Millennial employees’

[S] That kind of implies that the space must be unique.

[P] Yes, absolutely.  The space must not be anonymous.  It must have a point-of-view, and tell a story, which encompasses the myths and rituals of the brand.  The sharper that pov is – the more we can understand what we’re supposed to do, how we’re supposed to be, and hopefully, feel good about it.

It’s the answer to ‘why do things work as they do around here as they do?’   It’s the culture embodied – that smell that Stewart mentioned.

Without it, it’s a recipe for a low engagement environment, where productivity is low because people aren’t reminded beyond ‘money’ about the reason they turn up for work every day.  The workplace is the company’s brand. This goes for not only for employees, but visitors, too. Whether you’re inside or outside the space. You carry a picture in your mind.

[S] This is where leadership comes in isn’t it?

[P] That’s right.  It must interweave the cultural values, the brand purpose, which will be further manifested with management decisions about how people should work and interact with each other.

[S] And what about design then?

[P] It goes back to navigation and using our instincts. To thrive anywhere, humans need to create meaning. It is essential to human survival, our ability to cope with life, work, and home. Good design makes that even more possible. Layout, colour schemes, images and graphics all serve to signify meaning. It’s the unspoken, expression that conveys the most.

[S] That’s good enough for me. It gives design teams a clear role.

[P] Yes, they have a key role. But it must be combined with leadership. There’s an equation that sums it up. Space + brand = place. Without leadership tuned into its purpose that can inspire its designers – you’ll never achieve place.  Then, we are truly lost.