Soul Mining

MIT 20 Building – Massachusetts, USA

Is there an evidence-based example of a super-productive ‘knowledge workplace’ out there?

Productivity is the poisoned chalice of the workplace world. Providers claim they can improve it, for clients with it at the top of their shopping list of reasons for workplace change. Those who can sell productivity improvements resulting from their new workplace visions win commissions and get sign- off. The term is regularly used with hyperbolic flourish to make attention- grabbing claims. Because shiny buildings and furniture really can transform organisational performance, right?

Yet when pushed for credible evidence, few can quantify the improvements which would substantiate the claims, beyond routine processes. Or clearly define what productivity really means, specifically, for them. This is especially true when
it comes to the nebulous notion of ‘knowledge work’ – where people working creatively and effectively together is part of the magic key that unlocks more of it, whatever indeed it is.

So while the largely irresolvable debate bubbles away, escalating from time to time into an ego-infused social media skirmish about whether building or people productivity is more important (there’s value in both) or about its subjective or objective measurement (again, both) or about its link to GDP (there potentially is, but you’ll lose your mind trying to find it), maybe we should ask a different question. Something like: is there an evidence-based example of a super-productive ‘knowledge workplace’ out there, and if there is, what workplace conditions give rise to such impressive outcomes?

Well, it turns out there is.

And the answer doesn’t bode well for a workspace industry that sometimes trades on high- end building design, expensive furniture, or facilities managers that like things just so. Because when it comes to productivity, these things may serve egos, profit margins and compliance far more than they enable the productivity of the people using them. Feeling intrigued, or maybe a touch uncomfortable? Good. Read on. Let’s start by setting our standards unreasonably high.

To be able to identify such a workplace example, what could be a valid measure of knowledge worker productivity?

Well, it has to be outcome based.

It also has to be able to measure past performance, not just current: we’re not really that arrogant to think that everything is better now than it was in the past, are we?

Okay, so how about some sort of independent award that recognises the outcomes of work done?

Interesting. Let’s really push this.

What would be an award that trumps them all?

Nobel Prize?

Hang on, so we’re asking whether we can establish a link between a specific knowledge workplace to Nobel Prize winners?

We are indeed. Wow. Bold.

The ultimate productive building?

Bold indeed.

But it turns out we have a contender for the crown.

There’s one building which has, during the course of its ‘temporary’ 55-year existence, housed at least nine Nobel Prize winners, alongside giving rise to some of the most important breakthroughs in science and technology of the 20th century. If you’ve not heard about this workplace before, what follows may well astonish you – particularly from a modern workplace perspective.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Building 20. A nondescript 250,000 square-foot three-storey building shaped like a skewed ‘E’ with four prongs, hastily erected during the Second World War in 1943. It was never named because it was only intended to last six months after the end of the war. This is no iconic architectural beauty. But it is an iconic workplace, just not as you’d imagine.

Building 20 attracted over 250 mourners at a wake to celebrate its passing in 1998, before it was finally demolished to make way for MIT’s $300m Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center (astute readers might spot the ironic tribute in Facebook’s sprawling new Californian headquarters at One Hacker Way, named Building 20, or MPK20,

also by Gehry). At the beginning of the commemoration, academic senior Paul Penfield Jr. explains “If MIT’s Building 20 was an ordinary building, there’d be no need for a gathering like this. But we all know that Building 20 is definitely not an ordinary building”.

A video from the event (QR code at the end) documents their fond reminiscences, describing the stories as “nothing less than love letters” to Building 20.

Think about that for a moment.

Love letters. To a building. From rational, world-leading scientists, some of whom had occupied Building 20 at some point during each decade for 50 years.

Penfield elaborates “there was more to the building than just it’s temporary nature … Building 20 had a way of casting a spell, a magical spell, over those of us who worked in it.

It’s an uncanny magical power to bring out the best in everybody. It’s hard to describe this to people … It was a special friend.”

Affectionately nicknamed both the ‘Plywood Palace’ and ‘The Magical Incubator’, Stewart Brand, author of ‘How Buildings Learn’ , explains Building 20 was “an artifact of wartime haste. Designed in an afternoon by MIT graduate Don Whisto, it was ready for occupancy by radar researchers six months later.” As steel was unavailable, its wooden and asbestos construction had both tremendous strength and designated ‘temporary’ status (to meet fire codes).

Its swift construction was to house MIT’s expanding Radiation Laboratory, the primary radar development institute for the Allied forces. Brand reports the view of post-war scientists, “The atom bomb only ended the war. Radar won it.” Since then, it has housed literally dozens of eclectic groups and their activities which led to (amongst other things) the discovery of LIGO and gravitational waves, the first commercial atomic clock, modern linguistics and the cognitive revolution, stroboscopic photography, advances in microwaves, the first video game, early computer ‘hackers’, and the birth of the Bose Corporation.

First-hand accounts describe Building 20 as ugly, leaky, drafty, poorly ventilated, often dirty, and with poor amenities. It was also labyrinthine. People regularly wandered the corridors utterly lost, often late at night, bumping into random strangers. One former occupant recalls how on some winter mornings snow would be inside on the sills because the window frames were so loose. Another recounts how the windows sometimes fell out when the putty failed.

So, by modern standards, it was a terrible building, right?

Perhaps, yet for the sacrifices people endured, they gained in other ways.

From windows you could control and spaces you could personalise, to being able to modify, literally with hand tools and practicality, and certainly not with official permission – a building fabric to suit needs. In the words of several MIT alumni, “You don’t ask. It’s the best experimental building ever built”; “We feel our space is really ours. We designed it, we run it”, and “It’s a very matter of fact building. It puts on the personality of the people in it”. Thus, Brand concludes “smart people gave up [high quality building elements] for sash windows, interesting neighbors, strong floors and freedom.”

What can we learn from a workplace perspective? To answer this question, let’s regard the tricky, polysemic term ‘workplace’ as a socio-technical system. Framing it like this allows us to consider the interplay of workspace, culture and the technology people use to do their knowledge work.

From a workspace perspective we can turn to Brand again for insight, who identifies Building 20 as an example of “low road architecture”. Typically low- visibility, low-rent, no-style and high- turnover, people really don’t care what goes on in low road buildings, so long as it doesn’t cause trouble. There’s a classic pattern: low road spaces tend to attract young creatives, whose activities elevate the neighbourhood, which becomes fashionable, so real-estate values rise, then middle classes move in, and the sequence begins again elsewhere. In other words, the economy follows low road architecture. Thankfully, this happened around Building 20 but never directly to it, for some 55 years.

From a cultural perspective, urbanist Jane Jacobs’ idea of ‘knowledge spillovers’ provides a way to consider the value
of Building 20’s diverse and changing occupants in such close, irregular proximity. Without doubt, as one alumnus puts it, “what was lacking in facilities was more than made up for in talent”. Others suggest that “people got together and shared ideas and words without really worrying about who you were and where you came from. And I think that’s the secret”, and how, thanks to “inspired leadership”, “the ideas were able to dominate”. Knowledge-sharing rituals like the weekly “speech lunch” became an institution. But occupants also acknowledge how the building also inadvertently “induced people to communicate with one another”. Its corridors fostered deep, discursive encounters far beyond passing greetings and the infamous ‘water cooler moments’ of organisational folklore.

Finally, the autonomous behaviour to modify the workspace by its occupants as quite literally part of their technological apparatus is a striking example of what French philosopher Henri Lefebvre would celebrate as ‘appropriation’. The result being a ‘differential’ heterogeneous space, alive with social and creative possibilities. The opposite of appropriation is far more common: ‘domination’ of users in order to sustain homogeneous, commoditised ‘abstract’ spaces, which instead serve the needs of those who conceive them.

Building 20 suggests that, given the right workplace conditions, genuinely autonomous, purpose-driven people will trade quality for freedom, in order to perform to the best of their abilities. From this perspective, much of what
we claim to know about contemporary workplace design and management simply gets in their way, arguably serving other organisational and even egotistical aims.

In the same sense that author and speaker Simon Sinek frames leadership “not about being in charge (but about) taking care of those you are in charge”, leadership that seeks to engender genuine productivity understands workplace holistically, seeking to enable communities and their endeavour, not manage facilities.

Sceptics might argue that this esoteric, historical case is far removed from the modern world to have any relevance. But, to close such a thought-provoking outlier down so readily invites challenge – what hidden agendas or myopic appreciation of workplace warrants it?

If such levels of productivity and creativity can be enabled unintentionally in a complex scientific workplace, why can’t they be achieved intentionally in comparatively simple knowledge workplaces? Knowing what we now know, perhaps the closing is: can we conscientiously deign for this sort of radical appropriation to happen?

It turns out that there are current examples too, but they’re uncommon. Some familiar to the author are Architecture 00’s London Impact Hub ‘low road’ coworking communities, sustainably designed with as much consideration of the cultural as the spatial.

From the more obvious (but still charming) social rituals to bring people together, to the ingenious creation of micro-economies to promote non-monetary exchange of skills and knowledge through swap shops, Architecture 00 create opportunities for ‘knowledge spillovers’ to occur.

Additionally, workspace design and management encourages shared ownership, responsibility and ‘appropriation’, nudging towards suitable use and behaviours rather than dictating them. The productivity of such vibrant communities speaks for itself.

Nevertheless, just as Brand articulates how successful creative ‘low road’ ventures give way to ‘high road’ commoditisation, we can see how this has already happened on the global coworking stage, with ‘space as a service’ commoditisation giving rise to little more than serviced offices with banal design aesthetics. One such global well-known brand might come with free prosecco and beer, but it can never achieve what Building 20 was: a workplace with soul.

IPPA Communications is a strategic communications modeling, project planning and training firm.

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