By Tim Springer
Published in the June 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
As I write this, spring has (finally) come to the Midwest, and we just celebrated Earth Day. Songbirds have returned, trees are budding and flowering, and you can almost hear the grass grow. After an especially long winter, it is energizing and encouraging to see daffodils, tulips, flowering crab apple trees, and redbuds ablaze with color against the verdant green backdrop.
People also begin to emerge from their cocoons; children laugh and play; dogs frolic and bark; bicycles and golf clubs are hauled out of storage; neighbors reacquaint themselves with one another; and grills are fired up for the first time in months.
Seeds and seedlings are carefully considered and selected, lovingly planted, and nurtured in anticipation of mouthwatering succulent “heritage” (i.e. real) vegetables of summer.
It is especially difficult at this time of year, amid this idyllic setting, to turn one’s thoughts to buildings, facilities, interiors, and workplaces. But (and you knew there was going to be one in this column somewhere) I’ve been thinking that those of us in the field of facilities might learn a lot from gardeners. Like the small family farmers of yesteryear, these people understand the value of robust variety and symbiotic diversity as they plan, plant, water, weed, and tend their plots.
In today’s modern green movement, gardeners are front line ecologists. Successful gardeners know that certain soil, light, and water conditions are best for particular plants. Similarly, they understand the symbiotic relationship of varieties and species. They know about “good bugs” and how some plants help control pests for other plants.
By now you may be wondering, “Has Springer finally gone round the bend? Has he jumped over the edge? Is he out of his mind? Crazy from cabin fever?” Please bear with me.
How does all this dirt under the fingernails talk apply to facilities? Think about it. Consider the difference between great gardens (and family farms) and monolithic, monoculture agribusiness.
Don’t get me wrong; several of my relatives are successful modern farmers. I’m awed by their work ethic and business acumen. I appreciate the truth of the old adage, “the way to make a small fortune in farming is to start with a large fortune.” I’m thankful these folks and others like them successfully grow bumper crops of genetically engineered corn (or soybeans) on thousands of acres. But frankly, a short drive through Illinois’ corn belt gives credence to the observation, “You’ve seen one cornfield, you’ve seen ’em all.”
Earlier this year [“Facility Managment Is…” TFM, February 2008], I posed the challenge of finding appropriate words, models, and metaphors for facilities management (FM). I’d like to suggest the garden as a model and metaphor for the workplace. More to the point, I’m suggesting we view the workplace like a garden as an ecology built from diverse elements acting symbiotically to achieve a rich, robust, and successful whole.
I’m not the first to suggest the ecological model for workplaces. “Workplace ecology” has been the subject of articles and book chapters for over a decade. I do prefer the garden model and metaphor over the idea proposed by one author who suggests that workplaces are (or should be) like zoos. Drawing comparisons between wild animals in captivity and office workers, however appropriate, has never seemed attractive to me. But the idea of the workplace as a landscape that fosters growth has visceral appeal.
Consider the history of the modern office. The Quickborner Group originated the open office plan. The company called its idea the Office Landscape for a reason.
The parallels between an office and a garden seemed obvious. Quickborner employed organic layouts and circulation paths; distributed desks and partitions to create a varied landscape; and added living plants to bring some of the outdoors inside.
In an earlier column [“Where’s The Sense of Place in Workplace,” TFM, April 2007] I noted that far too often large office workplaces are planned, designed, and implemented to be painfully monotonous by design. In too many offices and workplaces, there really is no “there” there. The parallels to monoculture agribusiness are obvious.In contrast, consider the carefully planned, well tended garden. Whether formal or natural, woodland or water, arboretum or bonsai, there is always a sense of place in a garden.
If one considers the diversity of activities, occupants, work styles, and technologies that characterize and comprise a modern workplace, parallels to the diversity of gardens are evident. Good workplaces accommodate a wide range of workers and work styles by providing a landscape appropriate to that diversity.
Not to overwork the metaphor (but one more lesson to be learned from gardens) is what I call “either/or versus both/and.” The difference in approaches is between static and dynamic.
Nature is eternally dynamic; something is always happening, changing, moving, and growing. The only time nature is static is when it’s dead. Even then, the cycle continues and waste becomes food. Gardens are “both/and” environments.
Many workplaces are designed from the “either/or” perspective. One finds workplaces that are either enclosed or open; solo or collaborative; private or public. This is in direct contrast to the functional requirements commonly found in offices. To support common work behaviors, workplace should be both/and: both heads down and collaborative; both private and public; both enclosed and open. That’s the way people work.
Finally, gardens exist in order to fulfill specific needs. Whether beauty or food, recreation or sustenance, the outcome is important, inherent, and evident in the planning, design, implementation, and experience of use.
What is the intended outcome of a workplace ecology? Is it ideas, innovations, decisions, actions, and products that add value to the organization? If that’s the case, workplaces that exhibit the diversity and symbiosis of a garden do a better job of supporting work that delivers those outcomes than workplaces which are monolithic and monotonous.
So the next time you’re presented with an opportunity to make changes, think of the workplace as a rich and diverse ecology. If you can provide the appropriate support, you may find your office “garden” produces an unexpected bounty.
That’s the way I see it from where I sit, but then again, I could be wrong.
Springer ispresident and founder of Geneva, IL-based HERO, inc. andfrequently writes and speaks on a wide variety of issues affectingorganizations, work, and workplaces. For past columns from Springer, go to From Where I Sit.
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