Dr. Benrhard Zünkeler: How Functional and Emotional Office Spaces Create Identity

It has already been almost ten years since Dr. Bernhard Zünkeler, while working as a partner of the communications office E105, participated in the New Work transformation at Detecon. Acting as chief curator in collaboration with the artist collective freeters, he was in charge of the artistic design of our office premises — a catalyst for creativity and innovation. In our series Working in the New Reality, Dr. Tanja Matt spoke with managing director Dr. Bernhard Zünkeler about the office worlds of the future and how the global coronavirus crisis is affecting offices, home offices, and team collaboration.

 

Dr. Tanja Matt: The coronavirus crisis took us all by surprise at the beginning of 2020 and has in the meantime permanently changed the working world. In your view, what are the most important changes with regard to office worlds/”Places”?

Dr. Bernhard Zünkeler: The coronavirus crisis sparked the extreme acceleration of a process that had been progressing inexorably since the appearance of smartphones and the connection to the internet. I see here two directions of change.

1. More and more often, places will be determined to have a digital component and will no longer be understood strictly as an analog concept. Movies such as Ready Player One by Steven Spielberg or Avatar by James Cameron and computer games such as Minecraft give a small taste of where the journey of virtual space can go.

2. The in-person meeting place is becoming increasingly important for collective creative processes in particular, and the traditional single workplace is declining in importance. Many time-consuming individual tasks are being replaced in an ever greater scope by algorithms or an individual’s work is being done while on the move from a location that allows greater individual freedom than “showing up at the office.” The in-person sensory experience, however, is an important element for driving innovation in collective creative processes as well as for team building. Space should be interpreted quite differently here yet again as exemplified by the now prevailing “neutral state” of operational facilities.

How does the (changed) working environment influence the way we work or collaborate?

Generally speaking, any internal attitude towards the task can be changed by the setting. In his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman adequately describes how this so-called priming effect of our intuition works. People can test this on themselves. The thoughts that come to mind in a concert hall, a greenhouse, or a swimming pool are simply different from what occurs to you in an office, and they cause you to take a different approach to whatever you are doing. This is not just a matter of concentration; the process is much more complex and can be enhanced significantly. Historically, the Cistercian Order in particular, with its monastic buildings and related functional-psychological orientation found all across Europe, shaped our urban organization of public space and our social understanding of buildings for centuries. Somehow, these insights have been lost in the wake of an emphasis on quantitative growth that is oriented heavily to industrial-functional aspects. The progressing need for genuine, qualitative innovation will hopefully ensure that the human component and the embedding in sustainable processes will reverse this trend of the last 200 years.

Specifically, the impact of the work environment on the way of working can be seen in collective processes. The most important drivers of motivational collaboration include inspiration, imagination, and improvisation. These three key factors for innovation can be ideally supported by appropriate room designs because a person leaves behind physical traces in a very striking and sustainable way. The creation of these traces during Zoom events or while using sharing formats such as Slack or CEO newsletters is possible solely to a limited degree. There is just not quite enough of the sensual element to be truly effective as an enhancement of digital efficiency. Despite all the progress, we have barely “come down from the trees” in evolutionary terms. I am convinced that we are currently falling far short of realizing our potential to shape our world. We need to display more courage! A visit to the imposing Pantheon in Rome is quite revealing. The building was erected 2000 years ago. I can’t imagine that the office buildings of today will be regarded as truly inspiring in 4021.

At the moment, people are working from home whenever that is possible — to avoid or reduce the risk of infection. And it is already foreseeable that working from home will remain a constant in working life even after the end of the pandemic. Nevertheless, it will not completely displace in-person meetings among colleagues. What can the office do as a place that the home office cannot? How are these hybrid work models entailing an average of 40 percent mobile working reflected in office spaces? Will personal, social interaction be our only reason for going to the office?

As I see it, this is closely related to the phenomenon of identity. Ultimately, the space at home is shaped by the individual identities of employees and their families. The corporate space, on the other hand, has the opportunity to align identity with the collective cooperation of all employees and strongly mold their joint commitment, motivation, and sense of community. To this extent, the sites of in-person meetings and the impact they have on generating an identity will become much more important in the coming years as a counterweight to the centrifugal forces of decentralized working.

We have only just begun to adapt to hybrid work models and to consider what physical premises are suitable to accommodate them. As I noted before, virtual space will develop a momentum all its own and act as the force that actually defines hybrid work. At the moment, there is a kind of combination of collective work using ICT means, although ICT is still more or less realized in established collaborative formats. So we see operational premises everywhere being technically equipped so that “colleagues” can be “brought in” at any time. The hybrid understanding will change tremendously once again when we see how we can “bring in” entirely new forms of encounters and personal performance accelerators with AI and virtually optimized space.

Ideally, a company’s premises also reflect its identity and are an integral part of the employee experience or employer branding and the corporate brand. As such, they also contribute to employee retention and customer impact. In what areas will the traditional office have to score points in this “new age of working from home” if it is to be perceived as an attractive working environment?

That can be summed up in one word: emotion. We need spaces that support above all the extremely complex processes of our creative minds. At the moment, we still live in a kind of functional-rational equipment world. In my opinion, this will change in favor of a functional-emotional approach because I will otherwise be unable to retain groups of highly specialized and self-reliant employees in the long term. The coronavirus will reinforce this trend towards emotionality.

What opportunities do companies have during the transition or in shaping the New Normal?

Let’s be honest: the one thing that will be forced on our awareness above all in the next few years is that normality is an illusion. That has always been true. But now, in VUCA Land, it is becoming strikingly clear that we should say goodbye to linear process understanding. Acknowledging the high complexity and the inherent dynamics of uncontrollable forces has become essential. Basically, our brain provides us with the best example of how to adjust best to the coincidences of life. There have always been upheavals. In this respect, every company is well advised to take a closer look at the fundamental laws of physics, chemistry, and biology and not to chase after whatever the latest trend might be.

I am convinced that the greatest advantages from the so-called New Normal will be gained by those who consciously deal with evolutionary processes and neuronal forms of organization. This may be a bit more difficult in the beginning as various “default settings” of “simple, straightforward, and planned” found in industry must be overcome. But in the end, the companies that have learned to “surf with their mistakes” and not just run after the supposedly “simplest” solution simply because no one has the patience to devote sufficient attention to a complex issue will have the greatest chances of survival. There can be a high price to pay in the future if you concentrate solely on focus and speed.

Companies that embrace these new directions can turn entire industries upside-down. The power of AI will make possible the fundamental reordering of current power relationships in the future.

 

Thank you, Bernhard; we wish you and your team all the best for the future.

 

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Bernhard Zünkeler studied law and earned his doctorate in law with a dissertation on the free movement of workers in Europe. He subsequently worked for more than ten years as a lawyer, focusing on restructuring processes in international companies. In 2009, he co-founded the research institute artlab21, whose work gave rise to the art laboratory ESMoA in Los Angeles in 2012. As a partner of Orange Council, he was primarily concerned with the integration of art thinking into operational processes and the implementation of unconventional solution approaches. He has been managing director of E105 since 2020 and supports companies and institutions as they establish innovation culture in daily practice.

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