The Micro City: A New Model for Workplace Design

“A city is not gauged by its length and width, but by the broadness of its vision and the height of its dreams.”
Herb Caen

Close your eyes and imagine your favorite city. New York. Paris. Istanbul. These cities, or any great city, invite a stroll, inspire new ideas, and offer a romantic serendipity of experiences in art, music, and conversation. Loud, exciting, active streets and plazas are balanced with quiet parks, cafes, and libraries. Taste their food, meet new people, see their sites, feel the energy. Would you ever think of a healthcare workplace this way?  For increased productivity, workplace wellness, and employee retention, you should.

We know the quality of the workplace can have an enormous effect on the health and happiness of employees. The power of brand and culture play an important part in this as well, but for the larger workplace stacked over many floors, brand can become repetitive and culture fragmented. Data shows that workers on different floors might as well be in a different building. To increase collaboration and communication, employers need to create offices that inspire movement and creativity. So why not think of the workplace as a city all its own?

                                                  Conceptual representation of how workplaces can find inspiration from destinations found in cities

Here are five design strategies borrowed from great cities that can create workplaces—whether healthcare spaces or commercial offices—that innovate and inspire.

Encourage Circulation and Movement

We know that in the modern workplace—even if you have a traditionally sedentary job like an accountant—you should be mobile. Walking is good for the mind and the metabolism. Not only is it incredibly unhealthy to stand or sit in one place all day, lack of motion is a productivity killer and a deterrent to good health.

City planning begins with streets and how people and goods move through the city. The experience navigating through the city defines what the city is. In a great city there are multiple pathways that lead to the same location, and each provides its own distinct experience.

The design of the micro-city workplace makes it easy to wander and work on different floors with different people in different settings. If the workplace doesn’t have good circulation, people will be less likely to collaborate and more susceptible to distraction. To enable movement, each floor of the workplace should have unique features and pathways easily connecting them. Larger openings linking floors spatially are essential.

When designing the new Brunswick Headquarters, a leader in the fitness, marine and billiards industries, our design team created extra-wide pathways of varying distances throughout the workplace. Walking meetings were encouraged and the design of the space itself oozed motion. Physical activity is promoted as the pathways connect “neighborhoods” and a wide array of collaborative spaces. The clearly defined pathways added the benefit of minimizing distraction by pulling circulation away from desks.

Brunswick Headquarters

Build a Town Square and They Will Come

Every great city has town squares and plazas—open areas designed for large gatherings, festivals, and events typically surrounded by shops, restaurants and other places to congregate. Town squares are the very heart of the city.

We know great ideas happen and problems are solved more quickly when people work together. More so, research shows that productivity skyrockets when friends work on projects together compared to when they work with mere acquaintances. Although most workplaces offer a hub providing coffee and encouraging community, often, these places are used less than intended. Typically, this is the result of the lack of tools needed for meaningful collaboration through access to power and technology.

One way to create widely used destinations is to design a town square within the workplace with large and small open and enclosed meeting areas adjacent to each other. These town halls can often be several stories tall with a variety of welcoming spaces—think food, coffee, collaborative space. In these spaces, staff from different disciplines want to meet and spend time together—and based on my experience, the town square ends up being one of the greatest investments an organization can make.

Strategically placed coffee hubs line the town square in Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

In Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, large communal spaces organize the design; a three-story entrance plaza operates as a knuckle between the existing campus to the north and a new campus expansion to the west. The plaza leads to a town hall inside in the form of a four-story atrium with labs and workspaces intertwined and unassigned collaborative spaces for greater social integration. The circulation between labs and workplace operate like a gallery and collaboration zone. Within this town square environment, everyone will be aware of the work other teams are doing, and whenever something interesting happens or a celebration is planned, everyone will know where to go.

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Zoning for Variety and Choice

Cities are zoned with different areas set aside for different types of activities: commercial, retail, industrial, arts, and residential, for example. When people move from one area to another, they know where to find bustling streets, great restaurants and bars or quiet neighborhoods. People move based on what they want to do and experience; each zone has different characteristics for different activities. That’s the way workplaces should be.

The hobgoblin of workplace design is the open office. You cannot browse the web without seeing an article vilifying the open office and promoting the need for more privacy. The reality is that choice is essential to meeting the needs of a workforce with varying needs. People excel in different work settings and a one-size-fits-all approach to workplace design is ineffective. Many workers are exhilarated by energy and a social atmosphere and need only a pair of headphones to concentrate while others require absolute quiet and solitude to get work done. Well-planned workplace zones for energy or quiet (and the many other states in between) create a balanced work environment catered to work styles across the spectrum.

When we designed the new headquarters for CA Ventures, we designed it much like a collegiate campus with diagonal cuts across the environment that evoke the feeling of a campus quad while zoning the space into different functions for teaming and collaboration. Much like you’d find on a campus, we even included a green zone featuring a living wall that anchors both the reception area and main staff quad.

CA Ventures

Let the Only Constant Be Change

If there’s one certain about cities, it’s change. Businesses recede and others emerge, restaurants open and close, homes are rebuilt, buildings are repurposed with new uses. The transformation of cities includes seasons and even the transition from day to night. They are living, breathing entities with tremendous variability, which keeps them fresh and exciting to those who call them home.

Likewise, the workplace should include variety and flexibility; studies show that creativity is increased with changes in environment. Successful workplaces inherently include floors with unique spatial and material palette experiences that offer choice to the mobile worker. Customizable lighting accentuating quiet mornings and busy middays to the casual collaboration in the early evening makes the workplace even more comfortable and effective. As cities change over time, adaptability to change is essential for the micro-city workplace.  For example, shapeshifting spaces that easily transform from dedicated team rooms to quiet independent work areas allow for changes in workflow. Simpler table-based workstations allow teams to reconfigure their work settings based on mood and project needs. If something is not working, just change it.

Michigan Plaza Pop Up and Lounge

Be cosmopolitan: Mix people and purpose

Cities are at their best when people from different cultures and backgrounds mix, generating new ideas and experiences. A micro-city workplace can have the same benefits. For example, co-working spaces have become revolutionary because they give people a place to go that allows diverse talent and ideas to mix. Similarly, companies must recognize the potential of including related partners in their micro-city work environments.

Whether it be the addition of a software startup or an external marketing team, creating a culture of a comingled workplace will lessen the downside of silos and generate new ideas and experiences.  Add to this mix a rotating pop-up strategy of new food or drink options, art installations, or even new fitness programs, and workplaces can present different perspectives and opportunities that motivate, stimulate, and enable productivity.

Just like great cities, the micro-city workplace creates places that are desired and even dreamt about. By pulling in ideas from city design, we can create bustling workplaces filled with spaces and strategies that make them connected, healthy, inspiring and productive.

Here’s a look at some of the sources that inspired this piece:

  • “Delirious New York: a Retroactive Manifesto For Manhattan,” Rem Koolhaas, Monacelli Press, 1978
  • “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jane Jacobs, Random House, 1961
  • “Invisible Cities,” Italo Calvino; Translated by William Weaver, Secker and Warburg, 1974
  • “The Image of the City,” Kevin Lynch, The MIT press, 1960
  • “The New Science of Building Great Teams,” Sandy Pentland, Harvard Business Review,  2012
  • “Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship Between Living Abroad and Creativity,” William W. Maddux, PhD, Adam D. Galinsky, PhD; Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5
  • “The Organization and Architecture of Innovation,” Thomas Allen and Gunter Henn, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006