Interview with Jennifer Magnolfi

The ability of space to shape as well as support certain kinds of behaviors and human interactions is at the heart of what I’m interested in. — Jennifer Magnolfi

I met Jennifer Magnolfi a few years ago, and she joined me in the New York stop of the Future Of Work Tour in 2010. We’ve stayed in touch, and I wanted to catch up on the application of her research, working with Tony Hsieh of Zappos, on his new headquarters design.

About Jennifer Magnolfi

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Jennifer Magnolfi source: re:Work with Google

Jennifer Magnolfi is a pioneer in the disruptive field of ‘programmable environments’, where the physical environment is instrumented to make it more productive, sustainable, and more integrated with digital artifacts of business. Her applied research work explores coworking and co-creation, the technologies and practices that support workspaces for innovation, collaboration and community development. In 2012, she teamed up with Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh to support the company’s new headquarters redesign. She also lead the effort to accelerate the emergence of coworking communities for Downtown Project LLC, a real estate and investment fund sponsored by Hsieh, and driving the current revitalization of Downtown Las Vegas. Jennifer is co-author of ‘Always Building: the Programmable Environment’, published by Herman Miller in 2008, where she was a lead architect. Among her other accolades and honors, Jennifer was selected by Fast Company as one of the innovators in their Generation Change project. She received a Master’s Degree in Architecture from the Harvard School of Design.

Interview

Stowe Boyd: Is modern office redesign and rethinking the workspace still the primary focus of your work?

Jennifer Magnolfi: In broad terms, yes. The ability of space to shape as well as support certain kinds of behaviors and human interactions is at the heart of what I’m interested in. I believe that the built environment is both a reflection and an enabler of human endeavor. And I think of technology in space as a design medium, a sort of material. It introduces a set of properties that previously weren’t possible — changing interactions by the user with other users through architecture or by the user with other users through digital space, etc.

We are able to work in many physical environments now. What transforms them into workspaces is the fact that we are connected to our work-related data, and more importantly, that we get into the “zone of work,” that cognitive state that allows us to function for work-related purposes, to work productively and effectively. — Jennifer Magnolfi

When we spoke at the end of 2011, I was embarking on research around co-working, which I see as an ‘edge condition’ in the field of corporate real estate.

The world of coworking is a very vibrant community and to a certain degree it has ushered a new culture of work. Although it remains relatively small in size, it has had significant impact. When I first became interested in it a few years ago, it was more of an edge. Now I hear from corporate real estate executives who are asking questions about how to implement coworking, and how to incorporate related design principles in their real estate portfolios. I think of the cumulative effect of this with other macro economic factors are manifesting a “structural shift” in the world of work.

SB: I’m fascinated by the notion that corporate management is looking at co-working and the hotbed kind of space — what I call the ‘coworking playpen’ (ping pong tables, nerf guns, and so on) — which has become the modern answer to the cube and closed doors workspace of the late 21st century.

Do corporate managers think this kind of coworking space will spark more creativity and innovation and higher degrees of serendipitous interactions among workers? What is their motivation to consider coworking as a model?

JM: I think there are different degrees of understanding by corporate managers about what coworking is, what it looks like, or what it indicates when it emerges in a work context. When we think of 20th century corporate offices, coworking spaces tend to look very different. Actually, the things you described remind me more of Silicon Valley tech offices, which are now more mainstream.

Generally, I think of the coworking movement as a manifestation of Internet culture in the workplace, and that “the office” as we used to know it, is really a state of mind. We are able to work in many physical environments now. What transforms them into workspaces is the fact that we are connected to our work-related data, and more importantly, that we get into the “zone of work,” that cognitive state that allows us to function for work-related purposes, to work productively and effectively.

It is telling that most original coworking environments, which are very diverse and have very high occupancy rates, were not put together by professional workplace strategists, architects or facility managers.

Coworking spaces have the capacity to support productive work because of the very human-centric approach to how they are created: the community, or network, comes first, followed by studying and stabilizing the network, and then creation of an environment that supports the behaviors and needs of that network. In effect, coworking spaces arise from the inverse of the traditional planning approach for many legacy corporate offices today. The outputs are accelerated learning, higher energy, and higher rates of serendipity — all qualities that are considered valuable in today’s competitive work landscape, whether you are a startup or larger organization. The design of coworking spaces appears random, but my sense is that with enough observation you can begin to see patterns, and once you understand the patterns in these spaces, you can replicate them and scale them.

Coworking spaces have the capacity to support productive work because of the very human-centric approach to how they are created: the community, or network, comes first, followed by studying and stabilizing the network, and then creation of an environment that supports the behaviors and needs of that network. — Jennifer Magnolfi

SB: You mean you think you can engineer it to a certain extent?

JM: To some extent — I think it is possible once you understand certain guiding principles of design, which are the equivalent of best practices at this point in the evolution of the movement. The key however remains the community, which is much harder to ‘engineer’

Coworking has moved incredibly fast because it’s operating at the speed of digital space. There are several aspects of this phenomenon that were of interest to me as a researcher. Fundamentally, I believe the way we learn, we create knowledge, we absorb and trade knowledge today is more and more based on our human experience in social digital space. Because of this, we have come to expect similar interactions to be facilitated in our real world environments. In other words, the performance requirements of physical work environments have changed.

Early coworking leaders and their communities were very successful in delivering familiar “network” experiences in their physical spaces. If I’m used to interacting with others online in a certain way, I have a seamless transition to physical work contexts that are based on similar values — like openness, sharing, co-creation. By the same token, I will feel differently about environments that don’t reinforce these values. Not surprisingly, demand for this know how has spread online and across the world very quickly.

SB: Has your thinking been shaped recently by what you have been doing out in Las Vegas as it relates to Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s revitalization of downtown Las Vegas?

JM: I met Tony when I was presenting my research and some of the ideas we’ve discussed. I was given the opportunity to go to Las Vegas to support his design team in the concept development on the new downtown Zappos headquarters. Tony’s and his team’s aspiration was to deliberately design the corporate space to maximize the potential for accelerated learning and serendipitous interactions between his employees — all byproducts of coworking communities.

In parallel, I had the opportunity to work with the Downtown Project, an investment fund that is focused on the revitalization of the downtown neighborhood. My role there was to kick-start a bottoms-up acceleration of coworking communities — which I called there “passion communities” because they were built around things that people were passionate about in the local fabric of downtown. It was a very interesting experience, insofar as it operated based on the parameters and metrics I had been developing in coworking research around Europe and North America, but applied to civic space. The work was structured on the logic of digital networks, but at a very different (urban, social) scale. It was an entirely new application context.

Our digital social space has implicit laws (it’s based on distributed networks), speed and acceleration. It also creates new emergent behaviors in users. For businesses, the purpose of understanding this social context is to describe and possibly predict its future evolution. In other words, understanding these emergent behaviors helps businesses innovate faster, and thus achieve competitive advantage. — Jennifer Magnolfi

SB: I am exploring a similar theme in my new series called Socialogy, which expresses the idea of applying scientific reasoning to the human side of business. I’m trying to apply thoughts from a wide range of disciplines: anthropology, psychology, or the mathematics of social networks theory.

In the series, I pose the question, ‘How do you think a scientifically-grounded understanding of people as social beings will change business in the future and how?’

JM: When it comes to ‘people as social beings’, as you say, it seems to me that most successful business leaders have an intuitive understanding of the social context around them, and how to operate within that context to serve it. To this extent, there isn’t really anything new.

What has changed, however, is the kind of knowledge that people have today and the way that knowledge is traded, shared and, most importantly, co-created. Our digital social space has implicit laws (it’s based on distributed networks), speed and acceleration. It also creates new emergent behaviors in users.

For businesses, the purpose of understanding this social context is to describe and possibly predict its future evolution. In other words, understanding these emergent behaviors helps businesses innovate faster, and thus achieve competitive advantage.

What is interesting about this, in my opinion, is that the general need for “scientifically grounded understanding” itself emerges in response to the speed of change we see in the world around us. The speed is staggering and it shows no signs of slowing down. Social interactions in the context of business, however, particularly those to which we ascribe high meaning, take time to develop. It takes a while to develop trust, for example, or a sense of belonging.

The properties of space –- volume, texture, materials, proportions, light — have the capacity to trigger neurochemical reactions in the brain. It is believed that when this is understood correctly, it can be a tool to design for a certain kind of behavior: concentration, energy, focus. — Jennifer Magnolfi

SB: And that’s why people are paying more attention to the advances from psychology, for example?

JM: It is no surprise then that general interest in knowledge from the fields of cognitive psychology and anthropology or other social and human sciences is emerging. In a sense, understanding how people operate and make choices within digital networks is as important as understanding the speed and makeup of those networks.

In my line of work, for instance, I see the emergence of interest in how space design affects the brain. The properties of space — volume, texture, materials, proportions, light — have the capacity to trigger neurochemical reactions in the brain. It is believed that when this is understood correctly, it can be a tool to design for a certain kind of behavior: concentration, energy, focus. In workspace contexts, this is important. For instance, when making a real estate business decision that doesn’t operate at the speed of technology (like signing a 15–20 year corporate lease), understanding the various dimensions of productivity of that real estate asset, and how to design for a certain future outcome, are valuable tools for business. Here new knowledge is key.

So, to loop back to your question — of course scientific based understanding of people as social beings is important. However, I think that innovation in this new area of inquiry will come when that new understanding is translated into competitive advantage for business.

SB: Jennifer, thanks so much for joining me today, and lending such strong support for the thesis behind this series.

JM: You’re welcome, Stowe. Thanks you for having me.

Jennifer’s work, at the frontier of cognitive anthropology, architecture, and social business, speaks to the untapped potential for a more science-based agenda for management, planning, and innovation. New research in the past few years is shedding a great deal of light on the degree to which people are influenced by physical surroundings and interactions with other people in physical and online contexts. And, perhaps most importantly, Jennifer’s work with business leaders like Tony Hsieh suggests that enlightened business leaders are taking notice, and what was once a result in a university research paper is finding its way into the corporate boardroom.

Originally published at stoweboyd.com on 19 March 2013.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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