The Most Fundamental Building Block of Success

By: Jim Susman, AIA

Every real estate developer and broker is familiar with the old adage that the key to success is LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION.

This mantra is absolutely as true in the realm of corporate space planning. After more than 30 years of practice, I have had the opportunity to work with corporate leaders who adhere to a wide variety of theories regarding the issue of LOCATION when they decide who sits next to whom. In a world where success depends almost entirely on communication, observing how organization charts are played out in space plans has been a fascinating insight into both psychology and human behavior. Two unnamed clients of ours have illustrated both ends on that spectrum.

Jim's "napkin drawing" of how different office layouts affect communication and productivity.

Jim's "napkin drawing" of how different office layouts affect communication and productivity.

We worked with a financial institution some years ago which was effectively a large start-up requiring more than 75,000 square feet of office space in a downtown building. For a variety of what I'm sure were very sound reasons, the CEO desired a "C-Suite" of his direct reports to be within earshot. As a consequence, these high-level departmental leaders were left segregated from their respective departments on a series of different floors. Communication between this leader and his immediate team was direct, instant and created a relatively strong sense of "team.” Conversely, communication between the department leaders and their respective teams was at a distance and required significantly more effort in communication, mentoring, consistency and inspiration. The culture strongly reflected the seating plan with much less connectivity between the C-Level leadership and the rank-and-file. Organizations physically arranged like this risk losing the opportunity to develop loyalty, free-time innovation and a strong sense of community.

By contrast, we began designing a corporate headquarters for an Austin-based tech company about 20 years ago with a very different leadership style. The CEO at this company placed himself squarely in the middle of a large, open-space floor plan, making himself immediately visible and accessible to the entire organization. The entire organization reflects this familial and approachable mindset and it has, in turn, continually capitalized on an environment that encourages collaboration, brainstorming and innovation precisely because communication is not only easy, but virtually unavoidable. To date, this company has consistently represented one of this community’s most successful corporations and best places to work.

Admittedly, financial institutions are dramatically different from tech companies, nevertheless, human behavior and the desire to excel are not. A company that can develop an esprit-de-corps through a strong sense of community can position itself to recruit and retain the very best talent on the market. This is, after all is said and done, the most fundamental building block of success. Collaboration, innovation and drive will naturally follow.