Applying the Lessons of Public Places to Workplaces

What’s the secret sauce of successful public places? And could that secret sauce be used to improve other places, such as workplaces?

For the past few years I have been trying to figure out the secret sauce of public spaces, such as town squares, plazas, and parks, as well as quasi-public places, like coffeeshops, bookstores, and neighborhood diners and bars. Altogether these places form the fabric of creative communities. In the 1980s William H. Whyte studied the flight of corporations from big cities to the suburbs, and predicted many of them would eventually return to the city, where “truly critical negotiations” can be done “informally, on common meeting grounds equally accessible to both parties.” These places, Whyte wrote, “are at the heart of the city’s intelligence networks” and are “the genius of the place.”

Now those public places are being subjected to additional critical analysis. Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology has created a center for the “Future of Places,” aimed at defining the psychological, social, infrastructural, and environmental importance of public spaces. A doctoral student at Georgia Institute of Technology, Maria P. Roche, has gathered research that suggests “the actual physical capacity to connect people and ideas may, in fact, be one reason why cities, and some neighborhoods are more conducive for innovation than others.” A book published in October, 2019, Changing Places: The Science and Art of New Urban Planning, written by professors from Penn, Columbia, and DePaul universities, addresses how the science of urban planning can make cities healthier, more livable, and safer.

Physical public spaces could even teach the designers of virtual public spaces — the online platforms –a thing or two. Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble and an advocate of online democracy, has initiated a study of how urban planning principles could improve the quality of the “online public square,” where we spend an increasing amount of our time. (More on Pariser’s work and a link to his TED talk on this subject at the end of this piece.)

What seems clear to me is that the most beneficial public spaces or quasi-public spaces are not necessarily the most expensive ones or the ones with the most elaborate designs.

The physical space in which people work ‘is the biggest lever to encourage collaboration. . . . and serendipitous interaction.’ So why not consider the elements of a good public place when planning the workplace?

The same could be said for another kind of place – the workplace. Before I was thinking about public places, I was an entrepreneur building a business from a kitchen table operation into a medium-sized community news organization. I spent much of my time paying attention to the workplace — not just the physical space in which we worked but also the dynamics of how we related to each other and how we related to the community we served. As I found with public places, the critical success elements of the workplace were not always the most expensive. The happiest workers cared not just about compensation and benefits, but also about more subjective factors such as their contribution to the community at large, how much they were able to advance their professional standing, and the quality of their interaction with coworkers.

So now I wonder: Could some of the critical success factors for public places be adapted and applied to the workplace? The short answer is yes, and the bottom line is that I wish now I had studied public spaces first, and then applied that knowledge to my management of the workplace.

Let’s consider first the ways in which good public spaces can influence the physical workplace. Then let’s look at ways in which public spaces can provide lessons for creating a better business environment, including the way we interact with colleagues and customers.

The physical workplace

Good public spaces welcome people to come in. As Whyte discovered when he undertook his systematic analysis of public plazas in Manhattan in the 1970s, the elements that made a space welcoming were pretty straightforward: places to sit were crucial, especially moveable chairs if possible; food, even if it was just a place for a brown bag lunch; and – icing on the cake – an outdoor sculpture or water feature. “What attracts people most, it would seem, is other people,” Whyte said.

A good company cannot be open to everyone, of course, but it can be welcoming. A company can give callers a human alternative to soulless voice mail. It can acknowledge e-mail inquiries even if it cannot immediately reply. A receptionist at the front desk can tell a “walk-in” what the organization can do for them, as opposed to what it cannot do. When I was working as publisher of my newspaper company, I often visited a printer with a surprising sign in its reception area: “Welcome salesmen. Help yourself to a cup of coffee. We probably can’t speak to you personally now but leave your literature and we will contact you if we have a need.” I asked the owner why he was so welcoming. Salespeople, he said, were his best source of intelligence about his competition.

Good public spaces stimulate unexpected conversations and interactions. They are a refreshing alternative to the online, on-screen existence endured by many of us. At times of peak use they have an energy of their own, created by people in close proximity to each other. Whyte described an interaction he called “triangulation,” when some external stimulus prompts strangers to talk to each other as if they were friends.

Many employers have already taken notice of what Ben Waber of the MIT Media Lab described in his 2018 book, People Analytics. The physical space in which people work “is the biggest lever to encourage collaboration. . . . The biggest driver of performance in complex industries like software is serendipitous interaction.”

For that reason companies such as Yahoo, Google, and IBM now discourage telecommuting. These companies have discovered benefits of having people working together on site. To make the workplace more attractive some companies have replaced cubicles with open office plans, staircases that double as seating for meetings, indoor-outdoor seating arrangements for the cafeteria, and other physical elements that at least attempt to encourage creative interactions.

Good public spaces offer visitors a personal place within their confines. It often takes the form of seating with moveable chairs. As Whyte observed, many times people will take a seat and move no more than a few inches. That small movement makes people feel that they are in control of their space.

Correspondingly, some companies literally offer workers a choice of workstations where they can sit, depending on their personal preferences, immediate task at hand, or just plain personal whim. That’s a literal adaptation of a practice that works in public spaces. But there are also figurative ways that employees can personalize their jobs. Flexible hours can be exhilarating for some workers. Others revel in being part of a team working together on a task. Some like to be able to customize their computer desktop. Good employers may realize that such employees are investing in the job, not just doing the job.

Good public places are critical building blocks of the community in which they exist. The best public spaces often double as venues for special events and the arts. Planning a rally? Hold it at the town square. Need to meet a person for the first time? Try the neighborhood coffee shop, or the public library.

Good companies can serve similar functions for the communities in which they operate. The office can be the site of an art installation. The parking lot can be opened to the public after hours and on weekends. Some companies are making room for transit stops or bicycle racks on their property. The community may be as important to the company and its workforce as the company is to the community.

The virtual workplace

Principles of urban planning and public place design can also apply to our business life outside of a physical office. In this post-industrial, information age economy, much of our business interaction is conducted remotely; the products we produce may never have a physical dimension. But even in this realm there are lessons from public places to be applied:

Good public places are site-specific, defined, readily apparent to someone passing by. When you enter you can easily see who else is there, and generally what they are up to.

Good companies, even ones that only operate online, can still make themselves clearly visible. At many company websites, however, the links to “About Us” or “Contact Us” only deepen the mystery of the company’s mission and sponsors. When you call the help desk, you may not know if you are talking to a trained representative or a computer-generated piece of artificial intelligence. Good companies can take a cue from good public places and make clear, in human terms, who they are, and what they are in business to do. People like to do business with people they know, and that applies online as well as downtown or in a suburban office.

Good public places allow people to be themselves, and to express their views without fear of being ridiculed or criticized. A professor at Seattle University, Mara Adelman, has studied the benefits of what she calls “weak ties” – the people you run into at public and quasi-public spaces such as parks and coffee shops. These people give each other a chance to test new ideas and explore “gray areas and complexity.”

But colleagues at work (along with family and close friends) tend to be “strong ties,” described by Adelman as “birds of a feather” who usually have expectations of how you should behave. Some companies are now realizing that these expectations may cause its staff to hold back work before sharing it with colleagues. By the time it is shared, it is so far developed that feedback is impractical.

At Google, for example, the sharing of unfinished (or unpolished) work is now encouraged by creating a three-tier ranking of documents: “Drafts,” when it is understood that big-picture comments are welcomed but that this is not the time to sweat the finer points; “works-in-progress,” when comments regarding both the big picture and the details are encouraged; and “final versions,” circulated to see if there are any glaring errors or omissions. As Diane Chaleff of Google has written, “Waiting too long on ‘polish’ can slow down the process of getting to the best idea. . . . It’s crucial for employees to feel like they can share their best and brightest ideas. After all, that’s what you’re paying them to do.”

Good public places police themselves. When Whyte first began studying public spaces in the 1970s, a major concern at New York’s Bryant Park was the presence of drug users, prostitutes, the homeless – people deemed by some to be “undesirables.” Whyte realized that the traditional measures to keep those people out would be so onerous that they would detract from the space as a whole. Whyte suggested instead that much of the fencing around the park be taken down, that more entrances be created, and that movable chairs be placed around the park to enable visitors to sit where they chose to. Rather than keep “undesirables” out, the goal was to bring in more “desirables.” Their presence would set the tone for the entire space. Soon the petty criminals and homeless people were in the minority, and no longer threatening to the majority.

To keep order in their workplaces, many companies feel the need to establish a detailed employee manual. It might be useful if the company needs to fire someone. But some companies also recognize that peer pressure may impose a more reasonable sense of order in the workplace than top-down micromanagement. In my experience as an employer, for example, I found that workers who maintained flexible work hours usually worked more than those on a fixed schedule.

Good public places will sometimes be messy. People interacting with people can lead to litter, a spilled drink here or there, a chair left out of position. Like any other asset, a public space requires some maintenance and – every so often – -some capital investment. As time reveals unexpected levels of use, the space may even be redesigned.

Good companies know that their best workers are only human. They will make mistakes, create waste, and hit send when they mean to press delete. Some desks may be extremely messy. (As Albert Einstein said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?”) Projects may be started, and then stopped, as new information becomes available. It’s part of the process.

Good public spaces are inclusionary. In a time when even a neighborhood coffee shop can be priced beyond the range of some people in the neighborhood, the public plaza around the corner is free and open to all. You won’t get yelled at if you bring your own coffee from home or a brown bag lunch. The best ones will accommodate people of all political and social views, ages, physical abilities, temperaments, and backgrounds.

The best companies aim for diversity. But do they achieve it? Some of them still utilize personality tests to evaluate potential employees, even when the tests have no specific relation to job-related skills. Small businesses, which may not choose to pay for personality tests, may employ panels of their current workers to see if an applicant will “fit in” with the existing workforce. The best companies, however, are not afraid of hiring people with “off-tangent” ideas, as Whyte referred to them in his 1956 bestseller, The Organization Man. Off tangent could be on target for a breakthrough solution to a longstanding problem.

Good public places honor their history and preserve community tradition. The most successful public place in my hometown is a place known as Hinds Plaza. You don’t need to know its history to utilize the space. But you may enjoy it even more when you do know its history. A plaque on the site presents a favorite saying of the plaza’s namesake, Albert E. Hinds: “It’s always the right time to do the right thing.” The plaque explains that Hinds, who died in 2006 at the age of 104, “was a living monument of the town’s African American heritage” and “a tireless advocate for social justice and civil rights.”

The best businesses and institutions also preserve their past. They maintain archives, celebrate their “alumni,” and preserve their traditions. If they are just starting up and don’t have much of a history or a legacy to celebrate, they can always a adopt one by aligning themselves with the community in which they are based, or – if they are a virtual company with no physical presence – the community that they serve.

Postscript: Can physical public places be a model for virtual public places?

Just as we now have virtual companies with no physical address, we also have people who gather in cyberspace and online communities. Mike Ananny, a professor at University of Southern California, calls these online communities “platform societies” and warns that they have co-opted the language of real public places. In these digital places, “friends” gather to “like” each other, and to “share” information. Some members of these groups may be more “trusted” than others; some are more “popular.” As many people have discovered, however, “friends” in the real world may be much different from the “friends” acquired online.

But could these digital public places be shaped in a way to contribute to the health and well being of the community they serve just as physical public places do? Yes, says Eli Pariser, who has been concerned with the interplay between the online world and the democratic process since he wrote his 2011 bestseller, The Filter Bubble.

Pariser has begun to study how the traits of the best physical places can be applied to online platforms. Citing Whyte’s book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, and Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Pariser says that “spaces influence behavior.” In the physical world one would know instantly how to behave in a bar, for example, as opposed to a library. Similarly “online places can convey their own norms.” At LinkedIn, for example, people’s online behavior mirrors workplace behavior – lots of photos are people in coats and ties. Twitter, on the other hand, invites people who are right next to each other (figuratively speaking, of course) to yell back and forth.

“How do we make platforms better? How do we optimize these platforms for democracy?” Pariser asks in a recent TED talk. Cities, he now believes, are the original platforms in our civilization, and have managed to survive all the challenges now faced by the digital platforms. Most importantly, they show that “it is possible to live practically on top of each other and not kill each other.” Urban planning and public place design help make that miracle happen.

Pariser hopes to introduce designers of such urban places as New York’s High Line to the senior people at the technology platforms. “I’m trying to get them together in the same room,” he says. “There’s quite a willingness and an interest in doing that.”

A good idea, I think, and I hope he finds a space conducive to spontaneous and frank communication, with moveable chairs, of course, as well as food and the promise of triangulation.

— Richard K. Rein, an urban critic based in Princeton, NJ, is writing a biography of William H. Whyte.