Story by
Christine MacLean

Photography by
Wyne Veen

Styling by
Marie-Yan Morvan

When people are put in charge of their own workspaces, good things happen for their companies, too. Metaform offers a new paradigm for individual control.

In a world where commerce and technology have enabled unprecedented choice and customization—from on-demand media to user-configured technology to car options that can be endlessly personalized—it is assumed that people can get just about anything, anytime, in any way they want.

The workplace is not exempt from these changes, and many organizations and designers are exploring how to create hyper-flexible, user-controllable workplaces. “Down to the kit of parts that makes up a workspace, we are accustomed to a lot of choice and flexibility in our world,” says Todd Heiser, Design Principal at Gensler. “The world is moving in the direction of more customization, controlled by you.”

Research shows that this new trend of individual control in the workplace also delivers business benefits. For one thing, when employees have more control over their work environments, their feelings of autonomy, empowerment, and belonging all increase. And people who feel like they belong are more likely to stay at a company.1 “With today’s talent wars, we are looking for any way we can to help clients retain talent,” says Jason Hall, Creative Director and Owner at Charlie Greene Studio, a collective of design professionals in Chicago. “If people have control over their environment, it makes them feel valued.”

Allowing for individual control, or “hackability” (as it’s referred to in some corridors), can also boost productivity. Research conducted by Gensler found that employees who had choices about when, where, and how they worked were more innovative and performed better—and were also more satisfied with their jobs and workplaces than employees who didn’t.2

The personal control that comes with flexible spaces has an additional benefit for teams. As people move furniture around, they talk about why they are doing so. This exposes underlying assumptions about what it means to be a team and how people expect to work together. They are literally shaping their environment into something that reflects the team’s identity and purpose. That’s powerful.

Metaform provides individuals with control over their workspaces.

Even considering the benefits of individual control, there are several reasons companies might have second thoughts when it comes to facility use. Primary among these are issues of health and safety. Almost any tour of a workplace with high individual control will turn up minor issues, like chair and table combinations that are ergonomically questionable, as well as bigger problems that could present safety hazards, like a standing-height desk improvised from stacked boxes or equipment that was never intended for use in the office.

There are also less-tangible challenges. Progressive companies generally use their spaces to tell a story. “When you give people control of space, they might disrupt the flow of or undermine a narrative that’s been carefully crafted to convey a company’s purpose,” says Hall. “Flexibility is good to a point, but when you walk into a space that’s a cluttered mess, it says something about the company. The flexibility has to be within an overall understanding about what you’re trying to communicate about the company.” The end result of the customization also has to preserve the integrity of the larger floorplan.

When to Hack

Be hackable when you need to define an empowered, change-driven, or disruptive team or organizational culture. In almost any company, there are teams given the task of redefining, recreating, disrupting, or delivering something new, different, and better. The work these teams do is improvisational, and they need a space that supports these on-the-fly changes.3 Let the workplace embody the culture and empower the innovators.

Be hackable when your organization or teams are growing or changing quickly. This situation can be based on the overall growth or evolution of a company, or on the nature of certain teams. Development teams, for example, often start small, grow and evolve their work as the development matures, then shrink as the development moves toward completion. Their spaces can also adapt to reflect these shifts.

Be hackable when you dedicate one space to multiple teams. Sometimes it is effective and efficient to dedicate a highly flexible space to teams with multiple short-term missions. This may take place over the course of a few days or a few months. Hackable solutions are ideal to accommodate the diversity of missions, activities, and character of these teams and the people within them.

Metaform tools encourage customization.

Hack Well

With a better understanding of user-controlled places and when they make sense for companies, we came to recognize that there were no furnishings designed to make them possible. Everything was either too heavy and rigid or too lightweight and jury-rigged. With Berlin-based Studio 7.5, we set out to create the first furniture designed just for this new way of working. The result is Metaform Portfolio.

Delivering on the promise of user control are Metaform’s two modular, lightweight blocks and four lightweight table surfaces. Together, these enable the world’s most individually configurational and endlessly variable workplaces. The blocks weigh in at just 18 pounds, making them easy to move or reconfigure. The four ridges and furrows support table-, desk-, and counter-height surfaces and also provide unprecedented vertical display and access to tools and ideas. “There’s an oxymoron in today’s offices,” says Carola Zwick, of Studio 7.5. “If you can turn it into a PDF, you don’t need physical storage for it. If you can’t PDF it, it probably won’t fit in your filing cabinet. We designed Metaform as a flexible way to store and display all of these critical objects. It creates meaningful clutter—a texture that triggers memory and ultimately inspires.”

“Today, almost all professions ‘ended up’ in offices that are descended from the classic office for administrative work,” adds Studio 7.5’s Burkhard Schmitz, “as a result, the ‘production floors’ for knowledge workers all look roughly the same—especially with computers as universal tools. So movies, buildings, airplanes, shoes, and apps are being developed in similar settings, which deprives these professions of their specific flavor. By providing an environment that can gracefully stage artifacts, samples, books, and drawings, in a meaningful way, the physical richness of work can be regained.”

But individual control, and the physical richness that comes with it, doesn’t have to mean chaotic disarray—Metaform provides a calming, organizing boundary. And it doesn’t have to mean safety risks: each Metaform block is inherently structural and self-sufficient, and the system delivers flexible, smart, and safe power.

Once the infrastructure is in place, Metaform offers an open platform for iteration and invention. Studio 7.5 even encourages individuals to further customize their Metaform blocks by utilizing 3D printing to create their own unique accessories. As Schmitz notes, “Our goal is to enable people to assume roles similar to those of a craftsman in his shop, surrounded by what he needs to be most productive.”

1 Jacqueline C. Vischer, “Towards an Environmental Psychology of Workspace,” Architectural Science Review (2008), 101.
2 Diane Hoskins, “Employees Perform Better When They Can Control Their Space,” Harvard Business Review (January 16, 2014). Accessed from www.hbr.org/2014/01/employees-perform-better-when-they-can-control-their-space.
3 “Team Landscapes: Total User Experience II,” Confidential and proprietary research conducted by Herman Miller, 2015.

Chairs or Why People Sit

READ THE NEXT ARTICLE

Chairs or Why People Sit

Photographer Carl Kleiner captures the art and science of Herman Miller seating.