Decoding Design

Can design help streamline the typical office workday?

Posting in Cities

Meeting after meeting. Endless to-do lists. E-mail inboxes brimming with hundreds of daily unread messages. What happens when designers re-think an inefficient office workday?

A daily agenda that consists of hour-long meetings scheduled back to back with no breaks. An e-mail inbox clogged with dozens or hundreds of unread messages. A laptop that accompanies you home so you can work late every day. And a smart phone that never ceases to ring or deliver more e-mail messages at all hours. If this list reflects your typical workday, would you consider re-designing it?

A Finnish design agency, Idealist Group, is in the midst of a 12-month project to do just that: apply so-called "design thinking" to the way that office workers conduct their days. They're analyzing the habits of workers at companies such as IBM (in Finland) and Fortum (a Scandinavian energy company), as well as those of the employees of Idealist Group. The Finnish Government, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, and Jokerit, Finland’s ice hockey team, will also participate. The project, called Redesigning 925 (or Nine-to-Five), is an initiative is affiliated with the World Design Capital Helsinki program, a title the Finnish city holds for 2012.

In a poll of employees at the companies participating in the Redesigning 925 project, 74% surveyed said that they are not "mentally present at meetings but are working on laptops and cell phones." Seventy-five percent said there were "too many" meetings at their place of work; 71% said they were "busy" at the office.

The goal of Redesigning 925 is to come up with 52 practical ideas to improve how office work is done, followed by two seminars in Helsinki in October to share results, along with the publication of two books at the same time.

Some of the solutions that Idealist Group designers have come up with so far: alter the default time span for typical, hourlong meetings to 45 minutes, and those that are scheduled as shorter, 30-minute meetings to 15 minutes; name a "Chief Time Officer" to manage "time management" itself; and hold "24-Hour Missions," or intensive, all-day creative sessions with a very strict deadline for completing a project.

"One of the core ideas in this approach is that it is not about downshifting or working less," Saku Tuominen, co-founder and creative director of Idealist Group, said in an interview with SmartPlanet. "It's actually about working more effectively, and in a way so we don't get exhausted because we're doing a lot of meaningless work."

Tuominen said that at Idealist Group's offices, they're experimenting with some fun activities to redesign their own workdays, such as trying out an "X-Factor" or "American Idol" approach to watching presentations--meaning, they're judged by those listening. It's an effort to get employees more engaged.

The research that Idealist Group is doing for the Redesigning 925 project won't just apply to workers in Finland. According to Tuominen, the design firm is now working with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's production company in London to re-make their workdays. And Tuominen was recently in New York to meet with several unnamed American companies to do the same, he said.

Image: camknows/Flickr

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure