Is the Digital Workspace New? Lessons from Building 20

Imagine a place of work where the windows leaked—or fell out if the winds got high enough, the roof leaked to the point of pouring through in heavy rain, and soot blew in from the city. It was searing hot in summer and freezing cold in winter and there was “always the noise, the strange, unfiltered sounds of everyone else’s work.”i This was the now-famous Building 20 at MIT. Built as temporary space during World War II, it was meant to outlast the conflict by only six months. And yet fifty-five years later, it still provided a home to some of the world’s leading scientists and life-changing innovations in areas such as radar, sound systems, photography, cognitive science, and linguistics. During its lifetime, Building 20 claimed to have housed over 20% of the US’s physicists, including nine Nobel Prize winners.

So how does a workplace that is falling apart, decidedly uncomfortable, and probably not all that safe come to play such an important role in fostering some of the most creative innovations that the world has ever seen? Many have suggested that it was the mix of people thrown together in adverse conditions that spawned extraordinary creativity. Others have attributed it to the freedom to ignore all campus building and wiring constraints: the ability to pull down walls, rewire technologies, reconstruct spaces, and be creative about the way the building itself was used that helped its occupants to see things differently. Noam Chomsky recalled in 2011, “It looked like it was going to fall apart. There were no amenities, the plumbing was visible, and the windows looked as if they were going to fall out, but it was extremely interactive.” Perhaps a reminder, therefore, to all of us that big problems often get solved with collaboration and a willingness to break the rules.ii

People inhabited Building 20 any time of the day or night—the building breathed life across its three floors 24/7. There was constant noise: the noise of people, noise of machines, and the building itself creaked and groaned as it weathered the elements. So just as spaces were reinvented, time was framed around individual body-clocks, anticipated noise levels, and deadlines. It was often late at night that unlikely collaborations took place as people wandered corridors seeking the origin of new noises and finding company.

As we struggle with how to best create collaborative and innovative spaces to work that are agile enough to succeed in the digital era, Building 20 offers a few lessons:

  • Space was reconstructed in Building 20 both through use and a sense of ownership. Small office spaces and difficult working conditions drove people into the corridors to talk and mix in ways they normally wouldn’t have, but did not deny them individualized space for thinking and building. People in Building 20 took ownership of spaces that were uniquely theirs—even physically changing them—at the same time that they seem to have embraced more collaborative, shared spaces. This has implications for both physical and virtual space to enable a richer environment of possibilities combining owned and shared spaces. In the digital economy, owning and creating your own workspace requires toolkits of multiple technologies, physical componentry, and design capabilities that can be personalized. It also requires openness to constructing these spaces with fewer rules and boundaries. Some organizations are already experimenting with personal workspace design using combinations of BYOD, office kits, and flexible spaces. We may not be able to put holes in walls, but we can have more flexibility over how we enable personalized and collaborative work practices.
  • Materiality played a significant, and often overlooked, part of the Building 20 story. People built things in this building. They knocked down walls if spaces weren’t big enough, they soundproofed rooms, rearranged furniture and attached it to the floor, they dragged material substances to all corners of the building to construct and reconstruct their ideas. People didn’t just interact with other people in Building 20, they engaged with the materiality of the projects and ideas. Through this engagement they changed meanings, uses, and the potential of material objects. This led to new ways of thinking and imagining. Collaborative and flexible work environments are about more than people sharing written and spoken words; the materiality of work itself is worth more consideration. Material representation of ideas through physical construction, 3D printing, diagrammatic representation, multimedia communication, and other material forms enable the construction of ideas that can be shared physically and virtually in more meaningful ways.
  • Talent was both attracted and nurtured by the unique opportunities provided by Building 20. It was a chance to work with great people in creative ways, all without the handcuffs of traditional university workplaces. Certain people (not all) were motivated and inspired by the freedoms that Building 20 afforded. As we begin to imagine what talent might look like in the digital era, we need to design workspaces that have an awareness of behavioral norms, material constructs, technologies, and talent to engage these people. Our workplaces may look very different depending on who we’re trying to attract and retain. This suggests that flexibility around space—to shape and be shaped by talent—may be a good way to start thinking about the digital workspace. “Building 20 always thrived on ingenuity among its denizens. I always thought it was because it was so easy to build experiments there—pull wires, bolt things to walls, come and go at any hour.” (Lawrence B. Kilham, Alumnus)
  • Symbolism framed both the physicality of Building 20 and also the role it has in the MIT landscape today focusing on collaboration and innovation. Building 20 is nothing but stories today built around icons of rule breaking and iconoclastic behaviors, brought together under an umbrella of intellectual brilliance. Hacking grew from Building 20, and that culture of “intelligent rule breaking” and critical thinking is now essential to the fabric of MIT. The symbolic impact of new workspaces, e.g., adoption of new technologies, is used by many organizations in our study to signal the need for new ways of working in the digital era.
  • Outputs both defined and validated Building 20. This building is associated with some of the most significant innovations of our time and often linked inextricably to the invented artifact, e.g., the radar designed there. The focus of this workplace was outputs with all manner of unorthodox inputs and processes. Data, collaborations, the building itself were attributed value according to the output and not the intrinsic qualities of the relationships and processes themselves. Our early research findings suggest that designs of both physical and virtual spaces that support evidence-based decision making and speed appear to be more effective in competitive digital environments.
  • Management challenges for Building 20 were the cause of much hand-wringing and concern on many fronts. “Building 20 is the kind of academic melting pot that gives university presidents indigestion. Famed linguist and anti-war activist Noam Chomsky works just a few doors away from MIT’s ROTC offices . . . The music department’s piano repair facility—a computer-free zone, according to a sign on the wall—shares a floor with the nuclear science lab’s shop room.” (Alex Beam, Columnist, The Boston Globe) Enabling people to work outside of the traditional norms of the institution typically requires continual validation based on measurable outputs and a management style based around trust, transparency, and shared learning. Reframing the leadership and management of work is proving challenging for many of the firms in our study.

While Building 20 may seem visually far removed from the digital workspaces of today, we’d do well to take time to understand what it was that made it such an innovative and productive environment. Our current research project on the Digital Workspace is revealing some interesting insights into how new ways of working are being managed to position organizations effectively for the digital era. If you have an interesting story to share around new ways of work and how the impacts are being evaluated, please contact Dr. Kristine Dery or Dr. Ina Sebastian at MIT CISR.

i Philip J. Hilts, “Last Rites for a ‘Plywood Palace’ That Was a Rock of Science,” The New York Times (US Edition), March 31, 1998, http://www.nytimes.com/1998/03/31/science/last-rites-for-a-plywood-palace-that-was-a-rock-of-science.html.
ii Brian Bergstein, “EmTech: A Legendary MIT Building’s Lessons on Innovation,” MIT Technology Review, September 23, 2014, http://www.technologyreview.com/view/531011/emtech-a-legendary-mit-buildings-lessons-on-innovation/.

Kristine Dery is a research scientist at MIT CISR. She discusses the digital workplace in a recent blog post, “Reimagining the Digital Workplace,” and a video of the same name, “Reimagining the Digital Workplace.”