I firmly believe environment is the greatest influence in how we experience life. I feel this exceptionally so in autumn. It is my favorite season, but one with significant emotional hills and valleys for me. On sunny days, when the leaves are aglow and electric, I feel invigorated and really alive. When the rain starts pouring and the chill feels like it will not leave my bones, my mind feels damp, oversaturated, bogged. But I can walk into a bright room on a rainy day and feel more energetic than before entering; that man-made environment cues my mental and socio-emotional state to respond to it and let the responses to the natural environment subside. While nobody can control the rain, we can create spaces dry from the rains that provoke positivity.
Margaret Wheatley and Geoff Crinean’s article on solving complex problems took the complex idea of inter-organization miscommunication/conflict and made it a simple fix of adjusting seating environment. Changing the seating creates more complex ways of dealing with a problem rather than the easy situation of allowing the problem to be handled by administrators only. Instead of creating a “culture of blame,” they suggest creating an environment of support and vocal equality. When I think about each one of the seating suggestions for the five steps outlined, it makes great sense. I found myself sending this article to a couple of my teacher friends, saying, “If only I had read this when I was still in the classroom!” Though the seating is not going to solve the problem, it helps create a diffused environment, where energies can be directed instead of fostering aggression.
This had me thinking about the environmental design in the offices in which I work. What do each of these offices project to me, individually, the other folks in the office, and to those who visit these offices? Why is it that I feel at home walking into the Academic Success Center but nervously sit down at my desk in 500 Kerr? Are these spaces created and maintained with a level of intentionality? How often do offices or the architects of those offices, those from actual firms and those that get to decide how the office is arranged (administrators, faculty), think about the socio-emotional impact of the way the space is set up and presented? How many of these space architects know the school of thought from which Wheatley and Crinean come?
I often hear folks in student affairs talk about “who’s at the table” for conversations that breed decisions. How often are folks present, but only physically, at the table that will produce great impact because the design is not conducive to sharing one’s voice? We live in a structured society that allows little wiggle room for bureaucratic change—imagine if each one of these small environmental changes created waves in organizational thinking and, over time, organizations heralded the open question and the quest for the answer.