Should Japanese Concepts Revolutionise How We Design Digital Workspaces?

To an architect a building design can influence the behaviour and feelings of those who enter the space.  In Japan the connection between people, spaces and behaviour is long established. For example, to enter a tea house a low entrance forces the guest to bow and express humility.

Like many people, most of my work (and communication) happens in the digital world.  So what behaviour is being encouraged within the spaces your organisation has configured?

3 Japanese concepts stand out to me as being especially important:

Wa (the concept of interpersonal connection and harmony)

Every space has a quality which influences the relationships that form there, such as the type of discussions which are encouraged or discouraged. Wa is about having an awareness of others and working together in harmony.

In the digital space we can relate this to:

  • Ensuring people have systems to be aware of each other.
  • Having an agreed way to work together for the best group outcome. This includes agreeing how to use apps. Most collaborative apps grant editorial permissions to the whole group so deciding when it’s OK to edit information reduces opportunity for confusion and conflict.
  • We can also create different digital spaces for different types of conversations/purposes. We can create social spaces, spaces to challenge ideas and spaces to focus on key projects.  It’s common for these spaces to become muddled together, which often leads to lost messages and unwanted notifications being received. Separating the spaces creates control.

Ba (a space where knowledge is shared)

Ba provides a platform for advancing individual or collective knowledge. Knowledge is rooted in ba when it’s connected through one’s own experience or reflections. If knowledge is separated from ba, it turns into just information – a series of facts and details.

In Japanese culture this could be a space to share emotions, feelings and ideas informally, or a space where people with the right mix of specific knowledge and capabilities form a project team.

In the digital workplace we can relate this to creating spaces for cross functional teams to work more closely together. Are teams given their own team space, channels and tools? Or do they remain within their own department’s digital environment? Is there a place for ideas, reflections and improvements? How are these ideas logged or turned into actions?

For more information on turning improvement ideas into action plans see here.

For good Ba we need to interact with people outside of our own specialisation. In the digital world we need to think about the information we protect behind walls, and what information should be accessible across teams and departments. What channels should we create and how should we configure notification settings?

Consider how to visualise workflows and KPI’s so that people can understand their roles within the wider context of the organisation. Create knowledge bases and allow people across the organisation to access them. Very few people will be interested in the activities of other departments, but those who are interested are likely to find the additional access extremely valuable.

“What behaviour is being encouraged within the spaces your organisation has configured?”


Ma – (a gap, pause or negative space).

Ma is the empty space between events or objects. In ikebana (flower arranging), the space around the flowers is equally as important as the flowers themselves, both affect the visual impact.




In many workplaces today there is a lack of Ma. A lack of space between meetings, between messages and limited time to think or focus. Creating workspace where we can escape the noise improves productivity and wellbeing.

Different communication tools have different settings, some have an urgent function so you are still reachable but can otherwise switch off messages.

It’s important to have the discussion about how to use communication tools. Many modern tools make it very easy to message 20+ people when you only need to reply to 1 person. Sometimes I have 100 unread messages on my phone, yet none are addressed to me.  Thankfully it’s also easy to fix these problems with open conversations with colleagues and changes in notification settings.

Certain apps can visualise information into graphs and pictures – as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. These apps can save countless messages being sent and reduce the need for meetings.

Use tools which help to prioritise work and include a capacity calculation. Some companies allot time to individuals to learn or develop team relationships.

Flexible working can also help us find a gap. Our personal lives can get hectic. Spaces which support asynchronous working allow for greater flexibility. Teams remain coordinated, with less reliance on meetings and presentism. People can balance work and personal responsibilities more easily and find a time which is quieter or less hectic to work.

To work successfully in this way teams need digital spaces with good workflow visibility. Knowing what people are working on helps improve trust. As asynchronous communication can’t take place in a meeting, so teams are more reliant on visual displays and written communication.

If you think your digital workspace might need optimising, then please send me a message and I'll be in touch.

Michael Broadley Profile
Michael Broadley

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