Workplace design for smarter - not harder - work

It’s easy, especially in 2019, to spout sustainability buzzwords, decry fast fashion in marketing materials, and wax poetic about slower, smarter production. But in so-called sustainable companies, how many are actually “walking the walk” when it comes to everyday working conditions for their employees? Can a trend-driven business prioritize being “green” and generous and still turn a profit?

Clea Polar, co-founder and CEO of Paris-based textile manufacturer Coco&Rico, certainly thinks so. Even a cursory glance at the brand’s website immediately acquaints you with the company’s values: “Cruelty free,” “vegan,” “100 percent recycled,” “made in France.” All the hallmarks of an environmentally-minded manufacturer are there. For Polar, though, affixing sustainability labels to her company website meant little if the internal integrity wasn’t there, too. “I think it’s very important that the [everyday conditions for workers] in a company are in line with the company’s publicly stated mentality,” she said in a recent phone interview.

Workplace design in a sewing factory

After some key shifts, Coco&Rico’s “mentality” now matches up with its “interior reality”, and for that, Polar has TCBL (Textile Clothing and Business Labs) to thank. Specifically, it was TCBL’s Workspace Design business pilot that brought about a sea change for her company.

“Workspace Design” isn’t about lining production areas with mid-century modern chairs and Instagrammable wallpaper. Instead it’s a fundamental reimagining of garment production and worker wellness within assembly line setups. “Garment production remains the black hole of the entire [fashion] system,” said Jesse Marsh, TCBL project manager. “Slovenia and Romania are practically the only places where garments are actually produced in Europe these days,” he added.

First enacted through a series of trial runs in Romania, the pilot’s necessity stemmed from the severe lack of technological advancement at the garment assembly stage. As Marsh noted, not much has changed regarding assembly over the past hundred years, despite improvements in other areas. Exacerbating this issue are the effects of re-shoring, which weigh heavy on today’s workers. Most setups favor ultra-exclusive, high-end tailors and ateliers or mass production systems, making customer-driven short runs challenging to achieve (even in fast fashion, clients today are demanding ever-shorter runs).
The TCBL Workspace Design project offers a team assembly-oriented alternative—inspired in part by auto giant Volvo’s team production model, introduced in the 1970s. Translating the “Volvo setup” to a textile-centered environment meant creating team workstations, clustering groups by tasks, and equipping each worker with his or her own sewing machine. The human impact of this, says Clea, can’t be overstated: “Previously, my team had been working seated one behind the other. It’s not so nice to spend all day looking at someone else’s back,” she said. Further underscoring her commitment to “walk the walk” in terms of her brand values, she added, “As a sustainability-minded company, this was really not the sort of vibe we wanted in our workspace.”

Clea Polar - Laboratory before redesign

Clea Polar - Laboratory After redesign

The team assembly setup isn’t just good for group morale, though. It’s an economically viable approach for two main reasons: “In theory, it can scale smoothly from single garment to mass production, allowing for flexibility in what is now a key market determinant,” Marsh explained in the project’s initial presentation. “It [also] allows for social learning-on-the-job, and thus builds into the production process one of the greatest external costs of the assembly line: the need to train workers outside the factory.”

Increased learning-on-the-job was indeed one of the concrete impacts Polar noted among her team members when the pilot was implemented at the Coco&Rico production site (its features have now been permanently incorporated into Coco&Rico’s company workflow): “What’s been remarkable for us is that we can better demonstrate skills, and supervision is much easier,” Polar said. “Our supervisor, for example, can stand at the front of the room, share and demonstrate, and then give feedback to workers. Interns can also work right in front of him and observe.” (This is in stark contrast to apprentices in more conventional setups, who, Marsh notes, frequently have little to do with the actual production line). A few hours at a team workstation could do more for an aspiring garment maker than a year in school.

This model has facilitated skill acquisition and social learning in spaces far beyond Paris, too: in Palermo, the workspace design project was instituted at Sartoria Sociale, a creativity hub and cooperative in a revitalized, once mafia-managed space that encourages entrepreneurship and talent cultivation among those on the margins (from migrants to former prisoners to women re-integrating into society after abuse). The model’s easing and expediting of the learning process in settings like this one can have ripple effects for the industry at large: keeping production costs reasonable is only possible when assembly skills are readily available. Assembly skills are only readily available when infrastructure is primed to help people learn.

Continued on-the-job education isn’t the only concrete benefit of this new human-centered, group-minded approach. For Polar and her team, the daily grind, quite simply, has been made less demanding. Even seemingly small spatial issues have helped mitigate burnout and keep employee energy and productivity levels high: “Before, [the building] had these different divisions, and just carrying stuff around from point A to point B was not all that easy,” Polar said, noting that the digital, cutting and production spaces are far more streamlined now. “Ultimately, [implementing this new model] allowed us to gain about two square meters of space.” Two square meters that make it all that much easier to “walk the walk.”