By: Rena Gadimova
Is the office of the future more like your home?
We like to make our spaces our own. Now so many of us are working from home our workspace is our own space. This can be good and bad in equal measure, but there is one overriding positive: you probably like the chair you’re sitting in, the desk you’re working at, and the canteen has just what you want for lunch.
And we’re getting used to it. What will happen when we all go back to the office?
The time we’re spending working from home is making us more individual in how we work and what we want, from not only our surroundings but our jobs, our colleagues and yes, from the canteen. The modern office, for all its break-out areas and cloistered meeting rooms, is often not about the individual. Open-plan offices are specifically designed to be communal. Some rank corporate priorities over employee preferences – no pot plants, no pictures on desks – to create a homogeneous environment.
Does your employer know what’s best for you?
The disparity between what workers want and what those in charge think they should have is nothing new. In 1923 Henry Fruges, a French industrialist, commissioned the father of modernism, Le Corbusier, to design housing for his employees. Fruges had fallen for the architect’s style, all vivid blocks of color, right angles, and big windows. Unfortunately, he didn’t ask the people who were going to live there if they also liked modernism.
They didn’t and, like employees let loose in an empty white-space open-plan office, they personalized the buildings with details reminiscent of what made them feel at home. Details from the rural villages they knew, such as tiled roofs and small windows, appeared on Corbusier’s clean, crisp buildings. Given the blank canvas of a modernist masterpiece, its inhabitants got creative.
In the same way, modernism was a cool reaction to the high drama of 19th-century ornament, the modern open-plan office was a justifiable reaction to the cubicle farms of the ’70s and ’80s. It was meant to promote productivity and collaboration, but it has become about saving money and maximizing headcount.
Open plan needs an open mind
These days, an open plan does not necessarily mean better productivity and more collaboration. In The Truth About Open Plan Offices, Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber relate how property management company Mori discovered that its employees in its open-plan HQ didn’t leave their team’s seating area much. People spent most of their time talking to their immediate co-workers.
Separate research by Bernstein into how people interact after moving into open-plan offices concluded that “face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx 70%) with an associated increase in electronic interaction.” The employees stopped talking and started emailing, the exact opposite of what should have happened.
Done properly, open-plan offices can be great and work well. In its 2018 World’s Best Workplaces survey, Leesman found that the offices most appreciated and liked by their users were open plan.
Leesman concludes that “our research continues to challenge the common misconception that a more open concept without private offices will automatically be devoid of options for visual and acoustic privacy for those who sometimes need it. This scenario is clearly not the case if the workplace solution is properly considered and the solution is well crafted.”
No such thing as the perfect office
And as Bernstein and Waber point out, there is no “single best physical or digital workspace architecture.” At home, in-person meetings are impossible, so email or Zoom or whatever you’re using is going to be an important, probably primary, means of communicating.
But if the workspace isn’t properly crafted, as Leesman puts it, the office becomes problematic for its users. This can be as fundamental as the way the building is positioned relative to the sun, so that it heats up when it’s sunny and stays freezing when it’s cold, making it impossible for the AC to work properly. Or as seemingly trivial as a perpetual lack of forks in the kitchen.
Noise, too, is a huge problem. Leesman also found a direct correlation between high levels of office noise and a lack of productivity. In fact, nearly 40% of the 400,000 office workers surveyed disagreed that their office allowed them to “work productively.”
Like working from home. But better.
Now we’ve all been spending more time at home, is it time to blend more of what makes our personal spaces welcoming and pleasant with what makes our offices social and collaborative?
That requires more than a veneer of meeting rooms with funny names and taps that make coffee to distract from the poor quality of the environment. There are only so many times you can marvel at how a tap can make a cappuccino before you realize that the air-conditioning doesn’t work properly and there aren’t enough bathrooms.
Towards the end of his life, Corbusier said ”You know, it is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong.” This was not a statement of failure, but rather a recognition that architecture does not exist in a vacuum. Our workspaces do not exist in a vacuum either – we arrive at the office from our homes, where we’re surrounded by the things we like.
It’s often said that a good hotel should be like your home, but better. Perhaps the definition of a good office should now be like working at home, but better. This is not the end of the office. But it might be the end of the office as we know it.