Open office arrangements may not work for getting work done

An evaluation of the implosion of The We Company highlights the importance of physical space for accomplishing tasks in the workplace:

Much will be written in the coming weeks about how WeWork failed investors and employees. But I want to spotlight another constituency. WeWork’s fundamental business idea — to cram as many people as possible into swank, high-dollar office space, and then shower them with snacks and foosball-type perks so they overlook the distraction-carnival of their desks — fails office workers, too.

The model fails you even if you don’t work at a WeWork, because WeWork’s underlying idea has been an inspiration for a range of workplaces, possibly even your own. As urban rents crept up and the economy reached full employment over the last decade, American offices got more and more stuffed. On average, workers now get about 194 square feet of office space per person, down about 8 percent since 2009, according to a report by the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. WeWork has been accelerating the trend. At its newest offices, the company can more than double the density of most other offices, giving each worker less than 50 square feet of space

But after chatting with colleagues, I realized it’s not just me, and not just the Times: Modern offices aren’t designed for deep work…

The scourge of open offices is not a new subject for ranting. Open offices were sold to workers as a boon to collaboration — liberated from barriers, stuffed in like sardines, people would chat more and, supposedly, come up with lots of brilliant new ideas. Yet study after study has shown open offices to foster seclusion more than innovation; in order to combat noise, the loss of privacy and the sense of being watched, people in an open office put on headphones, talk less, and feel terrible.

This moment might just a tipping point in the evolution of office space. Cubed suggests office layouts do change over time. What seems to be next is a mixing of older models and the open model: different spaces that range from very private (think soundproof booths or offices away from activity, sound, and eyes) to very open (think couches and play areas for activity). How exactly the imperative to save money or be efficient remains to be seen.

Hinted at in this opinion piece is another interesting idea: could truly private spaces only be available to certain classes of workers or certain people? The office has long been symbol of more power and/or responsibility. Imagine a workforce or a public where the majority of people operate in common spaces that are semi-private, with privacy usually obtained though the actions of individuals (headphones, focus on screens, etc.). In contrast, those with power and resources have access to distraction-free spaces.

Another big issue could be this: how much work these days is truly distraction-free and are we moving toward less deep work? Again, this might different by field or role. But, the rise of smartphones and the Internet means people are highly distractable from work, even in very private settings. American adults on average are consuming 11 hours of media a day, some of this which must happen at work for many.

Strategies for renovating old downtown office buildings to compete with new towers

Pressure on office and residential space in Chicago’s Loop is coming from multiple angles, including the need for older buildings to adapt to modern office requirements:

Kamin said he expects more office buildings to find a second life as hotels or residential towers. “I don’t think there’s a successful path for some of these functionally obsolete buildings as offices,” Kamin said…

The high cost just to acquire a property presents relatively few opportunities for major overhauls, said developer Craig Golden of Blue Star Properties…

The venture took out a nearly $100 million construction loan in 2016, and converted the 20-story building into modern offices, branded as The National — a reference to the property’s 1907 opening as the home of Commercial National Bank.

The developers added the type of distinguishing feature that has helped properties thrive in recent years, creating the sprawling Revival Food Hall on the ground floor. The food hall brings in lunch crowds from throughout downtown, adding to the building’s vibrancy. Office tenants include co-working firm WeWork and the headquarters of Paper Source.

I have heard that it is often cheaper for companies to build a new big box store than to reuse and/or renovate one built by another company. Thus, problems with vacancies when companies close locations. Could the same be true for downtown office buildings – the cost of renovation is too high? I find this a little hard to believe given the difficult process that can ensue in order to construct a sizable building in a major city.

Similarly, the strategy of adding enticing dining options echoes what is happening with shopping malls expanding beyond retail to dining, residences, hotels, and a variety of entertainment establishments. The goal is to both promote multiple uses but also cross-traffic between organizations and business as people need to work, eat, enjoy life, and sleep.

Perhaps we will know there is really a problem when multiple older structures are torn down to make way for new buildings.

Finding humor in the interior design in great literature

Great books often feature interesting homes and places. One English professor set out to have some fun with the interior design of these spaces:

The book started with Jane Eyre. I was watching a film adaptation one night and thinking about the particular house that was used as Thornfield Hall in that movie, and also my love of home design sites, like Apartment Therapy, which had actually done a house tour of my house when I moved into it five years ago. I thought it would be funny to think about Jane Eyre giving a kind of similar tour of Thornfield Hall, and mapping that whole narrative of “what your house means to you” onto this really Gothic, terrible space. I decided to keep going, thinking about which houses in literature are my favorites, and it turned into a regular column, at [now defunct feminist website] the Toast.

There’s something so funny about trying to fit these disturbing literary houses into the cookie-cutter language of interior design, and ending up with, say, “Jay Gatsby’s Desperately Sad McMansion of Unfulfilled Dreams.” But it also reminds us that in literature as in life, people and their homes are so connected.

The satire about decorating is very warm satire. I really loved doing a house tour, and the whole idea of that, people creating these personally significant spaces and sharing them with one another, with an audience. But it’s always fun to have that dual vision, where you can be a part of something but at the same time stand a little bit outside it and think about what might be funny about yourself and your own domestic tendencies. Since I’m an English professor, the idea of thinking about home in books and in life has always been related. A lot of the models of how I think about my house are literary models—hopefully not Thornfield Hall, though…

The column was initially called “Great House Therapy,” and the idea was to explicitly pair the Apartment Therapy-style house tour with the idea of the great house in literature, these big estates owned by landed gentry. But when I developed it into a book, I wanted all sorts of different literary houses, and apartments, and, for instance, King Lear’s hovel. That play is so much about hospitality, how Lear violates the hospitality of his daughters and is cast out into the storm. I wanted some of the interiors to be totally terrible, and to find the humor in that, so I included places like Raskolnikov’s lair in Crime and Punishment, and the room in The Yellow Wallpaper, a place where the narrator is trapped, and I imagined Jane Eyre talking to Becky Sharp, from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, about their dismal governess’s rooms.

Considering the importance of places for humans, it is little surprise that many creative works – books, films, TV shows – involve places that are important for the characters. Yet, at the same time, it can often feel like the places are simply backgrounds for what is happening in the dialogue between character or in the character development. In other words, if you could easily transport the characters and plot to another similar location and little would change, perhaps the depicted places are not really that meaningful.

And given some of the discussion above, it would be interesting to consider the literary (and additional outlets) depictions of McMansions. How exactly will Gone Girl‘s depiction of lonely suburban McMansions hold up? Or, how about creative works that use McMansions like Gothic homes of the past? The discussions of granite countertops and stainless steel appliances may be perfect for spoofing in the future.

Americans can spend a majority of their time in a few spaces in their home and still want large homes

Americans may not need such large homes if a recent study is correct in showing where they spend their time inside their house:

A research team affiliated with UCLA studied American families and where they spend most of their time while inside their homes. The results were fascinating, but really not all that surprising. Here’s one representative example:

As you can see, most square footage is wasted as people tend to gather around the kitchen and the television, while avoiding the dining room and porch.

This is part of the reason newer homes do not need formal living rooms or dining rooms and instead often focus on open floor plans connecting kitchens with living areas.

However, while this study may have measured where people actually spend time in their homes, it does not necessarily mean that homeowners do not desire extra features. I can think of at four additional arguments homeowners might often make:

  1. They need significant amounts of space to store their stuff. Indeed, why get rid of stuff when you can just purchase a larger house?
  2. Even if the family or household members do end up in certain spaces more than others, this does not necessarily mean that they do not need separate spaces occasionally to have their own space away from each other.
  3. Certain spaces may be highly specialized and helpful, such as a dining room that accommodates large family meals or a hobby room where a homeowner can pursue their interests or a quiet and comfortable space.
  4. A larger home is a sign of success or tied to a particular lifestyle. For example, many homeowners may no longer use a porch but still prefer that look.

I’m also reminded of a recent survey that suggested the largest regret homeowners have is that they did not purchase a larger home.

See also a February 2017 post titled “Explaining why Americans desire larger homes.”

Open floor plan, hide the kitchen mess

One downside of an open floor plan is that it also exposes all the work that goes into daily life:

That is why one company, Schumacher Homes of Akron, Ohio, has a fresh new design on offer: a house with an open floor plan, with its kitchen, dining area, and living room all flowing into one another. But then, behind the first kitchen, lies another. A “messy” kitchen. There, the preparation for or remainders from a meal or party can be deposited for later cleanup, out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

That this is “necessary” at all is a consequence of the rise of the open floor plan in the first place. On the next block or on HGTV, remodels blow out walls, enlarge kitchens, and couple them to the surrounding space. In new construction, enormous great rooms combine hundreds of square feet of living space into singular, cavernous voids, punctuated only by the granite or marble outcropping of a kitchen island. This amorphous, multipurpose space has become the center of domestic life.

It hasn’t always been this way. These layouts first became popular in pre-war modernist architecture, but their origins stretch back earlier, to the turn of the 20th century at least. Then, as now, they promised to tear down obstruction and facilitate connection. But that promise was aspirational from the start: It assumed an equality in the home that has never come to pass. In practice, open-plan design has always been a stage to a quiet struggle between freedom and servitude. That struggle continues today, and messy kitchens won’t put an end to it. It’s just hard to notice when the experience has been sold, universally, as “great for entertaining.”…

In this respect, the open plan might represent the most distinctly American home design possible: to labor in vain against ever-rising demands, imposed mostly by our own choices, all the while insisting that, actually, we love it. It’s a prison, but at least it’s one without walls.

I wonder if another trend truly explains the move to all this open space with kitchens. Americans are eating less at home as they spend more money spent at restaurants than at home. Yet, homeowners, particularly those on HGTV, regularly suggest that the kitchen is the heart of the home. But, could this heart be more of a showpiece or an aspiration than a regularly messy kitchen? Perhaps the open, gleaming kitchen of today is more like the formal living room (now less common in newer houses) of the past: it is a showpiece, is not necessarily used often, and the typical homeowner should be skilled at using the items in the room (even if they do not use it often). The open floor plan is then a selling point, status symbol, and entertaining space but not always a messy space.

The discussion here of modernism is also interesting. I have argued before that American homeowners are not fans of modernist homes but they may be more inclined toward modernism in their kitchens and open spaces. Again, these are showpieces of the new home and as I see these spaces regularly on HGTV I wonder how families actually live in them.

When all the suburban homes are the same, how can residents set themselves apart?

Continuing to draw from a 1953 Harper’s study of six mass-produced suburbs, Harry Henderson discusses an interesting aspect of the cookie-cutter houses:

Henderson3.png

We are used to the idea that a home, like many other goods one owns, is a means by which people differentiate themselves from others. Your car reveals your personality (or your financial resources). Your clothes celebrate your individuality. Your favorite TV show provides deep insights into your psychology. Your McMansion impresses those driving by with its size. And so on. But, what if residents do not have the luxury of differentiating their exterior?

Henderson suggests they then move their differentiation into activities: what groups are you a part of, what are you contributing, who do you know. But, I think this misses two features about homes:

  1. Even if these homes were mass-produced, it wouldn’t take long before residents could alter their homes and yards. Indeed, Barbara Kelly in Expanding the American Dream details how residents of Levittown made changes to their homes. People add additions, make landscaping decisions, paint their exteriors, and more. If you look at the streets of these homes sixty years later, you can both pick out some of the common architectural features as well as see significant efforts to stand out.
  2. After the section cited above, Henderson then goes on to say that the residents then emphasize interior decorating. They may be cookie-cutter homes from the outside but could have very different feels. While this is not as visible to the neighborhood, it does present an opportunity to show family and friends your own unique self.

There are current parallels to the dilemma Henderson poses: residents of condos, townhomes, and apartments have similar issues as their exteriors share characteristics with others around them.

This is also a reminder of a tendency of modern humans to look for ways to secure a higher status for themselves. Even in a supposed middle-class society, Americans want to be seen as their own individual, even if their housing choices are constrained.

Tastefully painting the large interior of a McMansion

Decorating the cavernous interior of a McMansion could require some special advice:

Q: I’d like to do some interior painting and I’m not sure about colors. I live in what would be described as a “McMansion” about 20 years old, and the rooms are all very large with cathedral or high ceilings. All of the rooms, including the kitchen, have some form of white/beige/tan coloring, but I would like to paint the living and dining rooms an actual color. But is this appropriate for a contemporary home? Both rooms sit on either side of a cathedral foyer, which we would like to keep in the beige family. Will this look strange to have color, and should it only be lighter shades? Should the inner archways be beige like the foyer or the color of the room you are entering?

A: Homes like yours offer a lot of challenges but some fun creative opportunities as well. Balancing the flow between rooms is important, along with finding ways to make each space interesting, distinct and comfortable. As you noticed, it can be hard to figure out where to start and stop a color on the walls when all the rooms flow together!

One idea is to keep the foyer, its ceilings and the archways light in color to emphasize the big, airy and dramatic entryway. I like your idea of neutral, consider a warm white or light sand color. Painting the adjacent rooms in slightly darker, warmer versions of the foyer color will help make them feel inviting. Since the basic color is the same, you’ll achieve continuity.

Throughout the foyer and other rooms, accent with more colors at eye level and below. The furniture upholstery can be darker versions of the wall colors or coordinating neutrals. Throw pillows, art and accessories can be bolder, so you can change them out more often. And tie the draperies and window treatments in with the wall color of that room.

It is unusual for a homeowner to publicly admit to owning a McMansion but it does help convey information about this home. It sounds like the common two-story, large foyer. Additionally, the colors sound like they could be straight out of a standard set of builder colors intended to provide a neutral palette to attract potential buyers.

Typically, the critique of garish McMansions emphasizes the outside as this is what is easily viewed by the public. Less attention is devoted to the interior. (This is aside from McMansion Hell which also dissects McMansion interiors.) Can a well-done interior offset bad exterior architecture? Can tasteful paint and furnishings provide a stylish and comfortable interior that is hidden from the outside world? For the typical McMansion owner, they must not see the interior as a waste of resources or unnecessary space but rather something desirable and maybe even exciting. McMansions are certainly big – meaning they can hold lots of things – but they also have to be homes on the interior for people to live there for years.