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.

Just how much is the Willis Tower worth?

News is that the Willis Tower in Chicago is up for sale and one insider suggests it could go for $1.5 billion:

The owners of the Willis Tower have hired Eastdil Secured to seek a sale, according to an offering book already given to potential buyers. The property’s owners are being advised in the deal by Chicago-based Stephen Livaditis and New York-based Douglas Harmon, senior managing directors at Eastdil, according to the materials…

Chicago is coming off the strongest year of office building sales downtown in seven years. Boosted by low interest rates, a strong real estate appetite for U.S. real estate by domestic and international investors and comparatively higher pricing in coastal cities such as New York and San Francisco, Chicago in 2014 experienced some of its biggest office deals…

Industry newsletter Real Estate Alert, which first reported Willis Tower was being shopped, estimated it could sell for about $1.5 billion. That would be almost $400 for each of the tower’s nearly 3.8 million square feet of office space.

But because of its huge size and unusually broad sources of revenue, experts say Willis Tower’s value is more difficult to pinpoint than a traditional office property.

Sounds like a thriving market right now. Building occupancy is up in recent years and several other large office buildings have sold for high prices in the last year or so.

It would be fascinating to see what happens if the name changes again. How would Chicagoans react? The Willis Tower switchover never completely happened – hard to believe that was over 10 years ago now – so would a new name work? We are not there yet but could be headed toward a world where major buildings consistently change names as they change owners or even develop sponsorship deals to have particular names?

“The Saddest Office Cubicles”

Wired has a collection of “The Saddest Office Cubicles.”

In 2007, WIRED.com (then known as “Wired News”) asked readers with particularly depressing office cubicles to submit photos of their plight. People hated their cubicles—and rightly so. They didn’t offer any real privacy, but were incredibly effective at communicating office hierarchy. The hatred of this terrible design was clear: Our gallery of “winners” of the saddest-cubicle contest still holds the record for WIRED’s most popular post ever…

The winner — if you can call it winning — of the Wired News saddest-cubicles contest is David Gunnells, an IT guy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His desk is penned in by heavily used filing cabinets in a windowless conference room, near a poorly ventilated bathroom and a microwave. The overhead light doesn’t work — his mother-in-law was so saddened by his cube that she gave him a lamp — and the other side of the wall is a parking garage. Gunnells recalls a day when one co-worker reheated catfish in the microwave, while another used the bathroom and covered the smell with a stinky air freshener. Lovely.

Quite depressing. It is interesting, though, that several of these seem to be the product of what was once a temporary adaptation: because of rearranging or some odd situation, the company threw something together. Perhaps the big problems then come in when these temporary solutions become permanent. I do have to wonder how much these individual workers complained and what responses they heard.

These are the sorts of pictures that probably helped the motivate the writing of Cubed regarding the history and development of modern office settings. Of course, most offices don’t look like this. But, these pictures tend to be popular (the most popular Wired post ever?!?) and it is easy for many workers to see hints of their own workplaces (certain lighting, bland furniture, close quarters, lots of noise, etc.).

 

Quick Review: Cubed

The book Cubedtackles what has become a ubiquitous space in today’s America: the white-collar office. Here are some thoughts about the book:

1. While the book might appear at first glance to be about office spaces, it is largely about the development and evolution of white-collar workers in the United States. This shift from farming and manufacturing in the late 1800s to office and clerical work was a profound shift in American society that affected everything from women in the workplace to educational aspirations to what it means to be middle class to what urban downtowns look like. It isn’t just about cubicles or desk chairs; it is about a shift toward knowledge workers increasingly laboring for big corporate America. It may seem normal now, but it is a remarkable shift over roughly 100 years.

2. While this shouldn’t be surprising given the field of architecture and design, it is still remarkable how much of office design was about trendy ideas and theories than on-the-ground information about what makes offices work. Thus, a history of American offices includes Taylorism, Le Corbusier, and Peter Drucker. Have a new idea about the intersection of work spaces and human interaction? If it is popular enough, it is likely going to going to be translated into office designs. Unfortunately, some of this theorizing comes at the expense of workers who were guinea pigs.

3. The book does well to include plenty of sociology, particularly picking up after World War II as sociologists like C. Wright Mills noticed the big shifts in society. At the same time, it strikes me that there isn’t enough well-known sociology about office life and American businesses more broadly. This may change in the near future with more economic and organizational sociology but it seems like a missed opportunity in the past from a field that focused on other topics.

4. This is the sort of book that would benefit from more pictures and architectural plans. There are some scattered throughout the book but I could easily imagine a coffee table companion book with rich photos and designs of iconic office arrangements. It can be hard at times to visualize the major patterns.

All in all, the book is a nice overview of American offices in the last 100+ years. There are numerous places where this book could have ballooned to many more pages but it doesn’t feel like the author is painting with too broad of strokes. Indeed, if we want to understand America in 2014, perhaps we should look less to Washington, glittering skylines, and the entertainment industry but rather examine what millions of Americans experience regularly in their offices.

Using ethnographic techniques to study how office space is used

According to Cubed, architects and designers have had a lot of idealistic approaches to office design but companies have pursued more ethnographic approaches in recent decades:

In other words, interior designers are struggling, hard, to be relevant and so are architects. And so are space planners and so are product designers. Both Steelcase and Herman Miller have intensified their use of anthropological techniques – participant observer, video ethnography, object testing – to understand office workers’ behavior and to design around behavior rather than attempt to influence or change it. (p.308)

In other words, some have moved from top-down designs borrowing from trendy ideas about office behavior and design to actually studying the people at work in offices to see what might or might not work. What you likely gain are the small but important pieces of information that might be lost with other methods of data collection. Imagine the all-important serendipitous short conversation between two employees who pass in the hallway. Designers and others often think these are really important as they generate social connections and innovation. But, if you asked on workers on a survey about such short encounters, they may not recall them or think much of them at the time.

Lots of businesses could benefit from ethnographic approaches as they would get the viewpoint of the workers instead of the interpretations of management.

The global culture of the business office

Photographer Louis Quail has a new book of photos of offices around the world – and they have a similar look:

Since 2006, Quail has photographed offices in Russia, South Africa, Germany, the U.S., the U.K., Cambodia, United Arab Emirates, Santo Domingo and China. Municipal departments, call centers, financial brokers and commodities traders all feature in Quail’s series, Desk Job

“As we have moved into the technical and information age, there has been a shift towards more office-based work,” says Quail of globalization. “Whatever our job title or geographical location, our tools and environment are becoming similar. It is quite perverse; to travel around the world to photograph inside an office that looks like its in Croydon [U.K.].”…

“The employee is defined by the few cubic meters, which exist around them. They must not just work, but live, eat, pray and occasionally sleep as if ‘chained’ to the desk in perpetuity,” says Quail…

“Companies tend to strive for straight lines and uncluttered office spaces, where as individuals have an urge to colonize and personalize,” says Quail. “In these pictures we see the tension but ultimately workers are intrinsic to the organizations they serve and are best placed to change them if they choose.”

Quail argues this is a side effect of globalization. An office in Dubai looks like an office in Australia which looks like an office in the Chicago suburbs. And he hints at the root of this homogeneity across global offices: an interest in making money within a global business network.

It would be interesting to pair these photos with a history of how the corporate office look spread around the world. Where exactly did it start, who spread it (people or corporations or organizations), and how quickly did it catch on?

Zappos CEO says office space should be designed like cities

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh argues office space would work better if it were organized like cities:

Tony Hsieh talks about his Internet juggernaut Zappos in the same way that urban planners talk about cities. In fact, the language is uncanny. He believes the best ideas – and the best form of productivity – come from “collisions,” from employees caroming ideas off one another in the serendipity of constant casual contact.

This is only achievable through density, with desks pushed close together in the office, or – in the case of Hsieh’s ambitious plans to leverage the new Zappos headquarters to remake downtown Las Vegas – with company employees and community members colliding into each other on the street. For the kind of “collisionable” density he’s looking for in downtown Vegas around his company, he figures the neglected area (not to be confused with the Vegas Strip) needs at least 100 residents per acre…

The typical office has about 200 or 300 square feet of space per employee. When Zappos moves into its new headquarters in the former Las Vegas City Hall in about six months, Hsieh is aiming for something closer to 100 square feet per employee. He’s also planning to decommission a skywalk into the building to force people to enter through (and collide with) the street.

In the context of offices, this kind of density bucks conventional wisdom. Most companies think employees will perform best, or at least be happiest, if as many of them as possible can have their own spacious corner office (with closable door!). This thinking has even influenced the architecture of office towers.

“That’s analogous to people wanting to live in the suburbs and live in a big house,” Hsieh says. “And what they don’t realize is that they end up trading two hours of commute time for more time with friends or relaxing or whatever.”

Interesting comparisons: corner offices are like suburbs. While Hsieh cites research, how come other companies haven’t figured this out yet? I also wonder if this is more about corporate cultures established in more traditional firms versus newer startups or high-tech firms. This reminds of a video I show in my Introduction to Sociology class to illustrate the differences between more bureaucratic structures and more flat, disc-shaped structures. In the clip from Nightline, the design firm IDEO is shown working through designing a new shopping cart. The atmosphere is both less hierarchical in terms of authority and space; people seem to be closer together and common collaborative space is important.

This conversation also lines up with talk on college campuses about interdisciplinary research and collaborative activity. Just how much can redesigned offices and common spaces contribute to this? Are we missing something major by building office buildings more like suburbs than cities?