Q&A: Designing the office of the future

It's time for a major shift -- in office design, and in the culture of modern work.
Written by Christie Nicholson, Contributor


Technology has changed every part of our day-to-day lives. We've heard it a hundred times. And a big shift caused by rapidly changing technology has been, of course, in our work spaces. Or rather the emerging lack of a permanent work space. The first major shift to a flexible office environment was the creation of the cubicle in the 1960s. But now many designers have been re-thinking the cubicle's design, including entirely open-office designs as well as more mobile office spaces. Still, many designers might think that design is enough, meaning let's change the layout and the design of furniture and then the way we work and how well we work, will change for the better too.

Allison Arieff, the editor and content strategist for the urban planning think tank SPUR, believes this is not the way it ought to be done. She holds that most office workers would happily give up a new natural lighting system for a better health care program or an ability to work from home more often. For Arieff redesigning the cubicle is not the way to reset the culture of work.

SmartPlanet caught up with Arieff at her home office to talk about the future of office space and the trends that start first with examining how people work today, and then lead to changes that support our new domain.

SmartPlanet:  You’ve said before that in terms of office redesign there tends to be too much focus on just changing the design of our office furniture and layout, as opposed to resetting the culture of work in general?

Allison Arieff: Well right, it’s a lot easier to focus on an object than it is to focus on a culture. Instead of focusing on better work/life balance or creating greater autonomy for employees, it’s easier to bring in a new piece of furniture.

Obviously space planning does affect the way we work. And so that is the point for first contact for change, but what doesn’t happen is any sort of follow up, on the part of the architects or the companies themselves to see if it worked. It’s rare for a firm to go back and do that research. Gensler is one architecture firm that does follow up.

Do you think the rise of the co-working spaces like The Hub Bay Area are examples of the culture pushing through enough that it has now firmly changed the way the office environment functions?

I think more and more companies and work cultures are becoming urbanized and centralized. That is definitely happening. But there’s an incredible number of people who are hopping on a shuttle bus and commuting and hour each way to go to work at Google and Facebook here in San Francisco. So, lots of good things are happening, but the commutes are still there.

What companies are considering changing the culture first, instead of just coming up with some fancy redesign of the traditional "cubicled" office?

There are a couple things that are happening. One, there’s a recognition in some companies that everybody works differently. So the cubicle is awesome for some and open plan is awesome for others,  and still others do best if they work at home. But there’s this tendency to create this sort of one size fits all office space scenarios. And that’s been pretty persistent.

But here is one example. I met with Campbell McKeller, who started Loosecubes. Are you familiar with them?

Only because you wrote about them before.

She gave an example that I thought was great. She said when I was in college and I went to the library there was a different place in the library for every sort of task I needed to do. If I felt like working but also socializing there was the lounge. If I had really serious head-down work I could go to a far corner of the library. If I had work to do where I could be a little bit distracted I could go to this other part.

I totally agree the library is an interesting example of how an office could function.

I can think of very few places that would give you that sort of flexibility. But really I think it’s a worthwhile goal instead of sitting at your desk no matter what it is you have to do.

So Loosecubes attempts to provide a variety of scenarios. Maybe you work at home sometimes, but you also need to go see other people out in the world. So you rent out an office space for an hour, or a day, or a month.

American Express did a giant study and identified four types of working within the organization and redesigned all of their real estate holdings to address those four types.

You have some people who are consistently working from home, who maybe don’t need a designated desk in the office. You might have a café slash booth seating if people need something a little bit more informal. This is something that a lot more companies are thinking about.

Why do some design and architecture firms get caught up in the artistry of design and forget about what just makes sense in terms of how people work?

I think there are plenty of architects who look for the solution that makes the most sense. I just finished doing a lot of research on an article for very small apartments, like very small, like two hundred twenty square feet, and you can only do things that make sense in that amount of space.

Your restrictions are such that you have to make the right decisions or you’re going to fail miserably. But when you’re faced with a big open space, it’s a lot easier to mess up.

There is also the challenge of changing behaviors. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t even have an office. But if Mark Zuckerberg had been whatever the equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg would have been twenty years ago, the emblem of his success would have been a giant corner office with great big heavy furniture.

So yes designers make bad, often complicated decisions. I also think there’s a temptation to fall into design for design sake, absolutely. The open plan or cubicle seems like the simplest solution but it’s ignoring human behavior. That’s the simplest physical solution, but it is not the simplest psychological one.

If you were to look out five years from now, do you think office design will continue to move toward multiple types of work spaces within a space, like the Loosecube situation, or like a replication of the library?

To the extent to which I’m willing to prognosticate, yes, I do see that that’s the way things are going. I will say this as a caveat though: In my articles about cubicles and office design I wanted to explore the situations of people who don’t sit at a desk everyday. And I was kind of stunned at how little innovation there was for those situations and how—and I hate to say this—but how people seemed uninterested in working within those areas.

The non-desk people are being ignored?

The things that you and I are talking about have to do with the white-collar worker with a computer versus people who are cashiers or taking customer services calls all day with two fifteen-minute breaks.
I had a really painful conversation with somebody who was working on a situation like that. I asked them what they were doing to improve the situation for workers in that scenario. He said that they had painted the walls brighter colors and had inspirational messages painted on them. I wanted to hang up on him. So yes, I think there’s a lot more enlightenment in terms of workplace scenarios for people who work in physical offices. But I don’t see much happening outside of that.

What about working entirely remotely with your teams and the challenges of that? And does technology have the ability to sub in for the real physical thing?

I think there isn’t a one size fits all solution. I remember quite fondly the editorial meetings at Dwell and the importance of that team being together, and half of them lying on the floor and eating snacks. My subsequent magazine experiences were mostly remote. One magazine just had an awful phone system, and the conference call experience was painful and didn’t work for me at all.

Steelcase has devoted a considerable about of money, research and technology into video as the future of offices. With the idea that people are just going to be on video all the time.

Do you think that might be a good thing?

I find that people seem to be traveling far more than they were a few years ago, now it’s mostly to Asia. I think anything that can help both for carbon footprint reasons and family reasons—and sort of general sanity reasons, if video can be used in a way that helps people feel that closeness and also maybe lets them travel a little bit less, I think that’s important.

Right I can see that. The technology has to work though.

Right, because there is Google Docs, and there’s all these supposedly lovely tech things, but Google Docs is not helping me work. It’s not enough.

Sometimes the technology takes over too much. Both in terms of setting it all up and in terms of what is most efficient or makes sense.

Exactly.  I work in an office now a couple times a week, and if somebody who is five feet from me sends me an email to ask me a question I get a bit nutty. Come over and just ask me.

People’s behavior has changed and they don’t ask a simple question if you’re sitting two feet from them. Tone does become a huge issue. I worry about that. And I worry that young people don’t have enough human connection.

[Photo: Michael Lokner]

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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