This beautiful office was clearly designed with the needs of its employees in mind. Lego is not the only one. Here are refuge spaces in Google's offices in Zurich, where people have privacy to think and be creative.
But few office workers are so lucky. Many workers spend their days in mazes of cubicles or open-office plans that produce surprisingly more distractions than performance. On the average weekday, many Americans spend 8.7 hours at work or doing work-related activities -- about an hour more than they spend sleeping. This means that, given an average life expectancy of 78.6 years, a worker could easily spend more than a decade at their desk.
Office designers have been trying to adapt offices for decades to better suit the nature of work, as well as meet company demands for cost-cutting and integrating new technology. Over the 20th century, the most popular office design has evolved from rows of offices with doors, to an open plan designed to facilitate collaboration, to the cubicle, back to an open office plan, and now to more mixed-used spaces.
The way that office design has evolved says a lot about the way we think about company organization and work in general. In the first half of the 20th century, many white-collar workplaces in the United States were still organized into rows of corridor offices. But by the 1950s, offices had begun to shift to the kind of layout you might see in “Mad Men”: a ring of offices around the corner of the room, surrounding a secretarial pool or accountants in the middle. In this design, only a company’s higher-ups had privacy: The lower-downs lived out their working lives in plain view.
Then in 1958, two German brothers developed the open office layout that many workplaces embrace today. They did away with personal offices, changed the straight rows of desks into free-flowing groupings that were based on one’s department, and added in break areas and plants to visually break up the space. They called their design Bürolandschaft, or office landscape. The design was thought to facilitate collaboration, and, as The Post’s Jena McGregor writes, it appealed to managers then and today because of its flexibility and cost-savings.
It was a little more than a decade later that walls went up once again, as the first cubicle was introduced.
The cubicle today is a symbol of workplace drudgery and tedium. (“We don’t have a lot of time on Earth. We weren’t meant to spend it this way,” the main character in “Office Space” says of his cubicle.) But like the shopping mall, the cubicle actually had surprisingly idealistic origins.
Initially, the cubicle was seen as liberating, providing autonomy to workers who had grown weary of the “Big Brother is Watching You” experience of the open office. The inventor of the cubicle, Robert Propst, criticized the open office of the 1960s as a wasteland that “saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment.” The cubicle was designed to once again provide privacy and personal space, while also allowing for relatively easy communication.
Eventually, however, America fell out of love with the cubicle, and the laminate walls started to come down. Since the 1990s, many offices have shifted back toward the open formats of yore, which are supposed to stimulate employee teamwork and collaboration.
Now, about 70 percent of offices in the United States have low or no partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. That includes many famous companies and offices, from Google to Goldman Sachs.
Facebook’s new building in Menlo Park, Calif., is one of the best known, basically one giant space large enough to house 2,800 employees. Another is New York City Hall: When he became the mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg famously remade City Hall into a giant bullpen, reminiscent of the trading floors where he had once worked.
The role of technology and cost
The way we think about working has had a huge influence on office design: Whether companies are trying to encourage collaboration, preserve employee privacy, or reward their upper-level managers. But there are other factors that have guided the shifts in office design – namely, technological development and cost concerns.
Janet Pogue McLaurin, a principal at architecture and design firm Gensler, points out that the changing size and shape of technology has had a huge influence on office design. When computers first started to appear in offices, they were big enough that they needed their own rooms. But as computers shrunk down enough to fit onto individual desks, employee work became tied to the desk and the computer.
Eventually, technology became more mobile, allowing employees to work from various places in the office, including conference and break rooms, McLaurin says. “But we were still tethered to the office, because we were on a network,” she says.
Today, many companies use cloud computing and VPNs, making working remotely much more common. “People used to think about their personal workspace as their individual desk. And now people realize the entire building or campus is my workplace. And so choice and autonomy and having control over when and where you work is a key driver,” says McLaurin.
Beyond technology, another major consideration in office design has been cost. Companies can save huge amounts of money by reducing the amount of commercial space they rent per worker.
A survey in 2012 showed that the average amount of office space per worker in North America shrank from 225 square feet per person in 2010 to 176 square feet per person in 2012. And the trend is even more severe in expensive metro areas like New York, San Francisco and Washington.
Of course, this is not without consequences. “We’re gone through several recessions, and over time it became how many people can we pack into a space, vs. thinking about the effectiveness of space,” McLaurin says.
Both technology and cost concerns have propelled a shift toward flexible work spaces and “hoteling,” where employees reserve publicly shared work space on a need-to-use basis. Adopted by IBM, Deloitte and EY, hoteling works best in big companies that have employees who travel frequently.
The problem with open office spaces
As companies have squeezed more workers into smaller spaces and broken down walls in the name of collaboration, they’ve started to feel a pushback. While many cheered the demise of the cubicle, employers and employees alike are discovering the toll that crowded open-office plans can take on productivity and well-being.
The primary issue with open office plans is that there are so many visual and audio distractions that can interrupt worker focus. In a study of 90,000 people from 155 companies, Gensler found that individual focus was the most important factor in an employee’s effectiveness in the workplace. The company also found that focus was the activity least effectively supported by current office design.
Even when an office is open and airy, some employees may still find it to be oppressive. Studies have found open office plans impair memory and increase stress, especially for introverts. Open offices are also known to spread disease more quickly, causing workers to take more sick days. “We’ve shifted over time to designing for collaboration at the expense of having places for people to focus,” says McLaurin.
If you work in an open office, you might be familiar with the variety of coping strategies that workers come up with – from noise canceling headphones and earplugs, to constructing elaborate visual barriers out of book shelves and plants.
Now more offices are trying to help provide spaces where workers can focus without interruption. As The Post’s Jena McGregor writes, one solution is creating more private areas, including workspaces that are surrounded by a privacy wall.
“There’s a new awareness that even group work requires a lot of individual time,” McLaurin says. “...[W]e’ve really started to understand the nature of work, and that gives us a lot of clues of how to design spaces.”
The office of the future
So what will the office of the future look like? The offices of tomorrow seem likely to feature a greater mix of designs, with more space devoted to smaller privacy and meeting rooms, and less space for the individual desk.
McLaurin says that, while trends vary by industry and department, they’ve found that people are sitting at their desks on average only 40 percent of the time. Naturally, the focus in office design has shifted toward creating mixed and shared spaces that workers can use for a variety of tasks.
For example, Knoll, an office furniture and design company, creates “refuge rooms” for 1-to-2 people to focus or meet confidentially, as well as “enclaves” for small group meetings among 3-to-4, a team meeting space for 5-to-8 to strategize, an assembly places for 10 or more to communicate in a large group, and community spaces, such as a lounge, café or commons. The plan below from Knoll shows worker desks ("primary" spaces) marked in grey, and various kinds of shared spaces marked in blue, green, orange, purple and pink.
Designers emphasize that these plans will vary a lot by company and department -- ideally, the design of the office space should be tailored to the employees' work. Designers recognize that more quiet, concentrated professions, such as accounting, developing and writing, have very different demands for office space than sales, operations and human resources.
It’s always been a struggle to make offices beautiful and pleasant places to be. With most Americans saying they don’t like their jobs, it will continue to be one.
But if companies think more about using space as a tool to help their workers, the office could become a much more pleasant place. “It used to be that we thought about space as overhead, and it was all around how do we make it efficient,” says McLaurin. “Now it’s shifted to, people can work anywhere, so how can we design workspace where people want to be, rather than where they have to be. And that is driving new ways to think about space.”
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