What makes the perfect office?

In 1923, the father of modern architecture, Le Corbusier, was commissioned by a French industrialist to design some homes for workers in his factory near Bordeaux. Le Corbusier duly delivered brightly-hued concrete blocks of pure modernism. The humble factory workers did not take to Le Corbusier’s visionary geometry. They added rustic shutters, pitched roofs, and picket-fenced gardens. And they decorated the gardens in the least modernist way imaginable: with gnomes.
Companies no longer hire star architects to design housing for an industrial workforce. The architects are instead put to work producing the most magazine-shoot worthy office spaces. A pioneer was the uber-cool advertising agency, Chiat-Day, which in 1993 hired the playful Italian architect Gaetano Pesce to create a New York space for them (hot-lips mural, luminous floor, spring-loaded chairs). Their Los Angeles office (four-storey binoculars, brainstorming pods commandeered from fairground rides) was designed by Frank Gehry, whom Chiat-Day’s boss, Jay Chiat, had spotted before Gehry created the Guggenheim Bilbao and became the most famous architect on the planet.
Jay Chiat believed that design was for the professionals. Give workers control over their own space and they would simply clutter up Frank Gehry’s vision, so Jay Chiat decreed that his employees be given tiny lockers for “their dog pictures, or whatever”.
Now everyone is hiring the high priests of architecture. Google has asked Thomas Heatherwick, creator of the 2012 Olympic torch, to create a new Googleplex. Apple’s new headquarters will be a gigantic glass donut over a mile around, designed by Norman Foster and partners.
The most famous corporate architect was not an architect at all: the late Steve Jobs, the boss of Apple, owned much of the film studio Pixar and stamped his taste all over Pixar’s headquarters. Jobs pored over the finest details, choosing an Arkansas steel mill that produced steels of the perfect hue (bolted, not welded).
Jobs believed that a building could shape the way people interacted with each other, and hit upon the notion that Pixar would have just a single pair of washrooms, just off the main lobby. Every time nature called, there was only one place for the entire company to go, and serendipitous new connections would be made.
But what if all these efforts are basically repeating Le Corbusier’s error? What if the ideal office isn’t the coolest or the most aesthetically visionary? What if the ideal office is the one, dog pictures and gnomes and all, that workers make their own?
In 2010, two psychologists conducted an experiment to test that idea. Alex Haslam and Craig Knight set up simple office spaces where they asked experimental subjects to spend an hour doing simple administrative tasks. Haslam and Knight wanted to understand what sort of office space made people productive and happy, and they tested four different layouts.
Two of the layouts were familiar. One was stripped down – bare desk, swivel chair, pencil, paper, nothing else. Most participants found it rather oppressive. “You couldn’t relax in it,” said one. The other layout was softened with pot plants and tasteful close-up photographs of flowers, faintly reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe paintings. Workers got more and better work done there, and enjoyed themselves more.
The next two layouts produced dramatically different outcomes – and yet, photographs of the spaces would offer few clues as to why. They used the same basic elements and the same botanical decorations. But the appearance wasn’t what mattered; what mattered was who got to decide.
In the third and fourth layouts, workers were given the plants and pictures and invited to use them to decorate the space – or not – before they started work. But in the fourth, the experimenter came in after the subject had finished setting everything out to her satisfaction, and then rearranged it all. The office space itself was not much different, but difference in productivity and job satisfaction was dramatic.
When workers were empowered to design their own space, they had fun and worked hard and accurately, producing 30 per cent more work than in the minimalist office and 15 per cent more than in the decorated office. When workers were deliberately disempowered, their work suffered and of course, they hated it. “I wanted to hit you,” one participant later admitted to an experimenter.
Haslam and Knight have confirmed what other researchers have long suspected – that lack of control over one’s physical environment is stressful and distracting. But this perspective is in stark contrast to those who see office design as too important to be left to the people who work in offices.
At least Le Corbusier had a vision, but many office spaces are ruled instead by an aesthetic that is mean and petty. The Wall Street Journal reported on Kyocera’s clipboard-wielding “inspectors” not only enforcing a clear-desk policy, but pulling open drawers and cabinets, photographing messy contents and demanding improvements. The Australian Financial Review published an 11-page clean-desk manual leaked from the mining giant BHP Billiton; apparently copper and coal cannot be mined if office workers do not respect the limit of one A5 picture frame on each desk. (The frame may display a family photo, or an award certificate, but it was forbidden to display both). Haslam and Knight told of a Sydney-based bank that changed the layout of its IT department 36 times in four years at the whim of senior management.
It is unclear why any of this top-down design is thought desirable. Official explanations are often empty or circular: that clean desks are more professional, or look tidier. In some cases, streamlined practices from the production line have been copied mindlessly into general office spaces, where they serve no purpose. Whatever the reason, it is folly. It can be satisfying to straighten up all the pens on your desk; but to order an underling to straighten their own pens is sociopathic.
When the likes of Steve Jobs or Frank Gehry are in charge, we can at least expect a workplace that will look beautiful. But that does not make it functional. Truly creative spaces aren’t constantly being made over for photoshoots in glossy business magazines. Just ask veterans of M.I.T., many of whom will identify as their favourite and most creative space a building that didn’t even have a proper name, which was designed in an afternoon and built to last just a couple of years. Building 20 was 200,000 square feet of plywood, cinderblock and asbestos, a squat, dusty firetrap originally designed to accommodate the wartime radar research effort, but which eked out an existence as M.I.T.’s junk-filled attic until 1998.
Building 20 was an unbelievably fertile mess. The successes started with the wartime RadLab, which produced nine Nobel prizes and the radar systems that won the second world war. But the outpouring continued for more than half a century. The first commercial atomic clock; one of the earliest particle accelerators; Harold Edgerton’s iconic high-speed photographs of a bullet passing through an apple – all sprang from Building 20. So did computer hacking and the first arcade video game, Spacewar. So did the pioneering technology companies DEC, BBN, and Bose. Cognitive science was revolutionised in Building 20 by the researcher Jerry Lettvin, while Noam Chomsky did the same for linguistics.
All this happened in the cheapest, nastiest space that M.I.T. could offer. But that was no coincidence. Building 20 was where the university put odd projects, student hobbyists and anything else that didn’t seem to matter, producing new collaborations.
And Building 20’s ugliness was functional. The water and cabling was exposed, running across the ceilings in brackets. Researchers thought nothing of tapping in to them for their experimental needs – or for that matter for knocking down a wall. When the atomic clock was being developed, the team removed two floors to accommodate it. This was the result not of design but of neglect. In the words of Stewart Brand, author of How Buildings Learn, “nobody cares what you do in there.”
And that was all Building 20’s residents wanted: to be left alone to create, to make whatever mess they wanted to make. When, inevitably, M.I.T. finally replaced Building 20 with a $300m structure designed by Frank Gehry himself, its former residents held a memorial wake. The new building might have been cutting-edge architecture, but one unhappy resident summed up the problem perfectly: “I didn’t ask for it.”
Of course nobody cares what the people who actually do the work might want or need. Chief executives exult in bold architectural statements, and universities find it easier to raise money for new buildings than for research. And so the grand buildings continue to be built, especially by the most profitable companies and the most prestigious seats of learning.
But we’re often guilty of confusing causation here, believing that great architecture underpins the success of great universities, or that Google flourishes because of the vibrancy of the helter skelters and ping pong tables in the Googleplex. A moment’s reflection reminds us that the innovation comes first, and the stunt architecture comes later.
Remember that for the first two years of Google’s history, there were no headquarters at all. The company’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, made the breakthroughs at Stanford University. Then came the cliché of a garage in Menlo Park, with desks made from doors set horizontally across sawhorses. The company grew and grew, into one crude space after another – and with engineers always free to hack things about. One knocked down the wall of his office, decided he didn’t like the results, and rebuilt the wall. That made for an ugly space – but a space that worked for the people who worked in it. The spirit of Building 20 lived on at Google.
So how should the ideal office look? In the most prestigious offices at the most prestigious companies, the ones which are being photographed by Wired, the answer to that question is: this place should look the way the boss’s pet architect wants it to look.
But Building 20, and Google’s early offices, and some of the great creative spaces all over the world, suggest a very different answer to the same question: how this place looks doesn’t matter.
Back in 1977, the editor of Psychology Today, T George Harris, put his finger on the problem:
“The office is a highly personal tool shop, often the home of the soul… this fact may sound simple, but it eludes most architects… They have a mania for uniformity, in space as in furniture, and a horror over how the messy side of human nature clutters up an office landscape that would otherwise be as tidy as a national cemetery.”
Harris scoured the academic literature for any evidence that good design helped people to get things done, or to be happier in the office. He couldn’t find it. “People suddenly put into “good design” did not seem to wake up and love it,” he wrote. What people love, instead, is the ability to control the space in which they work – even if they end up filling the space with kitsch, or dog photos, or even – shudder – garden gnomes.
Strangely enough, it was Steve Jobs himself – notorious as a dictatorial arbiter of good taste – who came to appreciate this at Pixar. When he unveiled his plan for the single pair of serendipity-inducing uber-bathrooms, he faced a rebellion from pregnant women at Pixar who didn’t want to have to make the long walk ten times a day. Jobs was aghast that people didn’t appreciate the importance of his vision. But then he did something unexpected: he backed down and agreed to install extra bathrooms.
Steve Jobs found other ways to encourage serendipitous interactions. More importantly, he showed that even on a question that mattered deeply to him, junior staff were able to defy him. Milled Arkansas steels be damned: it is the autonomy that really matters.
“The animators who work here are free to – no, encouraged to – decorate their work spaces in whatever style they wish,” explains Pixar’s boss Ed Catmull in his book Creativity, Inc. “They spend their days inside pink dollhouses whose ceilings are hung with miniature chandeliers, tiki huts made of real bamboo, and castles whose meticulously painted, fifteen-foot-high Styrofoam turrets appear to be carved from stone.”
I suspect that there may be a garden gnome in there, too.


The ideas in this article are adapted from my book “Messy“, which is available online in the US and UK or in good bookshops everywhere.

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16th of February, 2017Highlights • Comments off