What Le Corbusier got right about office space

7th April, 2022

A century ago, the father of modern architecture, Le Corbusier, was commissioned by a French industrialist to design some homes for factory workers near Bordeaux. The resulting development, Cité Frugès de Pessac, was much as one might expect: brightly hued blocks of pure modernism. The humble factory workers refused to move in. Later residents of Pessac subverted Le Corbusier’s visionary geometry. They added rustic shutters, pitched roofs and gardens with picket fences, adorned with gaudy gnomes.

Modernism can be beautiful, but we humans like to do things our own way. As managers ponder how to lure workers back into the office, they are offering free food, free drinks, free massages and touting the joys of face-to-face conversation. But they should also ponder the lessons of Pessac’s gnomes.

In the minds of many office workers, there is now an unspoken question: if I went back to the office, would I feel like I was the boss of my own desk? That question is easy for managers — enthroned in their corner offices — to overlook, yet it matters more than we think.

In 2010, the psychologists Alex Haslam and Craig Knight set up an experiment in which participants were asked to perform simple administrative tasks in a variety of office spaces. They tested four different office layouts. One was stripped down: bare desk, swivel chair, pencil, paper, nothing else. The second layout was softened with pot plants and almost abstract floral images. Workers enjoyed this layout more than the minimalist one and got more and better work done there.

The third and fourth layouts were superficially similar, yet produced dramatically different outcomes. In each, workers were invited to use the same plants and pictures to decorate the space before they started work, if they wished. But in one of them, the experimenter came in after the subject had finished decorating, and then rearranged it all. The physical difference was trivial, but the impact on productivity and job satisfaction was dramatic. When workers were empowered to shape their own space, they did more and better work and felt far more content. When workers were deliberately disempowered, their work suffered and, of course, they hated it. “I wanted to hit you,” one participant later admitted.

It wasn’t the environment itself that was stressful or distracting — it was the lack of control.

Yet there is a long, dismal tradition of disempowering workers. In the 1960s, the designer Robert Propst worked with the Herman Miller company to produce “The Action Office”, a stylish system of open-plan office furniture that allowed workers to sit, stand, move around and configure the space as they wished.

Propst then watched in horror as his ideas were corrupted into cheap modular dividers, and then to cubicle farms or, as Propst described them, “barren, rathole places”. Managers had squeezed the style and the space out of the action office, but above all they had squeezed the ability of workers to make choices about the place where they spent much of their waking lives.

At least the cube farms had a money-saving logic. Many managerial attempts to control the office environment had no logic at all. In the early 1990s, Jay Chiat of the Chiat-Day advertising agency brought on star architects such as Gaetano Pesce and Frank Gehry to provide him with radical, fashionable office spaces over which the actual workers had no control. These workers, who Jay Chiat seemed to view as little more than an aesthetic annoyance, would be granted tiny lockers for “their dog pictures, or whatever”. Or their garden gnomes, I suppose.

The Chiat-Day office redesign has become a notorious cautionary tale, warning what happens when style is put ahead of substance and hot-desking goes too far. Yet pointlessly disempowering office layouts and rules remain far too common. Occasionally the media will mock one of these more extreme efforts. Everyone chuckles nervously at such stories. We all know our workplace could be next.

It should be easy for the office to provide a vastly superior working environment to the home, because it is designed and equipped with work in mind. Few people can afford the space for a well-designed, well-specified home office. Many are reduced to perching on a bed or coffee table. And yet at home, nobody will rearrange the posters on your wall, and nobody will sneer about your “dog pictures, or whatever”. That seems trivial, but it is not.

Le Corbusier’s Pessac is now viewed as an architectural success. The picket fences and the pitched roofs and the garden gnomes are gone, and his original vision is restored. I wonder if Le Corbusier himself would have approved of that. The very fact that his designs were so easily modified was, arguably, their strength. When he was told about the garden gnomes of Pessac, he replied, “You know, life is always right; it is the architect who is wrong.” Managers should remember that.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 11 March 2022.

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