Cautionary Tales – Office Hell: The demise of the playful workspace

17th March, 2023

In the early 90s, cutting-edge advertising agency Chiat/Day announced a radical plan, aimed at giving the company a jolt of creative renewal. They would sweep away corner offices and cubicles and replace them with zany open spaces, as well as innovative portable computers and phones. A brand new era of “hot-desking” had arrived.

Problems quickly began. Disgruntled employees found themselves hauling temperamental, clunky laptops and armfuls of paperwork all over the office; some even had to use the trunks of their cars as filing cabinets. Soon, the unhappy nomads had had enough.

Bad execution was to blame for the failure of this “playful” workspace. But Chiat/Day had made another mistake here, too – one that was more serious, more fundamental and altogether more common.

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Further reading

Warren Berger’s brilliant Wired article about Chiat/Day was published on 1 February 1999 as “Lost in Space“. Other sources on Chiat/Day include Herbert Muschamp “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Ad World” in the New York Times, 16 October 1994, and Planet Money’s podcast “Open Office“.

On Pessac, see Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, Philippe Boudon’s Lived-In Architecture and my own book Messy. On the Pixar HQ see Catmull & Wallace Creativity, Inc and Walter Isaacson Steve Jobs.

Haslam and Knight’s research is written up as “Cubicle, Sweet Cubicle” in Scientific American Mind Sep/Oct 2010. Data on working from home is at WFH Research.

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