Long live the office (reconfigured)


Last month, I went to the office for the first time in over a year. It was a joy to see colleagues and a novelty not to make my own lunch. But after a while I wanted to go home – so I had to do some work.

Office buildings were designed so that people would work. Our furiously built house “offices” (mine is a small desk in the corner of the room) were not. Yet I don’t think I’m the only one to find that I can do some elements of my work more effectively from home – a fact that tells us something important about the design of the 21st century office.

I am not an office refusenik. In fact, I’m a fan. There is one a lot of evidence to show how important it is for colleagues to meet in person. Without the office, we don’t meet with colleagues we haven’t seen in a while when making a cup of tea, or overhearing conversations that evoke new ideas or plans for collaboration. I realize that I miss colleagues with whom I have never even worked directly.

Research suggests there is value in these “weak bonds” – relationships between people who do not work together but who also know each other over time. Clumsy attempts to recreate such moments during the block (one ask asks questions in Slack to encourage “serendipitous” conversations like, “Which movies can you quote the most?”) show only how much they are impossible to force.

Over the past few decades, offices have been redesigned keeping in mind the value of interaction. The walls of the Cubicle are always lower. Eventually, they disappeared altogether in favor of large open spaces. U idea was to foster more transparency, innovation and communication. It was also a great way to save money by packing the tightest people together. Data from the British Council of Offices show that the average amount of space per workstation has decreased since 2008.

But in search of more interactive spaces, we have lost sight of how the human brain actually works. Research shows that volumes of rum in open-plan offices can cause high levels of epinephrine, the hormone that helps us fight, run or freeze, rather than focus on our work. Summary “half-hearted”When colleagues are on the phone, it can be distracting because our brain is trying to fill the other half.

The lack of any private space in many offices makes us uncomfortable too much. Lena Nyholm is Mia Ohrn, Swedish interior design strategists who want to inject neuroscience into office design, they also say the decor matters. Our brains respond better to blues and greens, says Nyholm, because they involve a fertile landscape with lots of food. But many offices have white walls, black chairs, hard edges and few plants. “When we look with those eyes on the workplace, it seems like winter – the brain is stressed, there’s no food here, no heat.”

In fact, problems with open-plan offices could undermine the very benefits they were to provide. Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, studied two major U.S. companies that moved on to open-plan design. He used wearable tracking devices and e-mail data to measure how workers ’interactions were changing. In both cases, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly, while email and instant messaging increased.


“Rather than evoking an increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture seemed to trigger a natural human response to social withdrawal,” he concluded. In another study, He found that intermittent rather than constant social influence produced the best performance among people seeking to solve problems together.

The pandemic gives us the possibility for a new beginning. We need to meet, collaborate, shoot the wind and enjoy the noise, but many of us also need access to quiet corners to do some elements of our work well. It will probably take some trial and error to find the right balance.

Matthew Davis, an associate professor at the University of Leeds who is studying the concept of the post-Covid office, says some employers are transforming their offices into flexible spaces for “collaboration” on the assumption that people will do their part. home-focused desk work. He says employers are asking themselves, “How do you use the space to encourage more chance meetings, more social activity?”

It’s too early to know if this works in practice. Would it be weird to put a slot for “serendipitous conversations in the office” in the newspaper? Davis also warns these new designs of hyper-social offices could “involuntarily exclude” certain employees if they don’t have space to work from home.

However, employers have reason to experiment. The office is not even dead. If we recognize their weaknesses and play to their strengths, we could have a whole new life.

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