By Allison Arieff, NY Times
Most talk of work these days revolves around the latest unemployment figures, the difficulties of getting and/or holding onto a job and/or how we are all working more hours for less money and less vacation time, or the bleak prospects for newly minted college grads (starkly rendered by cartoonist Jenna Brager in the new anthology “Share or Die: Youth in Recession.”)
At the end of his life, Robert Propst, creator of the cubicle system, called his invention “monolithic insanity,” yet we seem unable to tread down any other path. Longstanding calls for the Redesign of the Cubicle continue, in recent articles like “Designs to Make You Work Harder,” a roundup of “new” approaches to office design in The Wall Street Journal, and, in Fast Company, “Redesigning: Cubicles,” the goal of which was to “upgrade the corporate killjoy.” The topics seemed disconcertingly out of touch. Apart from maybe generating a little business for the contract furniture industry, what was the point? A bigger re-think of the world of work seems to be in order.
Just about any story on this subject in the last decade has featured pleasant if not wholly original ideas like bringing more natural light into spaces, playing with organic, softer forms and incorporating homey elements like Oriental rugs, plants and personal photographs. But every idea has remained firmly entrenched in existing workspace typologies — the cubicle, the corner office — and ignored entirely the growing legions who work in different ways or in different settings (if they’re able to find work at all).
In 2009, the entrepreneur/designer Nathan Shedroff published a book called “Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must Be Sustainable.” His provocative title was meant to inspire conversation about sustainability, but I’ll borrow it here as a means of generating some more creative thinking about work — how and where (and why) we do it.
Adjustable desks, foldout benches and louvered shades have their place but, to paraphrase Shedroff, furniture is not the problem. Just as with climate change, there is an overwhelming tendency to tackle serious challenges with consumer goods. But in the same way that bamboo floors, hybrid SUVs and eco-couture haven’t done much to curb carbon emissions, designing (and buying) more stuff for offices, no matter how sleek or sustainable it is, likely won’t help reset the culture of work.
Design itself is the problem because it is being used to solve the wrong ones — despite its best intentions. The designer’s “toolkit,” to throw in a term much overused in the industry, has to expand beyond noodling with the cubicle. I’m willing to bet that almost any office worker would happily swap Webcam lighting that won’t make you look, when you’re on Skype, like you’ve “been out partying all night” (as Steelcase’s head of design explained in Fast Company), for solutions to more pressing work issues like, I don’t know, burnout or fear of losing health coverage.
The Journal had asked a handful of design firms “to envision a space that could inspire ideas and increase productivity.” I’m not going to argue that good architecture won’t make for more pleasant working environments that can lead to greater employee satisfaction — the workplace is still relevant no matter how many people work remotely (currently over 50 million, at least part of the time). But it’s also true that creativity can come from anywhere, and probably least of all from inside a cubicle, no matter how sunny and technologically mind-blowing it is.
So, apart from furniture and skylights, how might designers (and the companies who hire them) think about work differently? There are some truly inventive things happening in the world of work. Here are just a few examples:
Some companies are more progressive than others, offering liberating options like employee sabbaticals, flex time and job sharing. I was pleasantly surprised to discover companies that even offer a Babies at Work program that allows parents to bring newborns in the office — part of the design here is creating a sound-proof room, the other part has already been designed. Parenting in the Workplace Institute (PIWI) has developed an agreement to facilitate a co-op babysitting arrangement among working parents in the respective workplace to cover for one another throughout the day. But as more and more people strike out on their own by wont or by necessity, new places of work are emerging to respond to their needs.
Explaining in an e-mail that he was “frustrated to see that most architects still build for a lifestyle that most people don’t live anymore,” Yi Cong Lu’s goal with his trio of objects “Living Tools” was to think beyond “architectural spaces with clearly defined layouts and space utilization scenarios [left over] from previous centuries.” Yes, it’s minimalist, sculptural and not for everyone, featuring as it does pieces like “Fade,” an adjustable curtain partition made of plywood and metal hardware that allows one to subdivide spaces into areas for living or working. But Lu, who himself lives in a tiny space in Leipzig, Germany, has created something that works well for him (and could work for others in similarly cramped quarters). You can see how it works here and get a sense of how well the project aligns with a shift away from consumerist culture. (You can’t have a lot of possessions in this space.)
If you’ve got to get out of the house, there are options like the co-working space Hub Bay Area, designed by Teri Flynn of Flynn, Craig and Grant. In its design phase it paid a lot of attention to doors and desks, but thought equally about who might be working there and why. The 8,600-square-foot work and event space (you need to join to use it) attracts people working in complementary fields (say, solar technology and supply-chain analysis) and was designed to promote collaboration and offer flexibility (some do their work or take meetings there a few hours a month; others are there every day). In both the San Francisco and Berkeley locations, there are not only communal spaces but community-wide events ranging from book launches to film screenings.
At the stylish but spartan end of the spectrum is The Miner and a Major project, from architects Serban Ionescu, Jim Dreilein and Justin Smith. With just $4,000 and a willingness to live and work in rather intimate proximity to one another, the trio designed five container-like sleeping units within a live/work loft space in Brooklyn. The project was, explains Ionescu, “a burst of imagination coming out of an economic downward spiral … what we wanted to challenge was our bare minimum need to what a room is: a desk, a bed, a view, and storage, and also what is the private/public border of the adjacent room. I don’t know if this experiment would work outside of our friends and it has evolved the friendship, its intimate setting can work perfectly for a family or even a studio like office, working together but allowing the individual to be.”
Two other factors often undervalued (and often ignored) in the workplace? Family and time. Architect Iris Regn and artist Rebecca Niederlander have been working to bring these into the conversation by exploring the intersection between creativity and family life in an ongoing collaborative effort they call Broodwork.
Don’t be put off by the awkward name. Broodwork suggests that, far from being the hindrance it’s often presented as, incorporating family into work can have overwhelmingly positive effects. Regn is trained as an architect but is open enough in her thinking to understand that in the scheme of things, the adjustability of her desk isn’t going to have an impact on her creative process nearly as much as what her daughter might say tonight at the dinner table.
“The first impetus [of Broodwork] was to get people to acknowledge interweaving of creative practice and family life,” she told me. “Not to have to hide [your family] when you have to go pick up your kid while at a meeting, for example. That raised eyebrow is going away. Yes, you’re juggling. That’s just part of the deal. When you talk to other parents, everyone knows the deal so why is it that in a professional setting that can’t be brought to the table?
“There’s something going on with our generation that’s allowing for the integration of family life and practice,” Regn continued. “There’s the computer, there’s flex time, there’s the fact that men are taking a much more equal role in parenting. People are working in smaller increments, are working collaboratively — why? Partly it’s because of the computer but it’s also because people are working more flexibly.”
This past spring at Otis College of Art and Design’s Ben Maltz Gallery, in Pasadena, Calif., the pair tackled the topic of time in an exhibition that explored the ways work and life intersected, whether the result was inspiring or limiting. In either case, they concluded that acknowledging the tension, the time crunch and the realities of “balance” led to greater creativity and piece of mind. “We didn’t know if this would be a positive experiment or not,” says Niederlander. “We found we could respond with ‘look what great stuff is happening.’”
Works included “Common Ground,” an ambitious attempt by the architects Florian Idenburg and Jin Liu (who are married and have two young children) to design a place where private life and professional practice merge, where sharing costs and responsibilities can free up the brain space for more creative pursuits,
and “A History of Play: Froebel Eames Studio,” an installation by artist Eamon O’Kane. This was inspired by the work of Frederich Froebel, inventor of kindergarten, in part to acknowledge how (as O’Kane explains in his artist statement) “becoming a parent opened my eyes up to not only my parents’ influence on us as children … but also how life and art and striking a balance is a continual process and should be approached as such. Therefore I have learned to slow down and enjoy life much more and to let it influence my work as an artist and educator in a much more fluid and intuitive way.”
If you were to see my own workspace, you’d understand why I was most drawn to the presentation in the show of critic and curator Andrew Berardini’s mess of a desk, about which he muses,
“Is this my ideal work space? This dank, windowless studio, this dirty desk. Yes it is. Perhaps one day I’ll find myself with laptop overlooking the Casbah or the ocean, with a view of the Eiffel Tower or some other obviously awesome sight, in the most comfortable chair ever built in the most beautiful space ever designed, but this space, the room I write from now, is here, ready right now for me to sit down in the ratty leather armchair with the broken leg, ready to simply and happily support my time and weight. As Virginia Woolf once wrote, what every writer most simply needs, male and female, is a room of their own and the time to work in it. This dark untidy cell very happily affords me both.”
Time. It’s no less important than space. Workers are more and more productive, but they’re becoming so at a harder-to-measure but easy-to-observe cost. We shouldn’t be rethinking the cubicle or corner office but rather rethinking all aspects of work: What careers are viable (and how should we train people for them?) Might companies and their employees be able to re-envision what loyalty looks like in an era where the average time spent in a job is hovering in the range of one to four years? If a post-consumer economy is truly coming, as many from Larry Summers to the collaborative consumption evangelist Rachel Botsman predict, what might it look like? And how will it affect our relationship to earning a paycheck? In other words, how can the workplace evolve to respond to the contemporary realities of work culture?
The Journal is right that good design can inspire creativity and great ideas, but I’d argue that the focus should be less on floor plans and more on ways of working. When’s the last time you had a creative breakthrough in a Monday morning meeting? Creativity springs from unexpected places and sources — from a walk in the park to the rare block of uninterrupted time — so thinking more broadly about the intrinsic motivations (autonomy, learning, etc.) that facilitate good work is likely to have a far happier outcome than the “latest” innovation in cubicles.