A Sustainable Design Blog
Designing an Office for Innovation
Just as cubicles took over our lives in the 80’s and 90’s, the open office plan is the interior design model for ‘innovative’ companies in the 2000’s. But do people really work better when they have no privacy? Or are we just on a rebound from our cubicle ex-boyfriend, now basking in the company of his complete antithesis? I’d argue that the next generation of office space has to strike a balance between these two worlds.
Much like love, business innovation comes from two alternate worlds – excitement and security. The open office plan is the former, allowing the social creature in all of us to be tuned in to what's going on around us, to always be stimulated by the exciting things happening around the office. The theory is that it prevents a lack of communication, allowing others to hear about what is going on in the company even if they weren't included in various meetings and correspondence. The open office plan is also supposed to encourage the type of spontaneous brainstorming that comes out of freeform thought discussions, like overhearing what the person next to you is working on and putting in your two cents that might lead to a great new concept.
While the logic behind this type of open office seemed sounds, much was sacrificed in the world of security. An open office plan doesn't allow a person to attempt and fail in the comfort of their own desk area because their screen is fodder for comment by any passerby. Try to type an email with someone standing over your shoulder and you will understand how claustrophobic constant 'openness' can feel. Private conversation over the phone or face to face is also essential to business dealing. Encouraging work life balance while making it necessary to leave the office to book a doctors appointment is rather incongruous.
I think the office of the future needs to embrace the nook. The need to hole oneself up in a little space and be alone with your thoughts, computer, sketchbook, book, etc, is something we seem to know instinctively when we are young, but forget when we're older. When you were a kid, did you ever build a fort, hang out under the stairs, or pitch a tent in your backyard? Do you remember how safe you felt? How you could relax and let your imagination go? Ever wonder why people in cars or showers sing at the top of their lungs even though they others can see or hear them? Because an enclosed small space makes you feel safe, creative, and less timid.
A recent and much discussed article by Jonah Lehrer purports the ineffectiveness of brainstorming, citing studies that show people come up with more ideas when asked to think on their own rather than toss around ideas in a group. I personally think that dismissing brainstorming altogether is a bit silly and misses the point of the study, which really seemed to suggest the importance of personal brainstorming before group brainstorming. What this study shows is that an office that can blend the public and the private, the excitement and the security, the individual with the group, will be tapping into the parts of human nature that help us innovate, create, and hopefully succeed.
Photo Credit FastCoDesign.com & Ivan Brodey
Jennifer Stewart is the Office Manager and wanna-be organizational psychologist at Modern Species. For more posts from her, click here.