Posted on 5/14/2013 7:38 AM by Debbie Designer

Note: The following is one of our responses to our May issue, which focuses on corporate interiors and examined the popularity of open plan, collaborative spaces. You can read Editor Robert Nieminen's response here. Read our article on The Smarter Workplace here.

It's not every day that I take a stand against the editorial staff over here at Interiors & Sources. I try to maintain a silent gratitude, knowing I'm one of the worst things that's ever happened to them—but on this day, I cannot abide.

Perhaps I've been emboldened by my recent stand against chintz (I find it no small coincidence that chintz and Interiors & Sources share not one, but four letters in common.). Perhaps these are simply common side effects of my new Paxil and estrogen regimen.  Perhaps nothing. I’m blaming this article.

Open floor plans! Ooh.
Casual lounge areas for spontaneous collaborations! Aah.
White boards for idea mapping and doodles! Ho-ho!

Have we really reduced ourselves to this? Buying in to the self-aggrandizing claims of an industry known for patting itself on the back? For shame, and more importantly—who is to blame?

We all know the leader of this beast-clan is constantly changing at the speed of now or whatever, but for an easy example, we may turn to Google as a prime target.  


Google's new Dublin office

We went nuts for their ping pong table break rooms and their Swiss chalet phone booths, didn’t we? They boiled down the principles of fun, collegiate start-up culture, gussied it up with multi-million dollar re-designs (because heaven knows that’s how you make something authentic), and took all the joy right out from under us.

The difference between the excitement of the start-up office and the treachery of the Google Campus is that the former is literally a group of geeky business-minded friends trying to make their passions come to life, while the latter is a corporate giant trying to squeeze out every last penny for its shareholders.

Go find a person in a factory mill in China and ask them to man their station on the production line while standing in a McDonald's ball pit. Preposterous, right? So why are we pushing it in the office?


Pardon the crude photoshop job...

The cult of the workplace is taking over.

“Our office is set up like a racetrack is the best way I can describe it. I can literally just go jogging around the office and go talk to the people that I need,” says Loren Lachner from Reputation.com. She literally referred to the space as her racetrack. Take a hamster on a wheel and turn it sideways. Same thing.

Indeed, Loren Lachner is the new generation of worker, subscribing wholeheartedly to the cult of the workplace. We follow blindly behind the CEOs, presidents, human resource directors, and brand managers who have created a new concept of the workplace that tells us our job should be our sole source of happiness. They tell us that if we can't take sheer pleasure in our work, then we are "not the right fit," that the positions are for people with more "ambition" and "passion,” and if you don't like it then you might want to go look in the mirror, where you are likely to discover you’re a lifeless lump of uninspired mucous, traveling slowly through the office halls with their white boards and exposed ceilings, waiting to be laid off and coughed out.

Also, you are decidedly un-American, for the record.

Before you write me off as drunk old Debbie, slurring her words and double-dipping in the salsa bowl, let’s allow the trusted voices at the New York Times to weigh in. Here, writer Teddy Wayne sums it up with a neat little bow in his article from March 1, 2013, "The No-Limits Job".

“In these ‘rock star’ professions, too, notably in the business-casual Silicon Valley, many companies ‘have tried to break down the homogenizing nightmare of the 1950s,’ [Ross Perlin, 29-year-old author of “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy”] said, replacing cubicles with foosball tables and other dorm-room accouterments to entice employees to stay late bonding with colleagues.

‘But we’ve got something more sinister now,’ he said. ‘People are working much more and are convinced to invest themselves body and soul. It tries to make you lose your sense of your workplace versus home: who are your co-workers and who are your friends?’

…‘You can’t get a job by saying, “I just want a job,”’ he said. ‘Your heart has to be supposedly in it, and you have to demonstrate that by staying as late as you’re supposed to stay or responding to e-mails at 11 p.m.’”

Modern workers are saying good-bye to casual Friday and hello to casual all the time, because we are casually working. All. The. Time. 

My advice to everyone: Go home.

Informal office lounge areas? That used to be called happy hour at your neighborhood professionals' mingle spot. Now happy hour is an empty bar filled with old townie war vets while everyone's still at work until 9.

We can not all be inspired to be Edisons on some team-horse schlep to discover something new and wonderful, blossoming as individuals, no doubt, and having a clear contract denying our right to take any credit for the work once we move on to the next frontier of our growing resumes.

Why do we have to stay late and hang around just to surround ourselves with our work for that many more hours of the day—even if it’s “fun” and “casual” and “facilitating relationships?” Sometimes, people just want to be a lone workhorse, holding up their portion of the deal, and going home when the hole is dug. 

Because hey! Guess what? There’s a whole mess of other things to do. They're called hobbies. They're called family. They're called roses, and once upon a time people smelled them. Once upon a people time found passion in their ability to use the tools at hand and to make a respectable life doing it. They didn’t have to shift paradigms or envision new futures in order to survive a round of layoffs.  

People could worry less about being “the wrong fit” just because they were an introvert who liked to read and think in private or pluck away independently in an office.  People didn’t even have to worry about being happy, but if you work every waking hour of the day, how does one find the time to cultivate any other source of contentment?

I’ll give you this: better to be drinking the Kool-Aid at a colorful, innovative launch pad than shooting the cyanide straight up next to some guy looking for his stapler in the dreary cubicle to the left.


"I...I...was told to expect happiness..."

“People spend all day at the computer and in this digital world. You know, you’re working, you’re working, but there is no tangible proof of that work,” said Denise Cherry in a quote from the original I&S article that begins to smack of the existential crisis at hand. O+A’s solution for Reputation.com, she said, was “to create a workspace reflective of the values the Internet embodies:  brightness, inclusiveness, ease of navigation, transparency, informality.”

Cherry had it figured out all the way down to a “1:5 employee to workspace ratio,” a caption reads. Seems a bit ironic when the goal is to facilitate spontaneous collaborations. You know where spontaneous collaboration happens? When you bump into someone on the way out of the bathroom and warn them that there’s no more paper in there. What’s the planning timeline and design budget on that one?

But remove the contrived quest for office culture, and O+A’s science-like focus on designing for efficient productivity becomes a crucial beacon of hope, a place where we as designers can begin to stop this madness.

Sure, the modern economic landscape means people are working harder for less. Sure, making the office space fun and inviting is one way to improve the daily, grinding toll of work without reward.  As designers, our job should be not only to make the workplace as pleasant as possible, but also to create new environments that make it easier for people to get the hell out of dodge.

Seating designed to increase concentration? Yes!
Modular furniture systems that accommodate quick changes in workflow? Yes!
A multitude of workspace styles catered to the needs of each individual role within the company? Yes, incorporate these tools!

Incorporate these tools in your next office space design because they allow people to leave, rather than convincing them it’s better to stay.

And by the way, fun at the office can thrive anywhere when you put the right people together.