Where You Work

by antigob

Just this week I went to the Google offices in New York. It’s in the former Port Authority building and takes up a whole block of the Meatpacking District. The place is massive – more floor space than the Empire State – and so big the staff resort to scooters to get about. Most of the office is split into small teams, studded with dedicated zones for quiet working.

It’s really easy to poke fun at the scooters and pop environment, but way back in the day when I worked as a space planner for Herman Miller, it was exactly the set-up we’d try and sell multinational companies. Regardless of what you think of break out spaces and hot-desking they do work. When you have to get your head down to some serious graft, all you need is a desk drawer to leave your phone in and a place to escape.

Of the workplaces I can remember having a hand in designing, my favourite was the Anoto head office in Sweden. In the middle of the office the company installed a Zen garden that had Joseph Beuys style felt walls and came complete with its own dedicated gardener. That would never have caught on in Britain: ‘I see Williams is spending a lot of time meditating, obviously can’t take the pressure…’

Some workplaces were not ready for such reinvention. One of my biggest projects was helping a Polish national newspaper make the transition from individual offices to an open plan space using the radical and graceful Resolve system. But the editorial staff hated it. Journalists want privacy, four walls where they can call their contacts in secret. They weren’t interested in ‘fortuitous encounters’ with colleagues because they were in competition with them.

Shame, because the story behind fortuitous encounters and open plan offices is fascinating. Both concepts were conceived by the RAND Corporation – a nonprofit think tank charged on its inception with determining whether the United States could win a third world war. The people who ran RAND found they suffered a particular problem: the scientists and theorists they employed were so wrapped up in their work they rarely left their departments. All very well and good for theoretical study, but RAND’s job was practical: could a nuclear war be won? So they started to break apart these departments and sit nuclear scientists next to game theorists and put the coffee machine by the bomb designers. These groups soon started to work differently. Scientists started to bump into one other in the walkways and chat about their research. They discovered they were often working on two ends of the same problem and so they started to collaborate, and who knows, perhaps the end of the world was averted.

I’m now an advertising copywriter, and even though I often get the chance to work in many progressive environments, my favourite so far has been a completely empty office. There was nothing, no WiFi even (we had to borrow that from next door), just four white walls, a big window, a desk, chair, kettle and loo. It was the office equivalent of a blank piece of paper.