The next time you get into the office, take a good look around. What are the characteristics of your space? How does it make you feel you should behave? Who do you think it was built for? What kind of activities do you think it was designed to support?
Like it or not, workspace design betrays a company’s culture. It also has the power to shape it. We are highly sensitive to the behavioral cues embedded in our environments and will unthinkingly adjust our speech, mannerisms, and body language as we adapt to our surroundings.
The chances are, you’re still working in an office designed—consciously or not—to support an idea of work that came into its heyday about one hundred years ago.
As early 20th-century companies harnessed burgeoning transportation and telecommunications networks to grow into new markets, administrative work—and offices that accommodated it—exploded. The skylines of New York and Chicago were transformed as sleek skyscrapers sprung up, filling with typists, accountants, mail-order departments and a supervisory managerial class relentlessly focused on improving the production of paperwork. The salient features of these white-collar factories? Glass-walled offices for the executives (employees worked harder if they knew they were being watched), desks arranged to isolate the individual and the rote work they performed, and a fetish for uniformity that put a powerful spotlight on the primary mission: operating efficiency.
These core design principles have endured with remarkable tenacity, vanquishing or co-opting several bold attempts to displace them. In 1964, a Herman Miller designer named Robert Propst launched the “action office,” a modular, semi-enclosed office furniture whose humanistic design emphasized ergonomics, flexibility and creativity. To his horror, Mr Propst’s creation metastasized in offices everywhere as the cubicle—the ultimate symbol of atomized and soulless office existence. “The cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity,” the poor man would later comment.