I’ve been designing offices for decades. Here’s what I got wrong

At Slack’s San Francisco headquarters, which Studio O + A designed, the concept was to replicate the experience of being on a wilderness trail, where you don’t know where it leads or ends. Slack wanted irregularity in the floor plan, with every floor different. It was not just a matter of look and feel, but a basic reordering of elements on every floor, where the restrooms were located, where the meeting rooms were, and so on. Slack wanted to encourage people to slow down, to get lost and to help each other. [Photo: Garrett Rowland/courtesy O+A]

At Slack’s San Francisco headquarters, which Studio O + A designed, the concept was to replicate the experience of being on a wilderness trail, where you don’t know where it leads or ends. Slack wanted irregularity in the floor plan, with every floor different. It was not just a matter of look and feel, but a basic reordering of elements on every floor, where the restrooms were located, where the meeting rooms were, and so on. Slack wanted to encourage people to slow down, to get lost and to help each other. [Photo: Garrett Rowland/courtesy O+A]

BY VERDA ALEXANDER

I’ve been trying to pinpoint the moment it all went wrong. Or maybe that’s too extreme—the moment it all got crazy. And I keep coming back to the term “24/7.”

It was the year I graduated from high school, 1983. That same year, according to the Oxford dictionary, Jerry Reynolds, a basketball player for the Milwaukee Bucks, coined the term “24/7” describing his dunk shot that he claimed he could make 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, anytime, any day. Whatever the merits of this claim, his phrase was a slam dunk—it caught on instantly.

About 10 years later Primo Orpilla and I had just started our interior design practice Studio O+A, and one of our earliest technology clients, a young highly motivated CEO, wanted to get more out of his employees. To that end, he asked us to design an office that would encourage staff to stay longer and get more work done. Besides creating a cafeteria that could accommodate serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner (the first time we had heard of three squares as an office perk), we incorporated a number of spaces to make the office more comfortable for a long-term stay. This may have been the beginning of the 24/7 office. It was certainly the moment when amenity spaces took off.

Fast forward another decade. Open offices are in full swing, and so are their critics. O+A is firmly established as a creator of work environments with an almost endless variety of amenity spaces. Remember the early interactive drumming game Rock Band? The year it debuted, several clients asked us to design rooms exclusively to play Rock Band in. We did skateboard ramps with DJ turntables, lots of game rooms with pool and ping-pong tables; we did music rooms and cafeterias with sophisticated barista bars and beer taps. We did many, many “living rooms.”

McDonald’s new headquarters in Chicago’s West Loop exemplify the design concept of “evolution.” Familiar design elements, from McDonald’s colors to its Golden Arches, got an aspirational refresh. [Photo: Garrett Rowland/courtesy O+A]

McDonald’s new headquarters in Chicago’s West Loop exemplify the design concept of “evolution.” Familiar design elements, from McDonald’s colors to its Golden Arches, got an aspirational refresh. [Photo: Garrett Rowland/courtesy O+A]

We continue to design these pleasure assets today and have found new reasons to justify them: for recruitment and retention, to increase creativity, to satisfy the introverts and the extroverts. But at the back of my mind, one thought nags: Do these spaces really help us get our work done? Do they really make for better work, more creative work, a more productive day? Or is that claim just our version of sinking a dunk shot 24/7?

We didn’t use to have phrases like work/life balance because there was a clear distinction between where we worked and lived and how. Why do we want to make our offices look more like our homes? Do we really need living rooms in a workplace?

I get the idea of rest and recharge. You will be more creative if you can step away from your desk and take a break. I think about a space we designed for Microsoft around 2010. Building 4 was a creative hub for considering what the future might be. It included an innovation center, and there was a simple bike repair area where people could fix a flat or oil their chain (pictured below). It served a purpose in the bike-focused community of Seattle and helped Microsoft employees get around their gigantic campus. It was also purposefully analog, a place to do something with your hands.

Many studies have shown the effectiveness of changing focus, posture, and position throughout the day. But what if you could get your work done in a shorter day, oil your bike, and ride it home? Wouldn’t you choose to do that and truly recharge in the comfort of your real home, surrounded by family and friends, instead of coworkers that you are paid to be with?

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This brings me to the idea of friction. In a workplace, the most common form of friction is between two coworkers—i.e. a reason to call HR. That is not the friction I am talking about. Nor am I proposing offices that have so much friction they are too hard to work in. For me, friction is a positive force. It can slow things down but also get things moving. It’s about flow in a positive direction.