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Architecture critic: Redesign work, not just work spaces

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There’s plenty wrong with the traditional office full of cubes. Terrible lighting, collaboration-killing isolation, an abundance of soul-crushing beige, all of these features can rightly be faulted when discussing the failures of our work spaces. But is the solution to slap some paint on the walls, cart in a couple of plants and reconfigure layouts to be more social?

In a highly thought-provoking plea to rethink (again) our approach to design at work, New York Times architecture and design writer Allison Arieff uses that newspaper’s Opinionator blog as a forum to dig deeply into exactly how we should be re-conceptualizing work spaces. In her post, Arieff draws a parallel between those who suggest cosmetic solutions to environmental problems and those whose approach to redesigning our offices only goes skin deep:

In the same way that bamboo floors, hybrid SUVs and eco-couture haven’t done much to curb carbon emissions, designing (and buying) more stuff for offices, no matter how sleek or sustainable it is, likely won’t help reset the culture of work.

Rather than add oriental rugs and comfier chairs to our offices, Arieff suggests we consider redesigning not just the spaces where we work but the whole concept of work itself. There are more fundamental problems to solve than the aesthetic, she contends:

I’m willing to bet that almost any office worker would happily swap Webcam lighting that won’t make you look, when you’re on Skype (s msft), like you’ve “been out partying all night” (as Steelcase’s head of design explained in Fast Company), for solutions to more pressing work issues like, I don’t know, burnout or fear of losing health coverage.

So what sort of wholesale redesign of our fundamental conceptions of work does she have in mind? Arieff runs through a slew of design professionals who are wrestling with this knotty problem and coming up with everything from “a co-op babysitting arrangement among working parents in the respective workplace to cover for one another throughout the day” to community-building events at co-working spaces.

The post is lengthy, full of questions guaranteed to get you thinking (Examples: What careers are viable and how should we train people for them? Might companies and their employees be able to re-envision what loyalty looks like in an era where the average time spent in a job is hovering in the range of one to four years?) and is well worth a read in full.

Is redesigning our office spaces just moving around deck chairs on the Titanic?

Image courtesy of Flickr use Ste3ve

4 Responses to “Architecture critic: Redesign work, not just work spaces”

  1. I think the real issue of office design lies in trusting your employees enough so that you don’t create office environments designed to control them instead of unleashing their creativity and expertise. No office design will produce a great environment that leads to great work if you can’t trust your employees.

  2. Mac Fowler

    I don’t believe moving to a 100% virtual work agreement is the answer either. The answer really lays somewhere inbtweent.

    I agree with Alex that we need to look at business as a sense of self and purpose. Culture is what makes any of these work situations successful. The premis of coworking is built on a foundation of culture and community just as a businesses should be. Putting new furniture in might not help, but assessing the lens your business looks through to determine how/what’s next is the first step. Goes back to the whole start with “why” not “what” idea.

  3. Haim At Iqtell

    How about working in a virtual workspace?

    As a business you save on rental fees and tax (plus employee traveling expenses?).

    As an employee you can sit at home and work in a comfortable environment that doesn’t stress you, gives you a measure of freedom (parents can keep an eye on their kids for instance) and helps you to reach personal goals by saving on…traveling expenses.

    I work at a virtual workspace, have you checked us?