Long live the (reconfigured) office

Last month, I went to the office for the first time in more than a year. It was a joy to see colleagues and a novelty not to make my own lunch. But after a while I wanted to go home again — because I had to get some work done.

Office buildings were designed for people to work in. Our hastily constructed home “offices” (mine is a small desk in the corner of the bedroom) were not. Yet I don’t think I am the only one to find I can do some elements of my job more effectively from home — a fact that tells us something important about the design of the 21st-century office.

I am not an office refusenik. In fact, I am a fan. There is a slew of evidence to show how important it is for colleagues to gather in person. Without the office, we don’t bump into colleagues we haven’t seen for a while when making a cup of tea, or overhear conversations that spark new ideas or plans to collaborate. I realise I miss colleagues I never even worked with directly.

Research suggests there is value in these “weak ties” — relationships between people who don’t work together closely but still get to know each other over time. Awkward attempts to recreate such moments during lockdown (one application posts questions in Slack to encourage “serendipitous” conversations like, “What movie can you quote the most?”) only show how impossible they are to force.

Over the past few decades, offices have been redesigned with the value of interaction in mind. Cubicle walls got steadily lower. Finally, they disappeared altogether in favour of big open spaces. The idea was to foster more transparency, innovation and communication. It was also a great way to save money by packing people tighter together. Data from the British Council of Offices show the average amount of space per workstation has declined since 2008.

But in pursuit of more interactive spaces, we lost sight of how the human brain actually works. Research shows that noise volumes in open-plan offices can cause elevated levels of epinephrine, the hormone that helps tell us to fight, run or freeze, rather than to focus on our work. Overhearing “halfversations”, when colleagues are on the phone, can be distracting because our brains try to fill in the other half.

The lack of any private space in many offices makes us uncomfortable too. Lena Nyholm and Mia Ohrn, Swedish interior design strategists who want to inject neuroscience into office design, say even the decor matters. Our brains respond best to blues and greens, says Nyholm, because they imply a fertile landscape with plenty of food. But many offices have white walls, black chairs, hard edges and few plants. “When we look with those eyes on the workplace, it looks like winter — the brain is stressed, there’s no food here, no warmth.”

In fact, the problems with open-plan offices might undermine the very advantages they were supposed to deliver. Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, studied two large US companies that shifted to open-plan designs. He used wearable tracking devices and email data to measure how workers’ interactions changed. In both cases, the volume of face-to-face interaction dropped significantly, while email and instant messaging increased.

“Rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw,” he concluded. In another study, he found that intermittent rather than constant social influence produced the best performance among people trying to solve problems together.

The pandemic gives us a chance for a fresh start. We need to meet, collaborate, shoot the breeze and enjoy the hubbub, but many of us also need access to quiet corners to do some elements of our jobs well. It will probably take some trial and error to find the right balance.

Matthew Davis, an associate professor at Leeds University studying post-Covid office design, says some employers are turning their offices into flexible “collaboration” spaces on the assumption that people will do their focused desk work at home. He says employers are asking themselves: “How do we get the space to encourage more chance encounters, more social activity?”

It’s too soon to know whether this will work in practice. Would it feel strange to put a slot for “serendipitous conversations in the office” into one’s diary? Davis also warns these new hyper-social office designs could “inadvertently exclude” some employees if they do not have space to work at home.

Still, employers are right to experiment. The office is not dead yet. If we acknowledge its weaknesses and play to its strengths, it could have a whole new lease of life.

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