By Noam Livnat
Chief Product & Innovation Officer
Optimal office workplace design provides a foundation for success. Buildings are more than walls, floors and a ceiling; more than the objects and people that inhabit them. They’re spaces that have significant impact on culture, discourse, and behavior. Their design directly affects how those inhabiting them operate. It’s likely why Winston Churchill once stated: “we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” Buildings are alive—and they have a lot to teach us.
As business owners and operators, we spend a significant portion of our time considering office space. Usually, it’s from a logistical and cost standpoint, not an abstract concept of what we can reap from a building or office. In evaluating new office space or its design, our ideas are rational and concrete, devoid of the personality we wish to create within a workplace.
When Churchill made his now famous comment, it is possible he had the House of Commons in mind. Deano Roberts, the senior director of workplace and real estate for the tech giant Slack, recently mused what Churchill might have meant and how it was represented when the former Prime Minister rebuilt the chamber after 1941 bombings. On the original chamber, Roberts noted “Everything about that space is built to encourage adversarial debate and discourse,” with the two side leaning into one another, looking down on and against the opposition. But when Churchill was given an opportunity to rebuild, he did not select a more contemporary design or one that fostered collaboration and communion. He knew, according to Roberts, that in order to be a parliamentary democracy, the space must be built for that purpose: to encourage debate, discourse, and adversarial relationships in order to build a better country.
We can learn a lot from Churchill’s consideration of a space’s influence over our culture and personality. At present, we do the opposite. We tend to allow trends, pop culture, and luscious spreads in design magazines to influence what the spaces we inhabit look like before considering what we need, beyond aesthetics, from that space. For instance, from the 1940s through the early 2000s, we saw that office spaces required cubicles, a small kitchen, enclosed offices lining the perimeters for managers and c-suite executives. We designed our offices this way because it was what the photos told us to do.
This all changed when Google, Facebook, and Apple began showing off their elaborate office spaces. There were pods for napping, bins of legos and crayons, long communal tables where cubicles would normally go, and chairs replaced with large exercise balls. These offices resembled the fun managers wanted to encourage within the office, a playfulness they read would inspire creativity in their most blocked employees. For these industries, a wide-open, circus-like office worked. It made sense because the people working there were innovators, building tools that would help the rest of us communicate and learn and manage our own businesses and lives.
Unfortunately, many other businesses fell in line with this design methodology without consideration for whether it worked for their own needs and goals. What we learned from Churchill and later from Roberts is that we need to build spaces that foster the values we hold dear and create opportunities for the work we want achieved. Roberts used the example of the United State Military Academy in West Point, NY. The building is imposing and when Roberts first arrived as a new cadet, he was intimidated. Later, he felt encouraged by the building, and finally, it reminded him of the values and ideals he was taught there. It was, and still is, a building that stood for something.
The design of and flow through the space was not entirely logical. At mealtime 4,000 cadets gathered around small tables to eat family-style in 25 minutes. There were other—better—ways to design the cafeteria and execute each meal that would have been faster and simpler, but they chose this layout to foster camaraderie and discourse between under and upperclassmen. Roberts went on to discuss his brief stint at the Pentagon, where no exercise balls or scooters could be found. He said, “The space that I was in felt like a place where you do serious military work. Even though the experience of the space probably wasn’t desirable, it was imperative to the tools and the culture which ultimately made it a very meaningful workspace for me.”
The design of a place and the furniture and decor selected matter as much as the location, as well. A tech startup wouldn’t choose Bangor, Maine for their headquarters while a financial firm wouldn’t replace desks with communal tables and couches. The spaces we inhabit, whether for work or personal use, need to suit the goals we wish to achieve and the other tools we are using to get there. Tools (such as workplace management software), culture, and space might have the right intention on their own, but when we create office spaces, those elements need to align so that there’s an organizational momentum pushing us across the finish line.