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

Verda Alexander questions the cushy, amenity-laden offices that her interior design firm helped pioneer. The way forward, she argues, is to introduce a little friction into the workplace.

I’ve been designing offices for decades. Here’s what I got wrong
Slack [Photo: Garrett Rowland/courtesy O+A]

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.”

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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.

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]

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]

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?

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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?

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Microsoft Building 4 [Photo: Jasper Sanidad/courtesy O+A]

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.

Microsoft Building 4 [Photo: Jasper Sanidad/courtesy O+A]

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.

In a study of mice from the early 1900s, as related in Nicholas Carr’s book The Glass Cage, scientist Robert Yerkes looked at what would motivate mice to learn or form a new habit or figure out a new passage. Mild stimulation didn’t do much. Extreme stimulation had negative effects. Forceful but not too intense stimulation seemed to do the trick. The Yerkes-Dodson Law was a result of these studies, and it shows that a seamless work environment can be dull and make workers less productive, while an overly challenging environment can lead to anxiety and burnout. But a work environment with the right amount of stimulation can promote fruitful, high-quality work.

I am proposing a workplace that is a little less comfortable and a little more challenging, a workplace that not only makes us work more deeply and in shorter bursts but also allows for stronger connections with our peers and the larger community around us.

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What would such a space look like? Well it might draw on the character of artists’ residencies and writers’ retreats. Even the most well-appointed retreats tend to be austere. You often share a kitchen and communal chores; you get no free meals, and you sleep on a cot in the same space as your basic work area. There is no TV, and often no cell connection. Stripped down is always a good beginning when designing for the creative temperament.

Pretend Store [Photo: Jasper Sanidad/courtesy O+A]

Positive friction might take some cues, as well, from quirky design experiments of the past: John Muir’s “alarm clock bed” that tilted him off his mattress every morning or Zaha Hadid’s Fire Station for the Vitra Campus in Switzerland that created a vortex of different vanishing points—presumably to help the firemen stay alert. It might ask its users to make their own space as was the case with The Pretend Store (pictured above), a storefront I designed in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2013. The idea was to give back to the creative community in Charleston by offering a space they could occupy for up to a week. The caveat was that anyone moving into the space would have to build his or her work environment from a minimal kit of parts I had provided—chiefly cardboard boxes. At the time, I thought it was an experiment in personalization of space, but now I see it was an exercise in friction.

Pretend Store [Photo: Jasper Sanidad/courtesy O+A]

Friction in workplace design falls into three categories—convolution, revolution, and evolution.

Convolution is something that requires us to focus because it’s complicated or unfamiliar. Maybe it’s a path or a route that we have to focus to follow. Putting a team room far away from where the members sit is an example. Convolution acts to bring awareness to what we are doing. It also slows us down.

Revolution is something in the physical environment that inspires us to be our best selves. Revolution is about jump-starting a culture out of its complacency. Unlike convolution, it speeds things up.

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Salone [Photo: Lorenza Mercuri/courtesy O+A]

Evolution is the next step of a familiar office feature. For Salone del Mobile in Milan in 2017, we created a workplace of the future called “The Water Cooler,” which imagined a work environment of scarce resources. Workstations, meeting rooms, and walls themselves had evolved into wearable prosthetics and virtual amenities, and the ubiquitous water cooler had evolved into a meditative pool in the center of the space (pictured above). We are creatures of routine, but the friction of disrupting expectations can help us stay ahead of the curve.

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Life is enriched by challenges. To face adversity, to labor is to be human. It’s how we find meaning in the world, how we learn and grow. Friction gives us the ability to slow down, to focus, and to steer our attention where we want it to go. It’s our best hope for making the 24/7 office a healthier 8/5.

Verda Alexander is cofounder of the San Francisco interior design firm Studio O+A, whose clients include Slack, McDonald’s, Microsoft, and Nike. 

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