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How new office design ideas stop being radical and cross over to the mainstream

Posted on November 2, 2016 by Paul Goodchild

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In his famous book Blink, the author Malcolm Gladwell explores how we have a tendency to make instant judgements on things but that the basis upon which we make those judgements changes over time depending on what we see and experience. This is the process by which radical and innovative thinking can become mainstream very quickly. One of the interesting things about the way Gladwell explores this idea is that he uses an example from the world of office design to make the point. He cites the example of an object that was once viewed with suspicion or dismay and has gone on to become a familiar feature of the working environment.

Herman Miller has recently relaunched the Aeron chair, by some distance the best selling office chair in history and now both a familiar and iconic exemplar of ergonomic seating design. So much so in fact that it is now on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Yet at the time it was launched more than twenty years ago, it was so challenging to contemporary ideas about what office seating should look like and do that it was met with near consternation.

People thought that office chairs should be padded for one thing. And, because they were challenged by the visual aspect of the design, they were unable to make proper judgements about its function. We now see the chair as one of the most comfortable ever designed for office workers and even at the time, designers knew it set a new standard in ergonomics but people in the chair’s focus groups claimed it was uncomfortable. That was, until they spent some time with it and learned to understand and appreciate it.

We are experiencing something similar right now in the wider aspects of office design. For example, while some of the world’s most progressive office designs are being brought to life in the new generation of tech palaces for firms like Google, Facebook and Apple both in their Silicon Valley heartland and in regional offices around the world, the ideas that underpin them are going mainstream in other sectors.

Stories about the offices of large tech firms tend to focus on the quirky design features such as slides to get people between floors, meeting rooms in the form of treehouses, pool tables and basketball courts, but there are sound business reasons for the inclusion of such features that can be applied in other ways in other sectors. The main reason for having such spaces as part of an office design is to make the workplace attractive for employees and bring people together, the two most important objectives for any office. Slides and treehouses may not be appropriate in other circumstances, but the idea that the working environment should attract people then allow them to work together and form strong working relationships is universal. A good office design should always aim to achieve this but the addition of more progressive design features such as cafes, unconventional meeting spaces and imagery can all help to lift a space and the spirits of the people who work in it.

Similarly, tech palaces tend to mimic the dynamics of a city or campus in the way people move around to be in the right places and with the right people for whatever it is they are doing at a particular time. They have scale on their side when doing this, but the same thinking is achievable in any size of office. Where once office design was largely concerned with the provision of personal workstations, the office is becoming more of a space for people to move around in depending on what it is they are doing and who they are working with or meeting.

While this is a radical idea in some respects, the fact is that we have been doing it for centuries in our schools, universities and cities. From the perspective of workplace design, it may seem a radical idea in some respects but only because it challenges our preconceptions and norms. As we saw with the examples cited by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, those change over time and with them the way we get things done.