One of the things I am secretly fascinated by is workplace design in our modern knowledge work economy. I’m not so interested in where the copy room is located, how the office kitchen is built out, or what furniture/decorations are around, but the big high level design question: where will our employees sit to do their work? (or stand sometimes if your company is cool like that)
A lot of companies today are trying to get away from standard cubicle models for offices. The traditional work-space where senior team members have their own office while junior members are in cramped cubicles feels anachronistic, especially for modern tech companies. The alternative has been open office spaces, where dividers between employee workstations are minimized. Companies want to be innovative, to spur conversation between creative individuals, and they also want to create environments where employees would actually want to be, rather than soul sucking cubicle farms.
However, thinking and focusing in open work-spaces can be challenging. As Cal Newport writes in his book Deep Work, “Both intuition and a growing body of research underscore the reality that sharing a work-space with a large number of coworkers is incredibly distracting – creating an environment that thwarts attempts to think seriously.” When it comes time to buckle down and focus to get an important project done, an open work-space can become a major hurdle.
In his book, Newport encourages more of a hub and spoke style office. He doesn’t say if he thinks everyone should have their own office or be in a dreaded cubicle farm, but he thinks that people should be split by departments/teams into hubs where people can get a little more quite space to do deep work. He encourages developing open pathways to the bathroom, kitchen, or conference rooms that encourage serendipitous connections with others, to help spur some creative encounters that might otherwise not happen in individual offices. He doesn’t think we should all just be isolated away in our little hubs, but in a sweet spot where we have space to think as well as chances to interact and share different ideas and perspectives. “Isolation is not required for productive deep work. Indeed, their example [Bell Labs] indicates that for many types of work – especially when pursuing innovation – collaborative deep work can yield better results.”
I’m still not sure exactly what the perfect office space would be for different types of companies based on Newport’s thoughts. Should a CPA firm have a hub and spoke style office, or do they really need their own walled off offices? How exactly do you balance the need for focus spaces with the need to actually interact with other human beings, to prevent employees from going to work but never interacting with anyone? Space for deep work is important, but Newport also advocates for bumping into other creative people at reasonable intervals to foster creativity and heighten innovation and productivity. I’m not sure where exactly we will end up with workplace design, but I don’t think it will be in a space where everyone has their own office or a space where no one has an office.