The tongue-in-cheek title of this article is a reference to the tagline of the classic movie ‘Alien’. Apart from a couple of iconic horror-ish scenes, much of the drama of that movie is suspense – long periods of nothing with intermittent interactions with the unexpected. That sounds a lot like office workspaces – long periods of nothing then getting quite startled by the smell of whatever the last person cooked inside the microwave. And, in the dystopian future of the alien franchise and in most offices, everything is done for the benefit of the company.
We’re regaled in LinkedIn posts and magazine articles about the sexy workplaces, usually in Silicon Valley with mini-golf courses in corridors and fireman poles connecting meeting rooms to a bat-cave. Those kinds of googly environments do exist, and even exist in New Zealand. TradeMe have quite a centrepiece in their office of a five-storey slide. At the top is a sign very clearly indicating it is unacceptable to “drink and slide”. Also, there’s some wisdom about not carrying laptops at the same time.
Whether you think it nice or silly or engaging to have such trinkets and playthings, there are many other more affordable and overtly practical trends and developments in work space design. As long as they’re pragmatic and purposeful and not just change or funkiness for its own sake or that of the ego of a designer, I do not have a problem with them. Novelty by its very nature wears off, like welcomes.
One trend is hiding the wires. Those of us with home offices or who like to muck in and help shift ourselves at work know the excitement of the Russian Roulette of unplugging cables, shifting, then attempting to re-plug things in. With LANs, HDMIs, VGAs and RCAs, it’s hard to tell that I made up one of those previous terms. (One is a record label that signed at various times Duke Ellington, Kenny Rogers and Britney Spears). Complete wirelessness is not yet with us so I look forward to hidden compartments and doors, ala Hogwarts, to keep cables out of sight and out of mind. Until, of course one of them stops working and who knows which one that is or where it’s hidden in spaghetti limbo?
Bringing the outdoors inside is a thing. We’re way beyond potplants now. Some countries are making rooftop garden spaces and parks compulsory. Even Auckland has beehives set up in the CBD for all those folks with balcony yucca, cherry tomatoes and small grazing spaces for ponies that will fit in a handbag.
Multi-purpose spaces are becoming commonplace. From ‘non-assigned seating’ to casual breakout areas to standing meeting spaces, I’ve even seen ‘town squares’ and a caravan repurposed as a meeting room with its own coffee machine with more tech than Apollo 11 had, which admittedly wasn’t that much.
Given that mobile devices are, well, mobile, spaces that used to be for cubicles, pods, or customer desks are now general lounge areas that can be used for laptop work, meetings or general lounging.
Areas within areas can be designated and differentiated discretely or glaringly by colour. The ‘red zone’ is for boisterous play where creative juices can run riot and innovations generated. If you’re trying to meditate in the red zone, that’s a rookie play. Wise up and head for the chill blue space. Duh.
Community tables are happening. Some look like King Arthur is expecting his knights to arrive at any moment but the general idea is sharesies. If the table seats 12 and you’re having a chat for two, don’t be surprised or offended if another two or more people show up and encroach your space. Outside of offices, I’ve been to cafes with community tables and they’re popular and I hate them. The thing I don’t like about being a people-person in my own time is the people. But, apparently, in workplaces, they’re collegial and collaborative. In fairness though, it takes a village to raise a project.
I’m not saying ‘Get Him To The Greek’ is a good movie but there is an amusing drug-addled scene in which various characters interact with a furry wall. Office designers refer to this premis in their new designs as influencing wellness and productivity with a variable texture vocabulary. I am actually a fan of this and have years of bubblewrap popping experience to back myself up. Flat is out.
Permanent layouts are out and flexibility is in. So, it seems like office space is being treated much the same as office people.
If you’re worried everything is changing, fret not, there’ll still be timeless classics like flickering fluorescent tubes, partitions blocking natural light, and Barry from Accounts trying to sell you his daughter’s fundraising soap. Whatever happened to fundraising chocolate?!
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This article covers some workplaces that have gone for the fun and funky motif – perhaps some others have tried to, but in the superficial way where all the mini golf courses in corridors and Harry Potter secret doors and fireman poles cannot overcome the dull, uninspiring work infecting dulled, uninspired inhabitants.
Cosmetic efforts at dollying-up the physical environment or doing ‘David-Brent-From-The Office UK’ level of cringe-worthy activities is superficial, paternalistic and, at best, only effective in the short term.
“…one of the most important factors in engagement actually relates to internal employee happiness rather than external stimuli. This means, in the same way that buying children a lollipop will please them for a few minutes, ‘faux fun’ will have equally short-term benefits”.
A boss with a rubber chicken is probably embarrassing or at best diverting attention from problems that demand competent attention. Several real chickens would probably be more effective at boosting morale, although you’d rather have it be your turn to clean the microwave than clean up after Katy Pecky and Christina Eggalayer.
I MC’d a conference in Wellington a while ago. In the afternoon, we were taken on a waling tour of a couple of high-profile workplaces – TradeMe and Xero. Ostensibly, we were looking at the physical layout of the workplaces as they were famous / infamous for being Googly / Appley in their fun, modern, even futuristic designs. And, yes, on arrival it was very visibly overt and different. Walls lined with classic album covers, a five-story spiral slide in the centre of the building and even a choice of several boutique beers on tap in the staff canteen with sweeping harbour views for all.
But these places also walked the talk. It was not superficial; it was representative. One meeting room was a caravan parked in a large space. It was an old caravan fitted out with the mod cons of an office meeting room. But it was also one of the first items ever sold on their site. It meant something. It represented something. But it was also practical, flexible and had genuine functionality.
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More ideas at http://gettingbetterbuyin.com/
People are not mice wandering through mazes in search and cheese and getting rewards for pushing levers. Having said that, employers can greatly influence the performance of their people by the physical environment they create and provide, both positively and negatively, both intentionally and unintentionally.
Law Professor Cass Sunstein and economist Richard Thaler coined the term ‘Choice Architecture’ in their book ‘Nudge.’ It describes how decisions are influenced by how the choices are presented in order to influence the outcome. While they didn’t literally mean architecture in the sense of the plans for a building, sometimes the physical layout of a location can strongly influence the decisions that are made there. Look around your workplace. Check out the next store you walk past. There is no neutral architecture. Even doing nothing influences the behaviour of others.
Research conducted in some American school cafeterias has showed that the location of the food on offer can impact consumption by food type 25%. If those fatty snack foods aren’t right in our faces, we do tend to buy less of them. How’s your willpower when passing those end-of-aisle ‘specials’ display at your supermarket? (Never shop when you’re hungry!) Are there impossible-to-ignore distractions at work right in your face?
My favourite example of influencing behaviour through simple environmental design is Aad Kieboom’s urinal fly. Kieboom was an economist yet was put in charge in the 1990s of directing the building expansion at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. I’m sure they did a lot of other marvellous things during their renovations but what really got the internet buzzing was their urinal fly.
Without getting into too much graphic detail, men are grossly inaccurate in bathrooms and there are costs associated with that – cleaning is one and possibly psychological scarring is another. By simply embedding the image of a fly within the porcelain of the urinals, they reduced spillage by 80% (Please do not seek out the individual researchers who measured that. I think they’d rather move on.) Maybe it’s the novelty factor? Maybe it’s a damning indictment of the male psyche? (They tried a simple black dot instead of a fly. It didn’t work.)
They wanted a behaviour change. Asking nicely and appealing to sensibilities and reason had failed. A cheap and simple bit of choice architecture drove a major behaviour change. Neat.
And if you don’t think it’s neat, think again the next time you push a door that’s supposed to be pulled then look up to see a sign that says ‘PULL’ in bold impossible to miss print. There’s a classic Gary Larson ‘Farside’ cartoon where this occurs. Unmissable, next to the door is a sign that says, ‘Midvale School For The Gifted.’
Signs are a typical tickbox solution. Someone thinks to themselves that they need to communicate something. They put up a sign. They tick a box and feel that communication has occurred. Nope. I’m sure the airport toilet people, society in general and mums everywhere communicated strongly that men shouldn’t urinate on the floor. Design achieved true communication. Message meaning received, understood and acted upon! How difficult is it to anticipate the door push / pull embarrassment occurring and to design a door that looks intuitively that it needs to be pushed or pulled? Put a sign up as well if it makes you feel better.
People often drove off from petrol stations without their car’s petrol cap. People walk away from ATMs without their card. These are called ‘Post-Completion Errors’, are entirely predictable and can be prevented or mitigated through physical design and choice architecture. What such errors happen in your workplace and how might a minor tweak to the physical environment positively affect behaviour?
We’ve covered individual behaviour being impacted by changes to the physical environment. What about group behaviour? Specifically, what about group interaction? You know how positive comment ratios, social interaction and frequent feedback stimulate internal motivation and productive group dynamics. Studies show that the number one factor in influencing those who collaborate effectively at work is physical proximity. This might be the single most obvious finding ever. We tend to work with, and hang with, those who are already around us. Frequent exposure to these people at our desk, over coffee or in the hallway over time generates ‘propinquity’ – an attraction born of familiarity. How does the physical set-up of your work encourage those that need to collaborate to do so?
I’ve visited workplaces with mini-golf courses in the corridors, little lounge areas in amongst the cubicles and scooters by the doorways to get about. Some have swiss balls for sitting on in meetings (possibly cos it makes meetings shorter?) Please write to my editor in support of my pitch to television networks for my reality TV show idea ‘Pimp My Office.’