From modular walls to open plans, where has office design been, and where is it going next?
In the 1960s Herman Miller designer Robert Propst sought to counter the many “environmental accidents” suffered in offices. At that time, many offices were divided into private rooms and seclusionary spaces. But Propst believed that the workplace could be “a mind-oriented living space.” To realize this vision he invented the Action Office product line, a series of freestanding furniture elements created along with George Nelson. Ads displayed motion-blurred workers scurrying about this new high-energy office. But business reality crashed into best intentions: The system was too expensive to catch on. In 1968 Herman Miller released the revamped Action Office II, a system of moveable panels along with modular surfaces, seating, and shelving that was intended to create flexibility and openness in workplaces. The project was a hit and today Herman Miller claims USD$5 billion worth of product installed. However, Propst’s 120º moveable walls became 90º blocks going nowhere, the cubicles lampooned in countless office commentaries. The solution to the inflexible cube? Drop the walls altogether. Many 1990s tech startups set about opening their offices, like Propst claiming the redesign was a research-driven method to maximize the potential for “human performers” via a modular, moveable system that diminished the power of single designers. Rhetoric was hopeful; words like “collaboration,” “teamwork,” “horizontality,” and, well, “openness” abounded. But can design change how we work? And, if so, is the now-ubiquitous open office the answer?
Are open office spaces the answer?
Recent anecdotal and empirical evidence doesn’t support such a utopian vision. In 2018, a study published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B observed that “rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM.” Another study in the Journal of Management and Organization used heart monitoring, skin conductivity, and facial recognition to demonstrate the deleterious impacts of noisy open offices. Thus, rather than promoting figurative openness, the open office puts workers on defense, encouraging them to close down in a place where most people don’t want to be to begin with. One solution to the open office quandary might be to provide private booths for employee reprieve. In fact, over the past few years office designers have leaned into this shift. “Open the door to deep focus,” reads the slogan of upstart pod firm ROOM, while furniture manufacturer Steelcase now offers Officebricks and Brody seating which “creates a shelter from visual distractions, provides privacy, and an enhanced sense of psychological security.” In reality, however, it’s just an armchair with a low translucent screen. WeWork (in)famously used the booths as one of its defining draws, though theirs leaked formaldehyde and failed to comply with U.S. disability regulations.
Covid-19 vs Offices
On top of this, the open office paradigm crashed headlong into reality in early 2020 when COVID-19 upturned conventional thinking about office infrastructure, with some going as far to contemplate whether we need offices at all. In Italian art magazine Kaleidoscope, architect Alessandro Bava theorizes that as digital collaboration does away with office’s “main raison d’être,” perhaps in the future IRL corporate space will be less about work and more about connection and company culture: “Future offices will be a hybrid between cultural institutions and social spaces like clubs, restaurants, and cafes.” As Bava notes, this would fundamentally alter not only offices, but the urban (and suburban) design around them.. While new utopian visions of the office percolate, for now we are left with “hybrid workplaces” as employers struggle to lure whitecollar employees back to in-person work or, conversely, have welcomed the cost savings and constant contact of remote employment. In Australia, a PwC survey reported that only 10% of respondents preferred to return to a traditional five-day-a-week office. At Twitter, the company has said their remote work option could save as much as USD$15,000 per person annually. Even office traditionalist Google has relented, asking office employees back only three days a week, though perhaps as just a trial run. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai states: “We are testing a hypothesis that a flexible work model will lead to greater productivity, collaboration, and well-being.” In fact, researchers argue that data have long supported that there are no productivity losses, and perhaps there are even gains, from remote work.
What does in-office productivity really look like?
Propst’s intentions for both Action Office projects were humanistic if not utopian. Instead of design that “saps vitality, blocks talent, and frustrates accomplishment,” design flexibility and openness would produce more humane workplace cultures, facilitating greater satisfaction and productivity. (Of the first, more colourful AO products one commentator quipped, “Office workers of America, beware! The Action Office is coming! We are in real danger of being enabled to work at 100 percent efficiency.”) Propst’s hopefulness—in no doubt facilitated by the relative free rein he was given in a “creative job”—led him to believe that, in the 1960s, “We find ourselves now with office forms created for a way of life substantially dead and gone.” Such hopeful claims have continually accompanied new workplace typologies, whether open offices or the office-less future. Belying that optimism remains the fact that the basic structures of work haven’t changed much over the past 60 years; business owners remain less swayed by idealistic designs than by bottom-lines. As Nikil Saval writes, analyzing the results of Action Office, “It turned out that companies had no interest in creating autonomous environments for their ‘human performers.’ Instead, they wanted to stuff as many people in as small a space for as cheaply as possible, as quickly as possible.” For most workplaces ‘productivity’ doesn’t mean encouraging a worker to rise to their fullest potential, but instead minimizing costs towards maximizing profit. To Propst’s continued chagrin, AO and its knockoffs became, according to Saval, rigidity “wrapped disingenuously in humanistic fabric.” As Propst himself noted, a lot of “crass people” bought Herman Miller’s systems.
Those “crass people” aren’t going anywhere. Whether we’re looking at today’s delocalized digital workspaces or the 1990s’ commuter cubicle mazes, office typologies both reveal and perpetuate specific employee-employer relations. Whereas at first glance, the remote or hybrid office life might seem to take away bosses’ panopticon stares, such surveillance culture has perhaps reached its apotheosis in the era of work from home. Bosses peer into workers’ apartments and work/life boundaries dissolve; software that tracks eye motions, expressions, and on-screen habits are deployed; constant contact becomes the norm. And as AI-powered buildings with smart biometric entrance and app-based services that minimize contact and use algorithms to maximize safer occupancy are proposed as methods to return to the office, tracking is baked into building design. Of course, none of this compares to the surveillance blue collar workers have long faced whether on the Taylorist factory floor, behind the fast food counter, or in the Amazon warehouse. Workplace design does not only influence how one feels and produces day-to-day. It demonstrates and produces labour’s layout both physically and metaphorically. As Bava puts it, “office planning and its history demonstrates how in different periods the emergence of new management cultures was rendered in space.” The hierarchy of the corner office; the open air of the cube; the flat plane of the open-plan; the flatter plane of the screen. Each reveals a trend to horizontalizing and opening up management and work styles. Or so the story goes. No matter your office layout, you probably still have a boss, unless that boss is you.
Drew Zeiba’s writing on art and architecture has appeared in magazines including Artforum, Frieze, New York, and PIN–UP, as well as the monograph Andy Warhol: Love, Sex & Desire (Taschen). He has exhibited solo and collaborative work internationally, most recently at Quito’s Centro Cultural Benjamín Carrión and in the 13th Shanghai Biennale. East Room is a shared workspace company providing design-forward office solutions, authentic programming and a diverse community to established companies and enterprising freelancers. We explore art, design, music, and entrepreneurship, visit our news & stories page to read more.