Illustration by Jordan Awan

Work Culture

What is the office actually for?

By

Published on August 27, 2019

Illustration by Jordan Awan

In 1997, Steve Jobs began designing a new office campus for Pixar Animation Studios just outside of Los Angeles. He initially planned the 20-acre complex to be a scattering of individual buildings, each housing a separate team working on a single film. Such a layout would give each crew their own space, isolate them from distractions, and help them concentrate — or so Jobs believed. But Ed Catmull, Pixar’s then-president, knew Jobs was wrong. And to convince him of his mistake, Catmull invited Jobs on an architectural road trip, one that would eventually help Jobs design one of the most influential headquarters in the world.

Catmull and Jobs left Emeryville, where Pixar’s new campus was planned, cruising south along the coast towards Burbank, a northern suburb of Los Angeles. On the road, they discussed the benefits of collaboration. “Steve was a big believer in the power of accidental mingling; he knew that creativity was not a solitary endeavor,” Catmull wrote in his book Creativity Inc. After 400 miles, Catmull stopped his car outside a four-story glass-and-steel building on Thornton Avenue. Disney Animation had just moved in and Catmull wanted to show Jobs what was going on inside.

The pair wandered through Disney’s new office, a sprawling office with lots of shared spaces. They watched as Disney employees bumped into each other in communal areas, held impromptu meetings, and ran ad hoc brainstorming sessions. They watched as people experienced the accidental mingling Jobs coveted so much. “After an hour or so wandering around the place, I could tell he was getting the message,” Catmull wrote. “Creating separate buildings for each film would be isolating.”

After the trip, Jobs ripped up his original plans and went back to his architects. He now wanted one building — a massive two-story structure — built around a sweeping central atrium. Into the atrium, Jobs added a reception, employee mailboxes, meeting rooms, a theatre, anything he could think of to draw people out of their individual workspaces and into the big atrium. Originally, Jobs even insisted that they build just one set of restrooms and placed them in the atrium. He would force his employees to talk to each other — even if it was between neighboring cubicles.

Pixar’s new campus opened in 2000 and the result was fantastic. The atrium successfully drew people together, creating a vibrant melting pot of different people from different disciplines. According to senior company executives, the new campus drove fantastic levels of collaboration and creativity — better than they had ever seen before.

While Pixar’s open-plan office has been an inspiration for many other offices in Silicon Valley, not all of these open principles have stood the test of time. With technology and working styles changing every year, Jobs’ vision for Pixar’s HQ design deserves a second look. So just as Jobs did in 1997, experts are asking whether our current offices are actually relevant for the modern workforce.

What is an office?

If we want to understand the role of the contemporary office, we need to understand where it comes from. And for that, we need to go back to the dawn of writing. For as long as humans have had written language, we have designated quiet areas to work in. Thousands of years ago, monks curtained off parts of their monastery to duplicate religious works and Romans cordoned off spaces to conduct official work. But the first purpose-built office arrived significantly later.

In the 1600s, under immense administrative burdens, the British government constructed huge and elaborate buildings, from which to run their enormous trading companies. As the rest of the world industrialized and economies concentrated into urban environments, other dedicated offices began popping up all across the world. But they didn’t stay the sole preserve of the rich and powerful for long.

Taylorism

As the industrial revolution kicked into gear, more and more people found themselves working in offices. In the early-1900s, mechanical engineer, Frank Taylor, resolved to maximize the office’s industrial efficiency, treating it as yet another machine to optimize.

Taylor laid out tables in long regimented lines, placing employees shoulder to shoulder with little personal space. Managers watched their employees from a separate windowed office, keeping a close eye on production.

It was a systematic and dictatorial style of office design that ignored human needs and tended to produce dehumanizing and depressing workspaces. For any non-mechanical work, Taylor’s offices failed spectacularly.

Bürolandschaft

In 1958, two brothers, Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle, founded a workspace consultancy called Quickborner. The Schnelle brothers actively rejected the scientific management theories that had driven previous design ideologies like Taylorism. Instead, they decided to build offices that supported people as individuals.

Bürolandschaft means office landscape and it used organic forms to create something more humane. Instead of rigid corridors and precisely aligned desks, Bürolandschaft offices flowed and clustered more naturally. They created natural ebbs and flows in the office, allowing employees to find a place that suited them. Teams were clustered together and separated from the wider office by plants and gently curving screens. Managers were expected to sit amongst their employees. Bürolandschaft offices were sprawling, organic, and charmingly random layouts — and that may have been its undoing.

Action Offices

The organic layouts of Bürolandschaft didn’t suit every business, especially because it required a lot of space. Some organizations needed privacy, others needed more compact office designs, and a few simply didn’t buy into the egalitarian ethos. So, in the 1960s, iconic furniture design company Herman Miller unveiled a completely new office design system called the Action Office.

Action Offices were modular and customizable. Employers could take the basic building blocks and design a range of different work settings around a workspace. Instead of staying at one designated workspace, employees were encouraged to get up and move about between free areas.

The critical response was great. “Seeing these designs,” wrote one journalist in Industrial Design, “one wonders why office workers have put up with their incompatible, unproductive, uncomfortable environment for so long.” But sales were slow. Office managers complained the required furniture was too expensive and too high quality. 

In response, Herman Miller released a second iteration of the Action Office. The new version created one workstation for each employee. It had a few different customizable workspaces bound by three head height walls, creating a small, private cubicle. Office managers loved the cheaper alternative and sales skyrocketed. However, Action Office knockoffs flooded the market. The knockoffs shrunk the size of the cubicle to the bare minimum and ripped out the customizable workspaces. They were cheap grey boxes with standardized layouts that eventually led to the dreaded cube farm. In an interview with the New York Times, Robert Propst, inventor of the Action Office at Herman Miller, lamented: “The cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity.”

Casual Office

Huge technological advances in the 1990s and 2000s led to significantly different working behaviors. Laptops, smartphones, and mobile internet unshackled people from their desks. And cloud technology made their work accessible even outside the office.

Businesses, particularly in tech, reacted quickly, creating big, open-plan offices with lots of shared space. Egalitarian layouts, popularized by Silicon Valley startups, became more and more popular. For example, when Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s new office in 2012, he claimed it would be the largest open-plan workspace in the world, clocking in at 10 acres of unbroken space. Now that it’s open, Facebook’s new office is a sprawling assemblage of tables with managers, interns, and engineers all sitting side by side at identical tables.

But increasingly, people are working outside the office as well. Indeed, Jennifer Brook, staff researcher at Dropbox, recently discovered that many people preferred spending half their time working at home and half in the office. As flexible and remote working grows in popularity, more businesses are experimenting with virtual-office solutions and coworking spaces.

How do we work?

Office design is always one step behind our working habits. The way we work changes and then five years later our offices react. And that’s important when you consider quite how different our working lives are now than they were five years ago.

For example, as communication technology improved, we have untethered ourselves from our desks. In just 10 years, remote working programs have increased by 159% — and that trend looks set to continue. With employers more willing to grant their employees choice over their working conditions, the Work Foundation predicts that over 70% of the workforce will either partially or wholly operate without an office by 2020.

But it’s not just where we work that’s changed. The actual work we do has become more collaborative and less focused on our individual production. According to research from Harvard Business Review, the time managers and employees spend on collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% over the past 20 years.

And our offices simply haven’t kept up with these changes. Open-plan casual offices, which remain the dominant office design, actually stymie communication and collaboration. Research suggests that when organizations switch to open-plan offices, employees spend 74% less time in face-to-face meetings. "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," read the report.

And that is not the only drawback to open-plan offices. Employees regularly criticize open workspaces for the abundance of noise and distractions, and a complete dearth of privacy.

What will the office look like in 20 years?

Most people agree that our offices need to change — but few can agree on how. Should we bring back flexible partitions from Action Offices? Could we lean into the organic shapes of Bürolandschaft? Can we retrofit our current open-plan workspaces with private spaces? Or perhaps we need more significant change?

To learn what the office of the future might look like, we spoke to three architectural leaders to find out.

Homes will become better offices and offices will become better homes

On June 7, 2011, Steve Jobs appeared in front of Cupertino City Council to pitch officials on his new plan: Apple’s new office campus. His plan was ambitious: a giant 2.8 million square foot building constructed as a perfect circle. It was Jobs’ second great architectural project and it made his first — Pixar’s Emeryville campus — look like a warm-up. The Cupertino public officials agreed to Jobs’ ambitious plans and construction began in November 2013. Four years later, Apple’s first staff moved into the new building.

Apple Park isn’t like a normal office. Instead, it feels more like a small village or town. There’s a large garden planted with trees imported from the Mojave desert; Jobs wanted it to feel like a national park. Inside the building itself, there’s a 100,000 square foot fitness center, a 4,000-seat cafe, and theater named after Steve Jobs. It provides Apple employees opportunities for leisure, fitness, and social activities—all without ever leaving the office. And this, according to Brad Pease, vice president of technical services at Paladino and Company, is a trend we’re likely to develop in the future.

“First the trend started with hospitality-style workplace amenities,” says Brad Pease, vice president of technical services at Paladino and Company, in an interview with Dropbox. “WeWork led the charge with concierge-style property management, central lobbies with fun events, onsite gyms, and other features meant to make the office feel like a place for fun. And now we are even seeing a twist where entrepreneurs live together either in a purchased home or dorm-style incubators.” 

Pease explains that the next step is an even greater blending of home and workspaces. Our homes will become better offices and our offices will become better homes. “The entire purpose of office space is changing,” explains Pease. “Increasingly, the reason that people go to the office is to collaborate. If they need to have heads-down focus time, they stay home.” Pease predicts a marked decline in office spaces specifically designed for private work. And the areas once dedicated to private work will morph into shared collaboration and experimental spaces work.

As the office shifts away from solitary work, Pease believes we’ll see more home comforts work their way in. “You’ll see more fully functioning kitchens, pets and kids at work, and day-to-day homestyle amenities,” Pease says. “The workplace must draw people to it because it is no longer required to be at work to do the work.” 

Our offices will get emptier and emptier

In the 1980s, Shanghai was home to nearly 6 million people. It was a little bit bigger than Los Angeles and a little smaller than New York. But as China industrialized during the 1980s and 1990s, its population boomed as millions of people flocked from the countryside to the burgeoning city. By the year 2000, its population had more than doubled to 14 million. By 2019, it had nearly doubled again to 26 million.

It’s a similar story all around the world. People are moving from rural towns and villages to ever-growing cities. According to the World Health Organization, the global urban population is set to continue growing until at least 2030 — and that is putting immense strain on the people who live in those cities. “The stress on infrastructure will mean commutes will become even more unbearable,” says Monica Parker, founder of HATCH Analytics. “For example, in London, despite huge investments in new train lines, commute times won’t improve until 2030,” Parker explains that these pressures will force businesses to allow their employees fully flexible working. 

As employees start working where they like and when they like, the dedicated office becomes less important. “As the purpose of the offices shifts, and usage drops, large estates will become impractical,” Parker says. “Space-as-a-service will no longer be seen as the outlier for startups and the use of flexi-offices as part of their property portfolio mix will be commonplace,” Parker explains this may drive hub and spoke business models, where organizations retain one large global headquarter hub and augment it with small, locally connected spokes.

Virtual environments will blend with physical workspaces

In 1974, an episode of Star Trek titled The Practical Joker aired on television. During the episode, the characters enter something called the Holodeck, a virtual reality room capable of creating any environment the cast could imagine. One moment they’re in a New Orleans jazz nightclub and the next an alien planet. At the time, it felt like pure science fiction — but it’s closer than you might think.

In the past five years, virtual reality technology has improved immeasurably. And while it’s still largely confined to recreational gaming uses, some experts believe we are about to see virtual reality roll out into our regular working lives. “We are racing to a future where we will create mirrors of our physical environments to join with teammates, consultants, and customers in a gaming-based workplace,” explains Brady Mick, director of strategic design at SHP, in an interview with Dropbox. “The future workplace will be as much virtual as physical.”

Mick explains that our virtual workspaces will start by resembling our current physical offices — they’ll have tables, chairs, and whiteboards. But once people are comfortable with the experience, we’ll start to experiment and push the possibilities. “These virtual rooms will begin to break open and enter diverse and creatively engaging settings for work,” Mick says. “Say, for example, that you want to organize a thinking session with your teammates so you invite them to the top floor of the Burj Khalifa. The sensory experience promotes advanced thinking among the group to solve gross business problems in innovative ways.”

Building better workspaces

Despite owning the controlling share of Pixar, Steve Jobs was never involved in the actual production of its movies. Instead, he focused on creating the best working environment for his employees. And we can learn a lot from Jobs’ approach to design and architecture.

He knew the office was much more than just a place of work. He knew the office affected both how his employees felt and how they performed. So he identified the behaviors that were important to his staff and created a workspace that naturally nurtured them. Regardless of where the office goes in the future, we should approach its design with the same care and attention as Jobs did. Because when we create great workspaces, we will produce great work.