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Blame Chiat/Day: Or, How Do We Solve The Agency Office Design Problem?

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Here’s a recipe for disaster:

1 part novelty

1 part hype

1 part economic efficiency

The result? The open office floorplan!

Yes, the once revolutionary solve-all for workplace collaboration, innovation and cultural reinvention has fallen on hard times.  FastCo.Labs recently ran an article under the title, Death to the Open Office Floor Plan! which does a pretty good job of outlining what many people already know – sitting in a giant room, within earshot (and virus shot) of 40 co-workers may not be best for, well, much of anything. Last month Fast Company ran a piece on the Top 10 things people hate about open office which, after reading it, will likely lead you to utter aloud, “no kidding.”  It all seems pretty obvious really. So how did we in the creative world get here? Blame Jay Chiat. Wired certainly did.

Ok, not really, but certainly his legendary office transformation in L.A. kickstarted the trend. Opened in 1994, every employee got a laptop and a cell phone and entered the workplace, left to fend for themselves. Only a couple of years later, this concept was abandoned “to combat employees’ overwhelmingly negative response.” But Chiat was finished yet, the move ushered in a new era of creative workplace design. Chiat/Day moved to [...] a vast warehouse designed for 500 employees by Clive Wilkinson Architects, are a microcosmic ”Chiat town” of private and group work spaces and public ”streets” and meeting places that provide for every kind of company activity. Staff members enjoy kaffeeklatsches in a ”Central Park,” mingle on a ”main street” and have a work space they can call home in surrounding ”neighborhoods.”

That 1998 New York Times piece was followed two years later by an essay in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell. Now this is pre-Tipping Point Gladwell, but it’s got all the elements of a great Gladwell piece. He brings in some arcane reference points, niche experts and weaves an fascinating story on workplace design, referencing the Chiat/Day office evolutions. Gladwell, as Gladwell does so well, writes convincingly about group dynamics, psychology and human behaviors, all the while lacing it with expert testimony from people like an M.I.T. researcher who found that if colleagues were stationed too far apart, they rarely interacted, and in fact were more likely to engage with someone outside their office (and this was before email and the Internet!) than a co-worker on the other side of the building. And so Chiat’s Office Reinvention 2.0, an urban city concept seems an intriguing one. How we got from there to people staring at screens and wearing headphones is another story. [You can read the full Gladwell piece here].

In a more recent New Yorker piece, Maria Konnikova writes: In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. 

And so creative agencies in recent years have looked for other ways to promote creativity and innovation. Jorge Barba of the Game Changer blog recently wrote about office design and innovation, noting, “Up there with “innovation”, “lean startup”and “design thinking”, the latest word to make it to buzzword-bingo is “Lab”.

Writing for the Influx Insights blog in 2010, Ed Cotton notes that, “[h]aving a “lab” mentality is a must for agencies today.” He cites efforts by BBH and Ogilvy in this area, noting their different approaches to the idea. Creative Bloq takes an even deeper dive into agency labs in this piece, concluding, “If we can learn anything about labs from the agencies we spoke to, it’s that without them you can easily miss fantastic opportunities – not just to identify emerging technology and ideas, but to find brilliant people willing to push your agency to the next level.”

But ultimately it’s not the office layout that determines collaboration. Christening an area as your “Lab” doesn’t guarantee superior creativity. Those attributes are the result of culture and that’s determined by who you hire and the people in charge of leading the organization. Every agency is different – location and clients being just two factors – and who (and how) you hire is a far greater influence on culture that office design.  But even more important is the mindset and actions of the people at the top. They set the tone and if innovation and collaboration are not just what they talk about, but who they are, then the rest of the agency will take their lead.

Is that enough however, or is there another factor at play? More so than office design, is the size of the agency an inhibitor to great work? Maybe it’s not open floor plan per se that is the problem, but rather than agencies try to fit 50 or 60 people into that model. Does open floor plan work better with 10 people or less? Does collaboration in general have an equivalent to Dunbar’s Number? Perhaps, rather than putting the entire planning department together, or an entire agency, in one big room, the answer is to create a series of smaller open areas where teams can congregate is the right option. I’m sure this happens at many agencies, I’ve certainly been a part of ad hoc ‘war rooms’ for big pitches or other temporary projects, but maybe that should be instituted on a more formal, permanent basis.

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