Bad offices

One of my pet peeves is badly designed, uncomfortable office environments. Creating an office environment that’s built for its users – pleasant to be in, comfortable, efficient, attractive – seems like such a no-brainer. I just don’t get why every office has to be white or beige, why office chairs and computer set-ups are so darned uncomfortable, and why only some people get to have windows and views and others are crammed into artificially lit interior spaces. Here are basic needs: some degree of privacy, opportunities for both quiet and collaborative work, enough space to efficiently do the job, good lighting and temperature, furniture that doesn’t send you to the chiropractor, a glimpse now and then to the outside, and some modicum of individual control over the environment.

So why is this so difficult? Paint, carpet, and upholstery with a little color have got to be the same or nearly the same price as beige paint, carpet, and upholstery. Workers freed from furniture-induced neck cramps and given a view of nature, will, without question, be more productive. What I am itching to have is the freedom to design decent office environments and really workable workstations instead of punching out cookie cutter traditional spaces.

This outburst is triggered in part by the fact that my office is moving us from cubicle pods of four or five people (which are actually pretty nice, dispite Dilbert) to rows of workbenches all lined up in one big white room. About a third of the people have moved into the new space and the rest of us will move as soon as the retrofit is accomplished. I’ve been watching and listening and, so far, I haven’t heard anyone say they like the new arrangement. Some are diplomatic, saying “we’ll get used to it” or “that’s just the way it’s going to be”, but others are more frank, noting that the space is too bright, too noisy, and too public. I’ve heard complaints about lack of storage space, wobbly worktops, too-high desktops, distractions, and layout inefficiencies.

Although this space was designed before I started working at the firm, my impression is that the new arrangements were instituted mostly to fit more people into the real estate. Perhaps real estate is so expensive in DC that crowding is an economic necessity, but I really think there might have been some other way to achieve the same end. It’s possible that the new space is also meant to foster collaboration and innovation, but I haven’t heard anyone even mention these words.

I’m trying to reserve judgment until I have a chance to try the space out myself, but frankly I’m a little shocked. I know change isn’t easy and it’s possible that people are reacting more to the change than to the actualities of the new space, but from the sound of it (and the look of it), this new arrangement is not working.

I hate to admit it of my new profession, but sometimes practicality seems to take last place in the race to design something trendy. In this case it appears that the committee that designed this new workspace forgot to consider how architects and designers actually work and forgot everything they knew about privacy, distraction, and lighting. Chalk it up to a learning experience.

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