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Workplace or playground?
by Thomas Wagner | 10/14/2014
At Google the work culture is colorful fun – and as long as profits are maximized, the work climate is upbeat. Photo © Peter Wurmli

The vision

Mr. 0 or Mrs. 1 of the Digishona or Chipachi tribe have long since known how it works. If one believes their happy messages then they’re already working in the future. And it looks like this: First you lie in a bathtub full of foam cubes, then you take the slide to the cafeteria, chill out in the playroom playing tabletop football, Ping-Pong or billiards, bringing your mind and body back into duly pleasant balance, and let your ideas germinate. Then the fully satisfied staffer can look and see if there’s a free beanbag, and if not, lounge resplendently on one of the opulent sofas, or withdraw to one of the plush alcoves or perhaps one of the nostalgic-touch full-frills armchairs, and wait for the sources of creativity to start bubbling again. And of course you have your laptop or tablet PC with you, after all, here Watzlawick’s first axiom applies, namely – you need not not communicate. And equally: Work can be fun, simply has to be fun. And the more infantile the pursuit of happiness in the lounges and cells, the niches and sofas is, the more people simply give themselves over to the vagaries of creative brains, the more successful the company.

Free and easy = creative?

The description may seem unfair. But there are any number of signs that indicate that 21st-century work culture is moving in the direction of colorful fun. The motto of recent years has definitely been less Sparta, more Sybaris. At Cologne’s Orgatec, which will open its doors in the coming week, we will no doubt be able once again to admire the trend toward digitally-driven and well-networked workstations in any number of different variants. Google, one of our Big Brothers, has after all blazed the trail. This is what an office should look like today. It’s a clear message: Only if you work as freely and easily, as creatively, will you be successful. Only where work does not taste like work do global players arise. That Google’s London HQ actually boasts an old ejector seat sits easily with the ironic distance with which the digital Bohemians are busy telling the rest of the work world that their lifestyle bears copying. And all of this applies, even if few say it openly, only to the saturated comfort zones of a completely networked knowledge society, of course. Elsewhere there’s no fun as the office equivalent of the Stone Age largely prevails. Sometimes, the gloss of optimal fun-office worlds obscures a view of what has been sidelined by the in-crowd.

At Google the work culture is colorful fun – and as long as profits are maximized, the work climate is upbeat. Photo © Peter Wurmli

Much is different, but not exactly better

An office is a place defined by cooperation and organization. Now this might be misunderstood to mean an office is an office is an office. But that certainly isn’t the case. Since the successful digitalization of all areas of life and the relapse into an oral culture, nothing relating to working in offices and their interiors seems a matter of course any longer. In recent years, much has changed, but not necessarily for the better. The constant call for more efficiency did its bit to up the pressure to change.

Work like at Google?

In the long run, are we all willing or indeed having to mutate into digital Bohemians given the flux in which even tried-and-tested working structures find themselves? Have we perhaps succumbed to the nerds and their habits and with them to the promise of a more humane world of work thanks to ever more ingenious technical gimmicks? Have designers and manufacturers, have we all, simply be hoodwinked by Google and other market leaders in Silicon Valley? Not only as regards the blessings of electronic systems, networks, devices, and apps that ostensibly make life that much easier. But also with a view to how we outfit our offices and organize our work? Not just since the debates on Big Data, NSA, Amazon and Google, much would indicate that we are constantly involved when our wishes are colonized and our needs go down the colon. Glitz and glam on the one hand, harsh capitalist reality on the other. As long as profits are maximized, the work climate is upbeat – emission-free, democratic, focused on fun.

Work is staged

Companies and designers who plan and furnish offices stage work in a double sense: First, there’s the actual design of a functional work space that vividly supports the client’s respective “corporate culture”. Secondly, there’s the creation of role models that respond to the client’s requirements, but go a big step further. While offices were once strictly organized in line with workflow, the image has now changed and many narrative and symbolic properties are also involved.

Symbolic rather than real facilitation

Much of what is being developed and sold by way of innovative office concepts thus proves in the final instance to be mere symbolism. Not that the one or other product line praised for its novelty does not try and rectify errors caused by its predecessors. The result: a vacillation that some people outfitting an office either do not want to be part of or do so only reluctantly. The roots of some of the industry’s manifest lack of orientation are to be found here.

Whether you are hiding in an igloo or you rock your creativity in a gondola - the work must be staged in the brave new world of work. Photo © Peter Wurmli

Performance counts more than output

Added to which, simply correctly fulfilling your duties in the office evidently no longer suffices. It is not enough to do what has to be done; it has to be performed on the office stage. Meaning that work becomes increasingly theatrical. On the one hand, each member of the administrative staff, however clearly defined their tasks, is called on to praise himself and his work. On the other, their output is constantly monitored and evaluated by clicks, time sheets and Excel spreadsheets, to enable further optimization. Here creativity is expected and in return surveillance has to be endured. Among other things, this spells performance being confused with output, efficiency with efficacy, and a good working climate with colorful lounge areas. Where ossified structures are to be chiseled open, hierarchies and forms of organization fundamentally changed, the devil is, as so often, in the details. I still remember full well how in the 1990s the head of a major newspaper editorial desk parried the thrust of the first round of cuts by saying editorial departments were as well organized as they could be, and that this left little scope for change. Essentially it is much more promising to strike a good balance with the employer’s legitimate expectations (and those of the office planners and outfitters), instead of imposing an abstract new order on an existing organization and condemning everyone to take part in the fun-and-feel-good program. It is common sense that if something is not lived, but merely acted out, it will not endure.

Too much window dressing?

Needless to say, it’s by no means all bad that offices are becoming brighter, happier, more ergonomic, work becoming less noisy, light less dazzling and more energy-efficient, the ambient climate nicer, and video conferencing easier. But the question that bears asking is whether designers and office furniture makers have in recent years and in good faith possibly focused too strongly on a sweet and colorful façade that promises success and have secretly copied the ideology underpinning this all? Was a workstation often also outfitted with a neoliberal ideology, dressed up in optimistic green, and given an anarcho-alternative spin for good measure?

It is time we realized that a workstation can rarely be a fun factory or playground – and only for the currently successful fields of the so-called creative industry, at that. All of us (and I mean politicians, trade unionists, employers, designers, artists, the whole gamut) need to debate what work today means and how it can be given a human shape. In fact, architects, interior designers, designers and office furniture makers should embark on a general rethink on whether it was right to take their cue from ad agencies, literary and other creative smithies, dot.coms and start-ups as the model and measure of “work” per se. Individualized solutions tailored to the existing spaces, the existing activities, and the needs of the staff included as stakeholders in the planning must take the place of both, of the off-the-shelves and the glamorous experiments. Couldn’t it be that many offices don’t ever function as a mixture of machine and feel-good zone, that not every staff member constantly has to prove their creativity, and is perhaps reluctant to worship the new, purportedly alternative conformism?

Whether you are hiding in an igloo or you rock your creativity in a gondola - the work must be staged in the brave new world of work. Photo © Peter Wurmli

Work where you want!

“Work where you want” promised an Apple ad campaign back in the 1980s. And yes, we’ve loved the liberties that networks and new machines have offered us – at the cost of our own, self-determined work rhythm and a clear division of work and play. Should we really reject calling work by its name, claiming this is conservative, backward? Do we really all want to go on indulging ourselves in the illusion that work is the better life – if possible, everywhere, and 24/7? And does it really help to act as if the talk of a work-life balance is all very good, but work is essentially nothing other than play for grown-up kids, the only ones to possess the resource that drives the brave new digital feel-good world of the knowledge society, namely creativity? Who is “creative”, when, where and under what conditions is a moot point anyway. Of course, it’s great if staff are motivated as they can move or relax between two meetings. But much of what is designed for the benefit of the employees actually serves to boost efficiency and simply leads to more overtime and self-exploitation. A first step toward reconciling work and non-work would be to emphasize the differences again – to call work by its name and construe it as such.

Customized solutions instead of glossy images

Much of what counts as office interiors today arose in response to problems, be it the metaphorical retooling of a “workbench”, communicative networking and a joint retreat into a “net ’n’ nest”, as if the office were a rock ’n ’roll stage with the sound turned off, with quiet zones required in the midst of compulsive/hysterical perm-comms in order to enable a modicum of concentration. And those problems were originally caused by the technological/media upheaval and the associated misunderstandings. The debate on the meaning of home-office work that is flaring up again goes to show (and it doesn’t matter what side you take) that we are still at the experimental stage as regards reorganizing work in the office.

We the users, the office workers, have let ourselves be fobbed off with pretty standard ideas draped in colorful textiles instead of articulating our real needs and insisting on specific solutions. Sure, no one asked us, which is part of the problem. But the designers likewise have too rarely and too half-heartedly thought about users, real needs, requirements and desires when devising yet another new “system”.

Fair balance of interests

One possible insight from all this might be to conclude that the future which promises us the brave new office world is already in the past. The pendulum swings back and it’s time to set a different emphasis. Which is not to say that offices should become a sad gray again, and staff locked away in tiny, dismal cells. But only focusing on the thirst of a few for fun will definitely not suffice to develop reasonable solutions for the changed conditions of a digital working world that thrives on communication. At the end of the day, different interests need to be balanced fairly – and that means design which really is focused on users and seeks to help strike a rational balance between work and life.

Between carpet tiles and suspended ceiling penguins watch over the performance of the employees. Photo © Peter Wurmli
Between carpet tiles and suspended ceiling penguins watch over the performance of the employees. Photo © Peter Wurmli
In the offices of the past was space for architecture. Leeft: The "Johnson Wax" office building by Frank Lloyd Wright built in 1939. Right: Working in rank and file in the office of the pharmaceutical company Boehringer Mannheim built in 1960. Photo © Wikipedia left, Photo right © Quickborner Team