Libby Sander

There was a brilliant quote up on the screen when workplace expert Libby Sander took the lectern at the Total Facilities Live breakfast session on Thursday morning in Sydney.

It was from the master himself, Oscar Wilde – “Everything popular is wrong.”

This resonates quite a lot with outfits such as The Fifth Estate that hanker after alternative points of view.

Of course, Wilde was speaking before iPhones, off-grid solar and a few other popular items we think might have caused him to revise his epithet.

Sadly for the designers of modern office space, though, popular is definitely not working. Especially by way of the open plan and hot desk craze.

According to the message we took away from Sander’s highly engaging presentation, people don’t want to be treated as battery hens nor widgets in some mad experiment from Taylorism that’s survived way past its use-by date. They want to be treated as, well, people, says Sander, who is founder and director of the Future Work project.

This open plan idea, we gathered, and worse its evil twin hot-desking – which have both swept the modern world and pretty much most corporate leadership/sheep in front of it – well, haven’t worked.

People want choice, they want creativity and they want to nest. They don’t want to be told they can’t bring their favourite gnome to work and have it sitting on their desk, if they so choose. And no, they don’t want to lock it up at night in a “personal locker” to be positioned next morning goodness knows where, even next to the CEO, heaven forbid.

The Fifth Estate has noticed some companies have felt compelled to engage in almost extreme psychological tools to wedge their resisting staff into the new office modules, with support teams, pep talks and, in some cases, one-on-one support.

Sander says that when Yahoo, eBay and IBM mandated that staff absolutely must work in the office at all times, many of the most talented staff left the companies.

It seems creative people want quiet workspaces at least some of the time. And always working in open plan offices creates excess cortisol, which is related to heart diseases and other health issues.

Even journalists in open plan areas have recorded strongly elevated levels of cortisol, and they’re the ones that are supposed to be able to work in a war zone and file while a bomb is going off in the background, Sander says.

Bosses are uncomprehending. They see staff working happily in noisy cafes, so why can’t they work in the same way in open plan offices?

Well, in a café, the worker feels comfortable to securely screen out the noise and concentrate, but in the office there is always a third eye and ear watching and listening in case some of the conversation needs to be paid attention to.

(Which is actually interesting as I am sitting in a café right now writing this up before going back to the office because I know that in the office I will be distracted and this story won’t get done till next week or the week after. Thank you Libby, you just made me understand this is not “escaping” the office; it’s a productive space that helps me focus.)

Sander says not getting that time to escape in private or near private can lead to bad moods and poor outcomes.

“Knowledge workers need concentrated work so forcing them to collaborate all the time doesn’t work.

“When workers can’t focus and concentrate they collaborate less; they become more hostile. If you’re tired and burnt out you’re more affected by noise of course.

“This idea of sticking people together to make them more collaborative and innovative: actually the opposite is true.”

So what works best?

Sander says stress levels double in an open plan environment. But not only that, creativity doubles in quiet private spaces.

“The right environment that includes private spaces and a beautiful environment enhances the ability to focus and concentrate,” she says.

The thinking now is away from same-same, whether in retail or offices.

“There is a big backlash against the big box where the experience in every city and every workplace is the same,” Sander says.

Instead of “bring your own device” people are now encouraged to “bring their own furniture”.

What works better than big box sameness are rustic, edgy interiors, perhaps in original older buildings said to be in hot demand by young technology creative (a member of the audience later mentioned how Sydney’s tendency to knock down older buildings might therefore be counter productive).

Sander says indoor gardens and natural materials also work well for their biophilic properties – that is they are good for our bodies and our brains.

For the same reason, there is a new word doing the rounds of “offices of the future” – it’s “beauty”.

Sanders argues beauty can be a powerful contributor to creative output for knowledge workers, but not many people yet understand its potential impact.

“Architects don’t think about that; they say the client is not interested,” Sander says.

(The Living Building Challenge has beauty as one of its “petals” that needs to be accounted for as part of a project. But how they measure it is qualitative and by consensus.)

“Physical space acts as a cognitive scaffold.”

To create a new community, Sander says, you can get excellent results by inviting the community to help deliver the results. Trust them, she says.

Houses designed by › Alejandro Aravena

She points to Alejandro Aravena who won the 2016 Pritzker Prize, and was allocated $10,000 to build houses for slum dwellers. Most people said it was impossible to build a house for $10,000.

Aravena was not concerned.

“He said, ‘Let’s build just the most expensive part of the house, the kitchen and the bathroom, and then let the residents finish the house themselves, which is what they do anyway.’”

Some clever hotels are now opening their foyers to co-workers who work there free of charge, she says. What better way to foster that brushing up against the unexpected, foreign cultures, ways of thinking and new ideas that is core to creative output?

Google in London does the same. It’s not just good for the diversity impact but it’s also not a bad recruitment tactic.

“After three weeks of working next to someone you get a pretty good idea of what their skills and capabilities are.”

And in the US the latest go-to place for CEOs is the Burning Man creative arts festival in the Nevada desert, where a city for 70,000 people appears then disappears at the end, leaving no trace behind.

This is where preconceptions and silo thinking gets shattered – a collision with the arts, in the nicest possible sense.

And all extremely good food for thought.

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  1. These fluorescent lights are burning my eyes out. The screen is destroying my long or short sightedness.
    This chair is degrading my spine.
    My legs are not allowed to be revealed (perhaps I should wear an equal-opportunity skirt?)
    My neck is restricted with this tie (from 1920 fashion week).
    The lack of natural light is making me depressed.
    I must be seen to be at my desk from 8 to 5, how could I possibly be allowed to work remotely? Surely that’s not productive.
    If my work colleague asks one more time “Mmm that smells nice what do you have for lunch” I think I might just strangle him with his tie (also from 1920 fashion week)
    Die, office, die

  2. Hilarious isn’t it how architects and interior designers can do schools and kindergartens with beauty, quiet spaces and a sense of joy but when it comes to the corporate environment it’s all grown up, power projection and conformism.
    Perhaps though it’s the brief and the brief is generated more from the boardroom rather than from the users, where office space rent per m2 is the underlying generator.
    Diversity?? Still stuck in a ‘special needs’ philosophy of disability the aural, sensory and lighting overload impacting on the office worker is just so not understood by the office ‘planner’ and rarely the boardroom.
    (Just reading about the effects open plan offices have on cortisol made me stressed! So true. The office can be a war zone
    Didn’t Oscar Wilde on his death bed, resenting the wall paper’s hideousness, say one of us has got to go! Looks like some have taken his advice.