This next post about workplace aesthetics is designed to blow your mind. The paper it references is very highbrow with lots of references to great minds like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. The title is “Aesthetics, morality and power: Design as espoused freedom and implicit control” (George Cairns, 2009). Most of the paper is too dense for light reading, but there’s a section about “Aesthetic as ugliness – beauty as unaesthetic” that is really fascinating. It starts on page 10 of the PDF linked above if you want to read the whole thing. Here’s the short version.
It’s Time to Tear Down the Walls…
The author of the paper was working as a facility design consultant. He was hired by a government agency to redesign a work environment that featured “regimented rows of administrative staff desks, with supervisors sitting at the heads of the rows – supervision by watching every move. Departmental boundaries delineated and defined by ‘Berlin walls’ of storage cabinets – almost as impenetrable and, in the event, more permanent.”
Top management signed off on the consultant’s new plan to switch the layout to a single open-plan office for 350 people. Workers were given more equal space, the filing cabinets were moved, and supervisors were integrated into teams. Plants were added to make the space more aesthetically pleasing as well. All these changes happened over one weekend with no warning to the staff. Workers showed up on Monday morning and were directed by guides to their new workspace—where all their personal effects had been relocated.
How Did the Staff React?
They hated the changes. Employees claimed the new layout was too hot/cold, open/claustrophobic, quiet/noisy, etc. The consultant was mystified. A few years later, he returned for another visit. In the interim, workers had been permitted to make their own changes to the layout (within reason) to better suit their needs. They didn’t return to the original, regimented structure. Instead, they changed the orientation of some desks and added some screens to break up the space (and presumably offer some privacy). One group in particular had made only very minor changes to the consultant’s original redesign.
However, when the author interviewed the group members, it was revealed that they felt they had greatly improved on the consultant’s design. “…the particular group saw themselves as designers of their own workspace, having had to overcome the ineffectual input of an irrelevant external party.” In other words, it wasn’t the layout or the appearance of the space that really mattered. It was their perception of involvement in the design process. That’s something to bear in mind if you plan to make sweeping changes to your office space. Encouraging staff input at the start is likely to greatly increase their satisfaction with the outcome!