The Disneyfication of Workplace Design - Eight Inc.

The Disneyfication of Workplace Design

By Markus Nonn Dec 10, 2014

For the past few years Google has been spearheading a seemingly new kind of workplace design: the office as playground. One of the first spaces to fully realize the concept was Google’s Zurich office designed back in 2008. Characteristic for this new breed of workplaces are highly themed environments often evoking cliché connotations of their specific locations. In Zurich this meant meeting pods in the shape of alpine cable cars, a break out space, which resembled an old-fashioned railway station or a meeting room themed as a continental European library (complete with bookshelf wallpaper and ‘historic’ fire place). Similarly wacky workplace designs followed in London, Dublin and Moscow to name just a few. Quickly the ‘funky’ Google offices had become synonymous with a new seemingly unconventional and innovative way of doing business, incredibly smart and incredibly fun at the same time. Not long and other companies – especially in the technology and digital economy – followed suit: AOL , Facebook, Skype, Mind Candy, You Tube, AirB&B, Ticketmaster, Innocent Smoothies  – the list is endless. We seem to be at a point now where a ‘cool’ office environment has become a pre-requisite if you want to run a successful business – no matter what you do, where or how big you are.

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What may at first seem like daringly refreshing alternatives to overcome and tired corporate office landscapes throws up a number of questions upon closer inspection. How innovative are these spaces really? Rather than re-thinking the orthodoxy of the ‘open plan + private office + meeting room’ model and pushing the development of new workplace typologies forward they merely seem to apply colorful veneers of easily decodable references to rather conventional tried and tested working models. Moreover, the cheerful nature of these premeditated environments seems to pre-empt an emotional and behavioral response from the user: Work must be fun! is the rallying cry and working credo of generation Y. Like Main Street Disneyland only a somewhat loosely defined emotional spectrum – ranging from fun and exciting to competitive and ambitious – seems to be allowed or desired here. Mundane, boring, repetitive, serious, difficult or even frightening aspects that come with any form of professional work are banned from the premises. The human experience of work seems to be limited to a set of desired emotional responses. Furthermore the spaces don’t seem to require any form of active involvement or adaptation on the part of the user: they are readily consumable, designed to ‘plug-and-play’. The question is: can an environment as emotionally prescriptive really foster creativity and open-minded collaboration?

It is interesting in this context to remember the genesis of the ‘disneyfied workplace ’ Where does the need for unconventional office spaces stem from? The rise of the creative industries in the nineties and naughties seems to be pivotal in understanding current trends in workplace design: creative and advertising agencies were arguably the first to break with the dogma of the ‘hyper-functional’ corporate open plan office of the seventies and eighties. Spaces originally not developed as offices became attractive for these new creative classes. One could argue that artists’ lofts and studios of New York’s Soho became the blueprint for a new and different definition of open plan working with domestic qualities returning to the office or studio.

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One successful example of this first generation of ‘funky offices’ is the studio of London advertising agency Mother designed in 2004. Main element of the scheme is a gigantic concrete table that occupies the majority of an open-plan warehouse floor. As extravagant as this may sound at first the table is there for a very good reason: part of Mother’s culture and ambition was (and is) to break down departmental boundaries between strategists, planners, account managers and creatives. Grouping everyone around one table and introducing a monthly rotation of the seating plan helps to foster communication and collaboration within the agency while simultaneously communicating this cultural shift to visitors and creating a talking point and wow factor for clients coming to the agency. The function here was therefore twofold: improving the way the office environment works internally and making intangible values and beliefs of the business a tangible reality in the space. The result is a truly genuine workplace, which reflects the culture of the agency and therefore represents a meaningful, spatial intervention.

A younger generation of office designs for technology giants and start-ups alike seems to follow into the footsteps of this first generation of creative agency fit-outs that dared to challenge traditional norms and conventions of what an office should look like.  However a lot of this new breed of ‘creative’ workplaces appear devoid of any actual meaning, mere exercises in ‘stylistic pastiche’ than genuine reflections of company culture, believes and values, which brings us back to the Google example. It is questionable whether gaudy, wacky, ironic and fun are key attributes one would associate with a brand, which is known for innovating how we process information, navigate our surroundings and organize our lives.

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It seems the question what a truly intelligent and sustainable workspace for the 21st century might look like has been buried under the wacky and wonderful but remains at heart largely unanswered. At 8 we believe a set of simple key principles can help in creating more meaningful and innovative environments that serve the businesses they are built for and the people who are using them alike:

1. Planned serendipity – the workplace as knowledge connector
Consumer technology has changed the way we communicate, navigate our environment and work. The real revolution is the decrease in size and increase in power and speed of both computers and data networks. Small and medium sized companies are witnessing the disappearance of both stationary computers and server rooms as data is increasingly saved in the cloud. Taking advantage of these developments can lead to a real change in work culture, making work more flexible and de-localized and less bound to a place. With everyone working everywhere the function of the office will be increasingly about connecting people and fostering communication. Successful workplaces are focal points of an organization which offer opportunities for collaboration among different disciplines and work against the creation of silos.

2. Enduring qualities – the workplace as sustainable asset
Sustainability of building materials and finishes is a pre-requisite of any new construction. But what about the design itself? An office space should feel attractive and usable after 5, 7 or 10 years time. Overly stylized spaces will hardly fulfill this promise. Companies grow, values and culture might change accordingly. Taking change and development into consideration will lead to a more flexible and adaptable environment. A stylistically less prescriptive and more open approach, which encourages interaction and participation on the users side, will allow people to feel a stronger sense of ownership and responsibility for the space.

3. Be genuine – the workplace as an expression of shared values
Workplaces should be most and foremost places where people come together to work towards a certain goal or objective. Workplaces are hence shared spaces. A shared idea, goal or company culture is the glue that binds people together. Good workplace design reflects that common denominator, is an expression of shared values and mutual culture. Just as a retailer conveys a certain vibe, an office can communicate in a clear and honest way the company’s brand values to employees and clients. Our workplace design for Donor’s Choose – a non for profit organization helping teachers to get funding for their projects –  is an example of adding character and relevance without becoming literal and un-imaginative. The project strives to create character appropriate to what Donor’s Choose do without literally becoming a classroom.

Head of Environments, London