Architecture critic: Redesign work, not just work spaces

There’s plenty wrong with the traditional office full of cubes. Terrible lighting, collaboration-killing isolation, an abundance of soul-crushing beige, all of these features can rightly be faulted when discussing the failures of our work spaces. But is the solution to slap some paint on the walls, cart in a couple of plants and reconfigure layouts to be more social?

In a highly thought-provoking plea to rethink (again) our approach to design at work, New York Times architecture and design writer Allison Arieff uses that newspaper’s Opinionator blog as a forum to dig deeply into exactly how we should be re-conceptualizing work spaces. In her post, Arieff draws a parallel between those who suggest cosmetic solutions to environmental problems and those whose approach to redesigning our offices only goes skin deep:

In the same way that bamboo floors, hybrid SUVs and eco-couture haven’t done much to curb carbon emissions, designing (and buying) more stuff for offices, no matter how sleek or sustainable it is, likely won’t help reset the culture of work.

Rather than add oriental rugs and comfier chairs to our offices, Arieff suggests we consider redesigning not just the spaces where we work but the whole concept of work itself. There are more fundamental problems to solve than the aesthetic, she contends:

I’m willing to bet that almost any office worker would happily swap Webcam lighting that won’t make you look, when you’re on Skype (s msft), like you’ve “been out partying all night” (as Steelcase’s head of design explained in Fast Company), for solutions to more pressing work issues like, I don’t know, burnout or fear of losing health coverage.

So what sort of wholesale redesign of our fundamental conceptions of work does she have in mind? Arieff runs through a slew of design professionals who are wrestling with this knotty problem and coming up with everything from “a co-op babysitting arrangement among working parents in the respective workplace to cover for one another throughout the day” to community-building events at co-working spaces.

The post is lengthy, full of questions guaranteed to get you thinking (Examples: What careers are viable and how should we train people for them? Might companies and their employees be able to re-envision what loyalty looks like in an era where the average time spent in a job is hovering in the range of one to four years?) and is well worth a read in full.

Is redesigning our office spaces just moving around deck chairs on the Titanic?

Image courtesy of Flickr use Ste3ve