Office Layouts and Maximizing Soul

Sometime last year, I published an essay I called Maximizing Soul. I hope you read it in its entirety, but here’s a point from that essay that will be useful for us today:

And optimization necessarily implies maximizing something, or minimizing something. Getting the most out of life can be thought of in two ways. It could mean living life to the fullest (however you might define this for your own sake). It could also mean getting the most out of life by minimizing time, effort and cost spent on any activity.

In the 1960s, the designer Robert Propst worked with the Herman Miller company to produce “The Action Office”, a stylish system of open-plan office furniture that allowed workers to sit, stand, move around and configure the space as they wished.
Propst then watched in horror as his ideas were corrupted into cheap modular dividers, and then to cubicle farms or, as Propst described them, “barren, rathole places”. Managers had squeezed the style and the space out of the action office, but above all they had squeezed the ability of workers to make choices about the place where they spent much of their waking lives.

As always, please read the whole thing, since it is about much more than just office cubicles, but that was the part that stood out for me. Maybe because I have spent some years in these cubicles, and trust me, “squeezed the style and the space out of the action office” is exactly right.

“What are you optimizing for?” is an underrated question, and we don’t ask this question of ourselves and others often enough. In the context of workplace design (and many other things, in my opinion), if your answer is that you’re optimizing for efficiency and cost, proceed very carefully. You might end up doing your job far too well, and with entirely unexpected results.

Another thing that stood out for me in that column by Tim Harford:

In 2010, the psychologists Alex Haslam and Craig Knight set up an experiment in which participants were asked to perform simple administrative tasks in a variety of office spaces. They tested four different office layouts. One was stripped down: bare desk, swivel chair, pencil, paper, nothing else. The second layout was softened with pot plants and almost abstract floral images. Workers enjoyed this layout more than the minimalist one and got more and better work done there.
The third and fourth layouts were superficially similar, yet produced dramatically different outcomes. In each, workers were invited to use the same plants and pictures to decorate the space before they started work, if they wished. But in one of them, the experimenter came in after the subject had finished decorating, and then rearranged it all. The physical difference was trivial, but the impact on productivity and job satisfaction was dramatic. When workers were empowered to shape their own space, they did more and better work and felt far more content. When workers were deliberately disempowered, their work suffered and, of course, they hated it. “I wanted to hit you,” one participant later admitted.
It wasn’t the environment itself that was stressful or distracting — it was the lack of control.

Agency matters. If you’re working with people, trust them enough to give them agency. Sure, they’ll stumble every now and then. But when working with a team, give them leeway, and let them run with their part of the project, and that in almost all regards. It works wonders!

But won’t there be problems, I hear you ask. Well sure, but the question to ask is this: which error would you rather avoid? The error of stymieing work by putting place too many processes, or the error of mistakes being made out of sheer enthusiasm? Statistics matters!

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