Back to the Future

Three things are true:

  1. Some things are more obvious than others.
  2. Some things are more obvious to some people than they are to others.
  3. The cyclical nature of everything doesn’t care what’s obvious or to whom.

Case in point: We’ve written about open office spaces before. Their drawbacks were obvious, at least to us. But as is unfailingly true of everything in every cycle, open office spaces had their inevitable turn on the Big Wheel. But if there’s anything more inexorable than the constant revolutions of the Big Wheel, it’s human nature. So, here we are: “The Best Spot in the Office Is a Phone Booth—If You Can Get Into One“:

The sleek enclosures … are popping up in workplaces with open-floor plans. To workers flanked by the constant banter of their colleagues’ business dealings and personal dramas, the booths represent their best hope for any semblance of privacy.

Proper Psychology

Whenever someone refers to the proverbial Three Ps (not counting the two Ps in the subhead above), they’re typically referring to the prevailing wisdom about the prioritized way in which businesses should value their assets. In that context, they’re referring to:

  1. People
  2. Process
  3. Product.

We think those priorities are perfectly appropriate for businesses in industries that make things. But in our industry, in which we create comfortable, functional environments, we only agree with #1. So, our Three Ps are:

  1. People. Since people occupy the environments we create, this one was easy.
  2. Preferences. The environments in which we live and work should be flexibly accommodating enough to afford people the things they prefer, including privacy.
  3. Prerogative. You might have expected us to have made this one privacy. We could have. But we think privacy should be people’s prerogative, based on their preferences.

“You can’t crank out something with good grammar when the person behind you is slurping their soup.”

Don’t Jump

According to the old saying, what goes around comes around. Since that’s true, maybe we can make each turn of the Big Wheel a little smoother and a little less jarring (to say nothing of expensive) if we temper the jerking of the collective knee with a little forethought, a little moderation, and a little patience. The only way to distinguish what seems to be a good idea from what turns out to be a bad one is to take the time to tell the difference.

Open office spaces seemed like a good idea at one turning of the Big Wheel. They saved companies money by accommodating more people in less space and by reducing the expenses of walls and doors. But they kept the people who worked in them from fulfilling their human need for privacy. And what now feels like grinding dissonance (“Hey, wait! We thought …!”) is another creaking turn of the Big Wheel in response to reality, human nature, and the time we could have taken before jumping at the idea.

Let’s slow down. Sometimes the best way to get ahead is to go back to the future.

Is This Seat Taken?

The other day, a request came in from the Tall Order Department: “We need the perfect office chair.” At first, I didn’t know whether to quote Quick Draw McGraw or Tonto. Then I thought it might be worth taking a crack at trying to find the perfect chair. After all, the customer is alway right, right? Maybe not.

My first attempt constituted a Google search on the phrase comfortable chairs. (I thought searching for perfect out of the gate might be shooting a little high.) That search returned 694,000,000 results. Okay. Next, I tried ergonomic chairs, which narrowed the field to just 65,300,000 results. And when I teed up lumbar support, I got a mere 7,700,000 hits. This turned out to be a tougher nut than I’d bargained for.

And it turned out I wasn’t the only one to try to crack it — not by a long shot. In fact, for all of his studies on evolution, Charles Darwin likely had no idea of the evolutionary line he became part of when he cobbled his own office chair in the 1840s.

Different Strokes

From this undertaking, I learned a number of lessons, each of them equally valuable, all of them equally predictable:

  1. Every body is different. I don’t mean everyone. I mean every body. The chair that suits mine may not suit yours. And so it goes.
  2. It’s out there. Based on the hundreds of millions of hits I found during my Google searches, I’m sure of this: If you want it, you can find it.
  3. There’s no accounting for taste. Grandpa O’Brien loved to say that. He also loved to celebrate the differences between us by saying, “That’s what makes horse racing.”

To summarize: There’s no right. There’s no wrong. There are only preferences. And every preference can be satisfied.

Try, Try Again

There are some things you can know: You prefer a certain style. You prefer a certain color. You prefer a certain fabric. You prefer a certain type of cushioning — or none. You prefer arms to armless. You know the environment in which the chair will be used and the purpose it will serve. But there are other things you can’t know until you have a seat.


That’s right. Find some chairs that appeal to you. Sit in them. No. I mean sit in them for a while. How do they feel? Is the seat comfortable? Is the back comfortable? Are the legs the right height? Do you feel any pressure points? Is the circulation in your arms or your legs affected? Are you sure? How many hours a day will you have to sit in that chair?


Choose Patiently

The popular admonition, of course, is choose wisely. In this case, patience equates to wisdom because if you’re not patient enough to determine how a chair really suits you, you’ll wish you’d been wise enough to spend more time in it. So, don’t rush. Given the amount of time you’re likely to spend working in any given chair, the time you spend being sure you’ve chosen the right one will pale in comparison.

Remember: There is no perfect chair. But if you try enough of them, you’ll find the perfect chair for you.

All photos compliments of Rouillard.

For What It’s Worth

Let’s face it, business is business. And we’re all looking to get our fair share. But when it comes to real estate, we may not be getting it. I’m not sure if this is due to people’s lack of imagination or if it’s because some people just aren’t visual thinkers. But it seems pretty common that if a space isn’t perfect as is, it gets a thumbs down.

Whether it’s commercial or residential, I love architecture. And I love to see people enjoy what the architecture in their properties can give to them. But even if I put my architectural euphoria aside and focus on the business aspect of real estate, rather than its aesthetics, the as-is-is-no-good mentality still puzzles me.

Follow the Money

I recently tracked three condos that were on the market in the same complex. One listed for $349,900 and attracted an offer in less than a week. A second one listed for $339,000, hung around for a couple of weeks, and sold for $337,000.

The third one is still on the market. After starting at $337,000, it recently took another price reduction. It’s now down to $314,000 and is still sitting. All three units had relatively the same square footage. And the one that’s still sitting even has a finished basement.

Why is the third one still sitting? Presentation (or the lack thereof).

Foresight, not Hindsight

This first condo was clean. Detailed in every way, it left little to the imagination. Boom! Sold. The second one had been empty. It took a little time and sold for $2,000 below the asking price. The third one … well … it wasn’t staged. It wasn’t clean. Little thought or effort was put into its presentation. So, the seller will take a loss, and the realtor will earn less commission. Call me biased. Call me self-serving. But that makes no (dollars and) sense.

Instead of spending $500 to $2,000 on styling advice and staging costs, someone will take a bath to the tune of $23,000 and counting. That never has to happen.

Real estate is an investment. A properly staged piece of real estate is an asset. Both can be maximized with a little time, a little care, a few dollars (you’ll more than get back on the sale), and a little style.

Happy seller. Happy realtor. Happy buyer. That’s the ideal trifecta.

What Cost Do-Overs?

There are many ways to calculate cost. But if you want to have some fun with the monetary costs alone of demolishing buildings — residential, commercial or industrial — play with this calculator for a while. If nothing else, it’ll help you understand the tens of thousands of dollars or more required to be spent before the architectural, cultural, and community costs even start to be estimated.

That’s why I was so grateful when I came across this article in the British publication, Workplace Insight: “Refurbished industrial buildings provide perfect modern workplaces”. It turns out there are reasons aside from simple sentimentality or tendencies toward indiscriminate conservation to re-use some of our spaces. And some of those reasons equate to discernible value:

Refurbished industrial sheds provide the perfect space for the creation of modern workplaces … The key characteristics of these buildings can be summarised by the “Three Vs”: Volume, Versatility and Value … [these refurbished sheds] all have a much higher ratio of volume to floor area than typical purpose-built offices.

Are You Listening?

One day, I was in an older industrial building with a colleague. The first floor had been refurbished and devoted to retail for years. We were scouting the second floor, which had been been converted to office space, for a client. As I was taking stock of the place, I heard my colleague say, “The architecture was talking to them. And they didn’t listen.”

He wasn’t talking to me. He was looking up at a spot in which a metal door frame had been placed in a beautiful brick arch, the spaces around the frame sheetrocked into common sterility. I was struck by a mix of emotions: At first, I felt sadness for the lack of vision and imagination the space manifested in its present incarnation. Then I felt a rush of excitement at the prospect of restoring the space to its original character and charm.

Calculate Carefully

Some spaces are so decrepit they have to be destroyed. I get that. But so many more spaces are waiting to tell their stories, to have you create new chapters for them. Before you undertake your do-over, assess all the costs. If one of them is distinctive, differentiating integrity, don’t pay it.

Some costs can never be recovered.

Same Apples, Same Cheese

If you can’t imagine that perspectives, tastes, and styles can make significant differences in staging a space — in evoking a particular mood, in reflecting a personality, in conveying a vision or a perspective — I conducted a visual experiment to share with you: I took the same four apples and the same two pieces of cheese and arranged them in different ways with different elements. Here’s what happened.

Setting One

In this version, I staged the apples and cheese as part of a simple coffee service. The setting is relatively informal. One coffee pot. One plant. Two cups. Some autumn leaves. The image suggests seasonal comfort, cordiality, and collegial warmth. It implies the desire of the space to create a setting of ease, openness, and sharing. And it manifests the intention to be inviting and hospitable.

Setting Two

In contrast to Setting One, this setting evokes a slightly higher degree of formality. The wine bottle and the accompanying glasses hint at friendliness, perhaps even romance. The cutting board, which replaces the plate from Setting One, connotes hospitality and the serving of a guest. The reflections in the mirrored surface complement the bottle and the wine glasses while adding the dimension of depth.

Setting Three

This setting creates an air of Asian rusticity. The unfinished wood, the copper accents on the board in front, and the ceramic pot with the copper-wire accent combine to suggest a kind of Eastern mystique. The overall effect is one of inviting intrigue, a hint of uncommon ornamentalism, and subtle touches of engagingly unorthodox, unpretentious flair.

It’s All in the Presentation

Same apples. Same cheese. Different results. Regardless of what your elements are, new or adaptably re-used, their presentation is the key to creating the environment you desire.

Before you decide to do, design, or discard anything, talk to us. The conversation won’t cost you anything. The results may save you more than you imagined they could.

The Art of Ergonomic Science

If you’re not absolutely certain that outfitting space requires at least as much art as science, consider this: A recent research paper, published by Emerald Insight — Stand Up to Work: assessing the health impact of adjustable workstations” — studied employees randomly selected from three floors in an office building. People on one floor got adjustable workstations (AWS). People on the other two floors got traditional desks (TD). Here’s a summary of the findings:

47 percent of participants with AWS reported decline in upper back, shoulder, and neck discomfort … 65 percent [of AWS participants] reported increased productivity … Individuals with normal or underweight body mass index (BMI) reported a significantly greater decline in percent of time sitting compared to participants with overweight or obese BMI.

So, there you have it. The ergonomics of standing are healthier, more comfortable, and more conducive to productivity, particularly for people who didn’t tend to be overweight. Case closed, right?

Not so fast.

On Further Review …

In another recent research project, the results of which were published by NeuroRegulation — Do better in math: How your body posture may change stereotype threat response” — studied 125 students, mean age 23.5 years, to determine the influence of posture on academic performance. The students, half of them sitting erect, half of them slouching, were asked to subtract 7 serially from 964 for 30 seconds. Reversing position, they were asked to repeat the subtraction beginning at 834 and rated the difficulty on a scale from 0 (none) to 10 (extreme). Here’s a summary of those findings

The math test was rated significantly more difficult while sitting slouched … than while sitting erect … Participants with the highest test anxiety, math difficulty, and blanking out scores rated the math task significantly more difficult in the slouched position … as compared to the erect position … clinicians who work with students who have learning difficulty may improve outcome if they include posture changes.

Beautiful. Another instance of settled ergonomic science … unless you read the Emerald Insight paper. If you read the results of both studies, you won’t be sure if you should sit or stand, straighten up or slouch, laugh, cry, or flip a coin.

Enter Common Sense

Since, like outfitting space, common sense is an art, the application of both is a prerequisite to designing the right space for the people who’ll use it. We have to allow for the fact that, for some people, the traditional desk is going away. They’d rather work at an adjustable workstation, in an easy chair, or on a sofa. Other people prefer a more traditional arrangement — a desk and a chair, both of which are strictly intended to be used for work. Neither is wrong. Both are right for the people who want them.

As long as we create spaces that are comfortable for the people who use them and, so, conducive to satisfaction and productivity, we’ll be fine.

In do doing, art and common sense are the perfect combination.

Perspective is Everything

There’s no such thing as bad information. I try to take in as much as I can. I try to consider all I take in. I don’t agree with all I take in. And I try to be accepting of and informed by all I take in. But I do have lines, and sometimes I have to draw them. Case in point: this essay on CityLab: “The Case for Rooms: It’s time to end the tyranny of open-concept interior design“.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I fully respect the author’s training and her right to her opinion. I fully appreciate the history of architectural trends she presents and the reasons for them, from socio-economic realities to the availability and popularity of materials and the evolution of delivery methods. And I grant the correctness of the heating and acoustical challenges she attributes to open-concept designs. But tyranny? Really? As a term used for the purpose of expressing an opinion of a design trend, that’s a little over the top — to say nothing of politically charged.

Red Flags

Perhaps because the author’s use of tyranny heightened my sensitivity to her having some kind of agenda or axe to grind, I became wary of the logic (or lack thereof) of her ostensible argument. As a result, when she described the rising popularity of the bungalow and the Foursquare between 1900 and 1910s, this jumped out at me:

Working-class homes now had three to five rooms; middle-class homes, six to eight.

That’s a very peculiar piece of reasoning right there. Without any reference to the respective square footages of working-class or middle-class homes, that reasoning (or lack thereof) is the rough equivalent of the old joke about the call to the pizza joint:

Caller: I’d like to order a pizza to go.
Pizza Joint: Would you like that cut in six slices or eight?
Caller: You’d better cut it in six. I don’t think I can eat eight.

We can only imagine the author’s disdain had any of those working-class or middle-class homeowners opted to have fewer rooms in exchange for open-concept designs.

The Lost Art

The would-be design experts are entitled to their opinions. But so are the people for whom they design. If people felt tyrannized by open-concept designs, would they still be popular? No. Will open-concept designs ultimately go the way of the dodo bird, harvest gold appliances, and popcorn ceilings? Who knows? That’s precisely the point.

We have no more business telling the people for whom we practice our art that open-concept designs are tyrannical than we do telling them they’re no longer allowed to have tufted headboards, lace doilies, or fake fruit. That’s why, as I suggested in an earlier post, our work can’t be driven by trends espoused on social media or promoted on the Internet.

Rather, we need to reclaim the lost art of perspective. A little common sense, a little open-mindedness, a little acceptance will go a long way toward helping us keep our perspectives — and helping our customers keep their satisfaction.

Let’s step away from the agendas. We can be better than that.

All the World’s a Stage

A friend sent me a post from a rather esoteric website for horoscopes and such. The post was a little out there. But it contained a statement that was powerful and compelling in its truth and simplicity. Here it is:

[Act] as if your own choices serve to make the world a better place specifically by preserving its delicate, intricate threads of relationship, kindness, healthy dependency, and mutual sharing.

The gist of the post was that we’re losing touch with ourselves and each other due to what the post referred to as the digital problem. More specifically, it said:

“Society as dominated by the internet” … [creates] a polarized environment … [as] opposed to the gentle process of exploring boundaries, feelings, emotional connections, your senses … [so, we’re] being conditioned to behave like [a] robot … We don’t have to worry about “artificial intelligence” taking over … We really have to worry about artificial stupidity, which means insensitivity and mechanical thinking.

I’m certainly aware of the extent to which we’re polarized as never before, especially in politics and ideology. And I’ve certainly considered that polarization to be an effect of electronic communication and its ubiquity, its immediacy, and its ceaselessness. But before being prompted by that post, I’d never thought so directly about our choices, about our potential to be agents of positive change, of connecting and uniting with each other, rather retreating mechanically to the monitor-and-keyboard world of the digital problem. And I’d never thought of the transformative power of my own work so clearly.

First Things First

It occurred to me that the art of fitting a space begins with connecting with the people who own, lease, and/or inhabit the space. To understand them and their needs, I develop relationships with them. I elicit their creativity and contribute my own. I don’t rely on trends espoused by social media or promoted on the Internet in service to agendas I may never know (even if I had the time or inclination to investigate them, which I don’t).

And I’m guided by the space. Each space has singular attributes and characteristics. Each space reveals the way it should be outfitted through the materials from which it’s constructed, through its lines and angles, through the work of those who built it and the dreams of those who will inhabit it. And every space is the stage on which its inhabitants will play. That’s how I serve to make the world a better place.

As William Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.

Photo of Katherine Hepburn in As You Like It, 1950, by Vandamm, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dawn of the Dead Design

We’ve already written about the fact that the open office concept is dead. This article from Inc. — “It’s Official: Open Plan Offices Are Now the Dumbest Management Fad of All Time” — is just another stake through its heart. But some things die harder than others. That’s why we have Dracula and zombies. It’s why Freddie Kruger, Jason Voorhees, and their respective movie franchises can never be put to rest. And it’s why we seem determined to perpetuate force-fed collaboration unto self-defeat.

Case in point: “You Could Be Too Much of a Team Player“, published in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), says this, in part:

The splintering of demands that marks a collaborative workplace … can also hurt your organization … Many white-collar employees who in the past would have worked side-by-side with a few colleagues now spend 85% of their time collaborating with multiple teams of co-workers … The volume and diversity of collaborative demands on employees have risen 50% in the past decade.

As the WSJ article makes clear, the open office design isn’t the only culprit when it comes to defeating teams and teamwork and to depriving people of privacy and the ability to concentrate. And while setting personal boundaries when it comes to things like meetings, conference calls, email traffic, instant messaging, and other impromptu interruptions is essential, design can be the key to restoring comfort, productivity, and sanity to the workplace.

Purposeful Control

Some aspects of stress and distraction can’t be controlled. Some stresses and distractions come with particular kinds of jobs. Some of them are matters of individual temperament. But others can be managed by designing particular elements into the workspace. Those elements can include but will definitely not be limited to:

  • Inviting, comfortable meeting rooms.
  • Quiet, comfortable private offices.
  • Engaging, comfortable shared spaces for breaks, collaborative work, and other users.

It’s hard to imagine much could go wrong if we design workspaces for the people who have to spend a third of their lives  in them.

Practicality by Design

We’re not quite convinced it’s possible to be too much of a team player. But this excerpt from the book, Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp, suggests we might have been a bit too hasty in adopting open offices and a bit too forgetful in the bargain:

At Yale in 1958 individuals competed with brainstorming groups to solve the same problem. The individuals dominated. They generated more solutions, and their solutions were independently judged to be higher quality and more original … And yet … over a half century later, teams are still running group brainstorms.

Maybe the best thing we can do is to think of the people who work in the spaces we design as being more intelligent than zombies, more creative than interchangeable automatons. If we do, we’ll give them the space they need to work in teams and the privacy they need to work alone. And those people will likely be more satisfied and more productive.

At the very least, they won’t feel like they’re in a bad horror movie, even if it is a classic.

Art Influences Language

In an earlier post, we offered the notion that art can create opportunities for everyone in any given environment to perceive things differently (perhaps even creatively). We found a suggestion in a recent perusal of Bisnow that having some art around may yield more benefits than we might have imagined. A post called, “Why Companies Should Invest In Artwork In The Workplace“, put forth this premise:

Installing artwork at work creates much more than just an aesthetically pleasing environment. Several studies have found that it can help boost employee productivity, creativity and interaction … letting employees participate in the workplace design process gives them a sense of ownership.

Fascinating that — not just because it supports our earlier contention but because it suggests art can influence and precipitate creative interpretations of language, in this case the words, invest and ownership. Let’s examine them in reverse order.

What Do You Mean?

Ownership is one of those buzzwords, like empowerment, that has been used and abused into a state of near meaninglessness. Most people understand, when they’re told they’re being given ownership of something at work, they’re being given pandering and lip service. Worse, they’re likely being given responsibility and accountability without the authority they’d need to make the decisions required to fulfill that responsibility. But allowing people to participate in the design of their workspaces and to install artwork manifests evidence of the ownership they’re being given without having to say a word about it.

Invest is most often used in financial contexts. But in this one, companies that encourage their people to participate in the design of their workspaces and to install artwork are giving those people the opportunity to invest in their workplaces and their jobs emotionally and creatively. That’s the kind of investment that will pay big dividends in performance, productivity, morale, attendance, conscientiousness, and more. Enabling that kind of investment makes good sense. And it makes very good business sense.

A Word About Leadership

The best leaders have a vision, articulate it clearly, communicate it consistently, and get out of the way. They understand the right people in the right positions will own that vision and invest in it. They’ll bring it to actualization. And they’ll be recognized and rewarded for their contributions to fulfilling it. Is it any wonder the best leaders will also let their people participate in workplace design and install artwork?

That artwork, that aesthetic expression of people’s ownership and investment, thereby influences language, giving new interpretation to the word, vision.

As influences go, we’d call that one pretty positive.