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.

Connecting the Dots

I came across two posts while reading Contact Furnishings News that seemed to be connected; although, no parallels were drawn by the publication.

The first was called, “A New Breed of Project Manager Emerges“. Its premise was this:

Today’s workplace often contains five generations working together, including Baby Boomers, Millennials, and Gen Z—all of whom have different mindsets and skillsets. Baby Boomers and senior managers in particular often find it hard to adjust to new technology and environments that don’t cater to entitlement and privacy issues … This shift has caused project managers (PMs), facility managers, brokers, and architects to think differently about their roles.

The second was called, “For The Office Of 2050, Think Adaptation, Not Revolution“, the premise of which was this:

As tools like augmented reality, ultra-high-speed internet and video conferencing continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in office design, more office designers and leasing decision-makers have started to envision what the office of 2050 might look like.

If today’s workplace already contains five generations working together — and if tomorrow’s workplace (to say nothing of 2050’s) is likely to contain multiple generations, plus existing and yet-to-be-developed technological tools — we probably should have gotten busy a while ago. But it’s not too late.

The Future is Now

Since the pace of change seems always to be accelerating, the present seems less and less material (or maybe there’s just less time to dwell in it or on it). By the time we’ve thought about now, it’s already then. So, we might as well make thinking ahead our modus operandi. While we might not be able to predict the precise nature of change with any specificity, we can anticipate and embrace it. As it pertains to workplaces and office designs, that means we can and should connect dots, apply common sense, and design for flexibility.

Rather than going all in on open office spaces, we might leave room for privacy and concentration, should they be desired. Rather than attempting to accommodate the ostensible preferences of any particular generation, perhaps we could design for the consistent needs of human nature. And rather than having our attention diverted by the peculiarities of any one group, regardless of how it identifies or defines itself, we could design for the commonalities that exist between all groups, of all people, all the time.

If we can get there, we will have connected the dots that unify all of us.

See you at work.

Be Careful What You Wish For

You probably already know about corporations like Google, Microsoft, Bain & Company, American Express, and Facebook that have ostensibly amazing employee perks. There are myriad others, too. Two things are true of all of them:

  1. They’re obscuring the fact that most of us prefer substance to frills.
  2. They’re selling a wave that crested quite some time ago.

Once the open-office craze bit the dust — you can find evidence of its demise here, here, here, here, here, here, and here — you had to have the feeling office perks would be the next bucket of steam to evaporate. Sure enough, courtesy of Fast Company: “It’s official: No one cares about your ‘cool’ office perks“:

A new LinkedIn survey of over 3,000 full-time U.S. workers confirms what many of us have suspected for years: Those funky perks employers tout as supposed emblems of a great work culture are actually empty totems that employees don’t really care about.

So, what’s going on here? In fact, it’s a wonderful contradiction, perfectly indicative of our human nature, manifested by the juxtaposition of marketing (the art of creating the perception of need) and reality (the search for the fulfillment of actual need). Like all juxtapositions, all it takes to see to the heart and resolution of this one is time.

All That Matters is What Matters

Companies introduced social and recreational perks because they thought those things would attract young people. At first, they were right. Then two things happened: (1) Those young people got older. (2) They discovered other things were more important than superficial socialization and recreation in the places in which they were hired to work.

By the same token, companies introduced open workspaces to fit more people into less space, selling the concept with sloganeering about communication and collaboration. Then two other things happened: (1) Employees discovered they didn’t have the privacy in which to concentrate. (2) Employers discovered productivity was tanking.

Now that enough time has elapsed, it’s become evident that people care less about perks and open space than they do about supportive environments, adequate health insurance and parental leaves, work/life balance, recognition of individuality and achievement, professional development,  and social responsibility.

Eyes Open

All of this is simply evidence of something Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong knew when they wrote, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine“: “People say believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear.”

In other words, be careful what you wish for … or somebody will sell it to you.

Image by Wormer’s Famous Rattlesnake Oil, via Wikimedia Commons

Playing Nice in the Sandbox

This fascinating article largely speaks for itself: “An Intellectual History of the Sandbox.” While I’ve long been aware of the creative potential of sandboxes and the adoption of the term for individual and collaborative workspaces (what we now have to call incubators), I’m not sure I’d have given much credence to their intellectual traditions or characteristics. I’d have been remiss:

In 1885, a group of female philanthropists decided that the immigrant children of Boston’s North End needed somewhere other than the increasingly crowded and dangerous streets to play. They paid for a pile of sand to be poured into the yard of a chapel on Parmenter Street at the beginning of summer … The idea came from Germany, where such “sand gardens” were introduced in Berlin’s public parks in 1850 … [children] solved their own problems of administration, carpentry, industrialization, sewage, and monetization.

What strikes me, though, isn’t the history of the sandbox. Rather, it’s the direction in which games of the imagination and the practice of creativity have evolved, as well as our seemingly increasing reluctance to get our hands dirty — literally, figuratively, and creatively.

Go Ahead, Back Up

In the 168 years between 1850 and now, we seem to have come so far and advanced so little. From the innocent combination of imagination and grains of sand, from the trial, error, and acceptance of plastic pails and shovels to the unforgiving precision of AutoCAD, from the shifting sands of impermanence to the rigidity of judgment, we’ve refined our tools and gone to work for them.

Man has mounted science, and is now run away with. (Henry Brooks Adams, 1838-1918)

I don’t know what we should do first: simplify or forgive ourselves for the mistakes that will be made — that have to be made — in any creative process. (It’s no accident that the civilized appropriation of rubber preceded the discovery of graphite by 39 years or the first manufactured pencil by 137 years. We used to allow for our mistakes and found it useful to be able to erase them*.) But I do know we’ve lost something profoundly simple and forgiving in the way we play and work, in the valuable relationship between play and work.

Maybe the remedy is as simple as returning to our willingness to get our hands dirty, to make mistakes and accept them, to erase or correct them, and to re-invest ourselves in the playfulness by which the best work is and has always been done.

Let’s try. I’ll meet you in the sandbox.

*In 1525, the Italian historian, Padre d’Anghieria, reported seeing Mexican tribespeople playing with elastic balls. Graphite was discovered in Borrowdale, England, in 1564 and inserted into hollowed-out wooden sticks, precipitating the first mass-produced pencils in 1662 in Nuremberg, Germany. The rest, as they say ….

The Purposeful Plan

We read a post in Contract Furnishing News (CFN) — “The hype surrounding wellbeing concepts can blind us to their true value” — that made us think about two things: the need for planning and the need for flexibility.

The premise of the post is the way in the media (all of us, in fairness) latch on to particular terms and phrases to the point that we turn those terms and phrases, wittingly or unwittingly, into fads. The offending phrase in the post is digital detox.

It’s a phrase coined by would-be experts who don’t like the fact that we live in an electronically (digitally) connected world and want us to believe we need to disconnect or face perilous consequences. More often than not, the perilous consequences are unspecified. But that doesn’t matter. The point of citing digital detox at all is to make us think we’re doing something wrong, possibly unhealthy, if we remain connected to the world in which we live and work.

To CFN’s credit, the post does offer this balancing commentary:

Everyone needs a break – it’s a natural detox … it doesn’t mean the arguments [in favor of disconnecting] are wrong. We just need to tailor them to different working environments, cultures and team[s]. Put aside the marketing speak … and find out what works for your workplace.

That made us think about two more things: the importance of planning and the importance of balance in planning.

Yeah, But I Thought ….

If you’ve explored our website at all, you know we’re big believers in planning. As the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. But we’re also believers in the need for balancing certainty with flexibility in planning. It may sound self-contradicting to say you have to plan for the unexpected. Maybe it is. At the very least, you have to allow for it.

Here’s what we mean: You want to get from Point A to Point Z. Do you need plan to get there? Yes. Are you certain Point Z, however you’ve defined it, will remain exactly the same as you cover Points A through Y? No. Make the plan. Take the first step. Stop. Breathe. Look around. Think. If Step B looks exactly as you imagined it would, take it. If it doesn’t, allow for the change, amend the plan, then take the next step. Repeat the process until you reach your desired outcome.

Given that, it may also sound self-contradicting to say we don’t believe in best practices. We don’t. And we don’t because the only way to judge anything best, that judgment can only be in hindsight. We’re not terribly interested in what’s been done or what we’ve already done. We’re much more interested in what we will do and in making sure we do it better than we did it the last time. As opposed to best practices, it’s called continuous improvement.

Don’t Forget

As long as your plan contains these two elements — particularly for your property, commercial or residential — it’s likely to be a good one:

  1. Marketability. You might plan to be where you are forever. But, like any other element of your plan, that could change. Make sure your property retains marketable value.
  2. Sustainability. You don’t have to be a greenie to know adaptable reuse and frugality make good sense. Don’t spend what you don’t have to.

Whether the plan for your property is for new use, for sale, or for lease, #1 and #2 are equally applicable and important. And don’t forget: You don’t have to think of everything at Point A, as long as you remain open to positive change. That openness, and its corresponding flexibility, will make Points B through Z much more constructive, productive, and enjoyable.

Now that’s a purposeful plan.

A More Practical Vocabulary

Since we have more important work to do than to worry about terminology, we tend to keep our heads down (in our work) and keep our opinions to ourselves (unless we’re asked). So, we’d have been willing to let one particular term, resimercial, slide in deference to more constructive pursuits. But we happened to be reading interiors+sources one day and came across this: “‘Resimercial’: Why We Need a Better Term“. Ah, hah (we thought). We’re not alone.

For those not familiar with the term, the article defines it like this:

Resimercial … is the trend of residential aesthetics in the commercial marketplace … mashing two words together to coin a phrase [to] … explain the more laid-back aesthetic that is finding its way into the commercial market.

Fair enough. We might have been inclined to let it go at that, but the author of the article offers another term in place of resimercial. It’s this: ambidextrous design. With that, we had to enter the fray.

Where to Start?

First of all, the author explains ambidextrous design a bit confusingly:

The term highlights the ways in which design from all markets are overlapping. Healthcare is taking from hospitality, retail is taking from restaurant design, and commercial and residential are swapping design ideas left and right.

That’s confusing because ambidextrous” derives from the Latin ambi (meaning both) and dexter, meaning right or favorable. In literal terms, then, ambidextrous means both right or both favorable. The problem there is that both connotes two. But hospitality, retail, restaurant, commercial, residential denote five. If someone had five hands, pentidextrous might work. But ambidextrous? Not so much.

Secondly, laid-back aesthetic doesn’t quite do it, either. Aesthetic can refer to a theory or a set of principles about the idea of beauty. It can refer to an individual’s ideas about style and taste. Or it can refer to a set of principles or worldview. But because aesthetic is philosophical — ideas, theories, principles — as opposed to physical, it cannot refer to the material aspects of a space.

Let’s Try This

Since we like to impress people with our work, rather than our vocabulary, we think comfortable works quite nicely, thank you. It integrates residential comfort with commercially able, which is precisely what it should do.

We can’t help but wonder what else we might communicate, let alone accomplish, if we all adopted a more practical vocabulary.