5.1 — Offices: The Evolving Workplace

Host Walter Isaacson and guests talk about the modern office, how it came to be and then discuss some of the ways that recent events have changed the very idea of the workplace.
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In this episode:

  • A chair ahead of its time (0:00)
  • "Unnatural" labor (3:21)
  • Taylorism and the rise of efficiency (5:35)
  • Cubicles, the ultimate in privacy (10:09)
  • Building a more satisfying office (13:54)
  • Workplace tools in a work-from-home world (23:00)
  • A most significant shift (23:41)

The concept of the workplace was changing even before so many office workers went virtual. Find out how and, more importantly, why offices look so different than they used to, and what they might look like going forward.

Take a coffee break to read more about the workplace.

Guest List

  • Ryan Mullenix is a partner at NBBJ and a co-lead of the firm’s corporate design practice. In his role, Ryan is a strong advocate for exploring how science, data, and delight can create workplaces that augment both human and building performance. Ryan has led the design of numerous award-winning projects both nationally and internationally.
  • Kate Lister is a recognized thought leader on trends that are changing the who, what, when, where, and how of work. She is president of Global Workplace Analytics , a research-based consulting firm that has been helping public and private sector employers optimize the employer, employee, and environmental outcomes of remote work and other workplace strategies for more than a decade.
  • Tanuj Mohan is the Chief Technology Officer and Chief Product Officer of Enlighted Inc. Enlighted is the Internet of Things (IoT) solutions company that delivers the leading technology platform for smart buildings. Enlighted is adapting its technology to monitor social distancing and do contact tracing in the office during COVID-19.
  • Ben Waber, PhD. is the president and co-founder of Humanyze, a workplace analytics company that uses existing corporate data to measure organizational health. He is a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, previously worked as a senior researcher at Harvard Business School.
  • Nikil Saval is a magazine editor, writer, organizer, activist and author of “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.”

“What motivates people are trust and autonomy and a sense of purpose, and those things don't come out of a physical building.”

— Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics

Walter Isaacson:

It’s September 25th, 1849, and the American inventor Thomas Warren has just received a patent for a revolutionary new chair. It’s called the centripetal spring armchair. This cast iron and velvet chair is decorated with a classic Victorian floral pattern and gilded trim and an elaborate tasseled fringe with pom-poms attached to the seat rail, but its genius is not its appearance. It’s the chair’s functionality. It features four large springs concealed in the frame that allow its circular seat to tilt and revolve in all directions. It also has a headrest, upholstered armrests, and wheels so the chair can move easily on a wooden floor. But what really makes the centripetal spring armchair special is that it’s the first chair designed specifically for office workers.

Walter Isaacson:

Warren wants people to be as comfortable as possible. He thinks that a comfortable chair that more closely reflects the shape of the human body will lead to a happier, more productive worker. His idea is radical for the time. Many deemed the chair immoral because it was too comfortable. Victorian morality of the time valued rigid seats that commanded upright posture, but today, Warren’s centripetal spring chair is seen as a piece of office design technology that was well ahead of its time. In fact, the chair is on exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, where it’s displayed along with other pieces of influential office furniture.

Walter Isaacson:

The American workforce has completely transformed in the 170 years since Thomas Warren invented his centripetal spring armchair and the office has been completely transformed as well. Digital technology has opened up new possibilities for how and where office work can be done, and now that technology, combined with a global pandemic, may be placing us on the verge of the biggest change to how we work since the industrial revolution. I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 2:

How are you doing, Ms. [Pensy 00:02:53]? Ready to go to work?

Speaker 3:

In every company, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Speaker 4:

In plants large and small, in warehouses and drafting rooms and offices…

Speaker 3:

Businesses often go through periods of adjustment…

Speaker 5:

Good office management begins at home.

Speaker 3:

… changes, which are constantly taking place in every line of work.

Walter Isaacson:

It wasn’t easy being a clerk in mid-19th century America, and comfortable chairs were only one of their problems. They worked long hours in cramped, poorly-lit, smoky offices, often in very close proximity to their bosses. Factory and farm labor were considered to be the only legitimate forms of work, and many thought that the labor done by office workers was unnatural. But in one important way, office work was quintessentially American.

Nikil Saval:

There was a lot of perception of upward mobility that was very strong in the early office.

Walter Isaacson:

Nikil Saval is the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.

Nikil Saval:

I think that ideology, let’s say, held for the entire history of the office, this notion that office work was the kind of work where the separation between you and your bosses was not very strong and that you might, with hard work and on your own merits, rise and become the head of your firm.

Walter Isaacson:

By the end of the 19th century, office workers were transforming the downtown cores of America’s largest cities. There was such a large urban migration that architects and engineers had to innovate in order to find space for all of them to work. Buildings needed to get taller. In 1885, the Home Insurance Building in Chicago soared all the way up to 10 stories. People called it a skyscraper, and things were changing inside the buildings as well.

Nikil Saval:

In the early 20th century, when you do start to have much larger offices, the work becomes much more mechanized. You have typing pools. You have accounting pools. You have these sort of rows and rows of desks in the middle of an office where a lot of the mechanical functions of an office can be visible and surveilled.

Walter Isaacson:

By the dawn of the 20th century, office workers found themselves part of a radical new experiment in workplace management, an experiment that began on the factory floor, but quickly spread to the office. It was called Taylorism, and it’s arguably one of the most important isms of the 20th century. Frederick Taylor was a mechanical engineer who was obsessed with efficiency in the workplace, and in 1911, he published a very influential book called The Principles of Scientific Management. In this book, Taylor set out his philosophy on how workplaces in the new industrial age could be run more efficiently. How did Taylor measure efficiency? He measured it with a stopwatch. Stopwatch in hand, Taylor would time how long it took workers to do an assigned task. Then he would look for ways to shorten that time by making sure there was no wasted motion. Wasted motion equals wasted time, which resulted in wasted money. Bosses loved the idea, workers, not so much. In the 1920s, Taylor’s disciple, William Leffingwell, founded the National Office Management Association to spread the gospel of Taylorism to office work.

Nikil Saval:

Physically, what Leffingwell and what Taylorists did is they rationalized the office space. In fact, it was sort of modeled on a factory, so trying to make sure that people were doing mechanical tasks and making those tasks mechanical in the quickest possible time. Leffingwell’s office management, his theories of office management, he proposes ways to find the most efficient way to lick envelopes, for example. He talks very gravely about where to place water fountains in the office and then measures out how many steps it takes to get from your desk to a water fountain, then multiplying the number of steps over and turning that into miles over a course of a year.

Walter Isaacson:

By the middle of the 20th century, most offices were organized around what became known as the American plan. There was row upon row of identical desks in the middle of the floor. The managers had offices along the periphery, usually with their own windows, providing a source of natural light not available to most workers. The American plan office might’ve gotten the stamp of approval from Frederick Taylor, but it was not conducive to creative thinking, and it gave rise to a growing sense of alienation and unhappiness among office workers.

Walter Isaacson:

It’s 1960, and an engineer and sculptor named Robert Propst had just been promoted to the head of research for the Herman Miller Office Furniture Company. He plans on making some big changes to American office design. Propst declares the modern office a wasteland that, quote, saps vitality, blocks talent, and frustrates accomplishment. It’s his mission to rescue office workers from that wasteland. Propst understands that the nature of office work is changing. Giant mainframe computers are becoming a fixture in the American office, and Propst understands that they will eventually take over many mundane and routine tasks. He believes that future office work will require a more creative, motivated, and educated worker.

Nikil Saval:

Propst saw this is a major change in the history of the office, that at last we could start to organize the office around how people worked rather than their status or what their rank was on an executive rung. It isn’t factory work. His innovation was to realize that there needed to be a new kind of furniture for this office, and so he started to design what was known as the Action Office.

Walter Isaacson:

In 1964, the Herman Miller Furniture Company released Propst’s Action Office design. The Action Office was a radical new office plan designed to meet the needs of the new class of knowledge workers, and the cornerstone of this new office plan was a dynamic new piece of office furniture that allowed autonomy and independence, the cubicle. Workers would spend their days in flexible, three-walled cubicles that could easily be reshaped to meet changing needs. They gave workers a level of privacy and personalization that was previously only available to people in offices. Inevitably, the rigid hierarchies of the office floor began to flatten.

Ryan Mullenix:

Cubes were that sort of ubiquitous in between…

Walter Isaacson:

This is Ryan Mullinex. He’s a design partner at the Seattle-based architecture and design firm, NBBJ.

Ryan Mullenix:

… where, well, everybody sort of gets an office and were still sort of in an open-office environment, so that should be the right answer. It was an attempt to recreate the office and yet dissolve the notion of hierarchy in a space. Everyone was equal.

Walter Isaacson:

Architectural critics raved about the Action Office, and workers who tried it liked it, but most company executives found the egalitarian ideas behind it too radical and the price tag too high. Propst tried again, and in 1968, he unveiled the Action Office II. This time, it was a hit. In 1985, the World Design Conference named the Action Office II the most successful design of the previous 25 years. But by then, Propst had turned against his creation. It had morphed into something quite the opposite of what he intended. Instead of flexibility, there was rigidity. Instead of collaboration, there was anonymity.

Walter Isaacson:

After the arrival of the desktop computer in the 1980s, it was easy for workers to enter their cubicle in the morning and not be seen again for the rest of the day. Offices became known as cube farms and were the subject of ridicule in movies like Office Space and in cartoons such as Dilbert. Corporate bean counters often crammed too many cubicles onto the office floor to try and save money. This decision effectively took the action out of the Action Office. The Action Office was supposed to address many of the shortcomings of the American plan’s open-office concept, but it didn’t work out that way.

Ryan Mullenix:

I think the cube suffered from a few things. Privacy was still a concern, and the cube didn’t fully solve privacy, acoustics came into play, and I know that there were a number of ways that cubes could begin to address acoustics, but they didn’t fully solve that, and then I would say daylight. Suddenly, the whole hope for parody, the whole hope for equity across a floor really diminished as you were suddenly the person in the cube that was by the corridor or by the elevator lobby versus the person who had that wonderful cube that was right at the end with that view out the window with the right amount of daylight.

Walter Isaacson:

Propst believed that the failure of the Action Office was more a failure of execution than design. He understood that office work was becoming more collaborative, and he knew that office design had to adapt to reflect that, but that wasn’t happening. The cubicle eventually became the symbol of rigid office design and drab, impersonal corporate culture. By the turn of the 21st century, the center for innovation and office design shifted to Silicon Valley. Tech giants, such as Google and Facebook, weren’t just building revolutionary communication and media empires, they were also major players in transforming office design and corporate culture. The days of the gray-walled cubicles were not a part of their vision. They built sprawling, multi-building campuses with large, open offices sporting funky and artistic decor. They also provided amenities that previous generations of office workers could only dream up, things like climbing laws, foosball tables, nap rooms, fitness facilities, and all the free food employees could eat. If ever there was an environment that would encourage innovation and create a satisfied workforce, these creative workspaces would be it. Right?

Kate Lister:

The free food and the fun atmosphere and all of that, those things have all rated very, very lowly in polls of, “What is it that you like about the office?”

Walter Isaacson:

That’s Kate Lister. She’s the president of Global Workplace Analytics.

Kate Lister:

What motivates people are trust and autonomy and a sense of purpose. Those things are intrinsic. They come out of empowering people. I think we’ve overspent on the office itself, and we have to invest more in people.

Walter Isaacson:

Many smaller companies with more humble revenue streams and workplace budgets have tried to recreate the corporate culture and unique office design of Silicon Valley elites, but imitation isn’t always flattering.

Kate Lister:

I think there’s been a trend over the last five to 10 years that has made the office very distracting and not conducive to heads-down work. There was the move toward open office, completely, “Let’s put everybody in a room, and then there’ll be able to collaborate.” In reality, a lot of those transitions were intended to save money. It’s a lot easier to build a big, open room than it is to build different team areas. The pendulum kind of swung too far from private offices to open. It’s hard for employees to concentrate. There’s just too much visual and auditory distraction.

Walter Isaacson:

In fact, face-to-face interaction drops by up to 70% when a company switches from cubicles to a completely open office. Obviously, that’s a big problem. Time and time again, research has shown that chance encounters in the office lead to increases in cooperation and productivity. If an open office isn’t a solution, then what is? How can leadership help create serendipitous collaboration? Data scientist Ben Waber says the problem is that decision-makers don’t often pay enough attention to how work is actually done on the office floor.

Ben Waber:

In the past, when I heard about especially large companies making a big people decision, I had always assumed that they must run lots of tests and collect a lot of data. What I quickly learned is that that wasn’t the case, is that more often than not, some executive would read an article about what some cool tech company did, and they would just do the same thing.

Walter Isaacson:

Ben Waber is the president and co-founder of Humanize. Humanize uses badges equipped with sensors, microphones, and accelerometers to anonymously track how workers interact in the office. Then he uses that data to help companies make design decisions, to increase both productivity and worker satisfaction. It turns out that some of the most seemingly inconsequential design decisions can have a big impact.

Ben Waber:

There’s a number of things about the physical office, from things like the size of lunch tables, it has a dramatic effect. It turned out that if people sat at these larger tables, they were much more likely to communicate with people who sat at the same table later that week. It shouldn’t be shocking to anybody, but what’s fascinating is that if you look at those numbers, you’re talking about a roughly 10% difference in hard performance metrics at this company between people who sat at these big tables and people who sat at small tables. It really does seem like something as simple as the size of a table can create more of these sort of random collisions between people in different parts of the company.

Walter Isaacson:

Waber has concluded that many of the assumptions that we’ve long held about how to optimize productivity are incorrect. He feels that there is something very human about our workspace and its impact on how we collaborate.

Ben Waber:

We like to think of, especially in the U.S., me being productive is banging out emails or writing reports, but having coffee with a coworker, that’s wasting my time. Some individual work does need to get done, but I think we really undervalue the time we spend with our coworkers in terms of helping them or even just building relationships with them because building that network, building that capacity… The whole reason we’re in organizations is to do things that we couldn’t do by ourselves.

Walter Isaacson:

For Ryan Mullenix and his firm, NBBJ, designing today’s office means balancing a number of competing demands. In fact, NBBJ has designed some of the most visionary offices in the world, including the new Amazon headquarters in Seattle. It was a priority that the new office be unique and inspiring, but also functional and flexible. The centerpiece of Amazon’s new office is known as the spheres. The spheres are multi-story glass domes that double as a workplace and biosphere, housing tens of thousands of plants and trees from across the globe. Research shows nature has a calming effect and helps people think more creatively, so NBBJ’s hope is that the spheres will help improve workplace satisfaction and productivity for Amazon employees in Seattle. The office building also houses a lot of employee amenities, such as a marketplace, multifunctional rooms to accommodate meetings or heads-down work, and social hubs to encourage collaboration outside of the traditional office environment, but NBBJ’s office innovations did not end with their clients. They implement ideas at their own company to help address the competing demands of the modern office.

Ryan Mullenix:

We have a really strong team in-house that focuses on what we call design computation, and we’ve built an entire toolkit around performance. We’ve built and created our own sensors that we’ve put into our New York office, and the sensors helped us understand the environments that were most conducive to what types of work. It was linked to an app, so as an individual, I could pull out my app and say, “You know what? I really need some heads-down time, and I need it to be dark,” or, “I need heads down time, but I need to have some more prospects.” That sensor would give you a sense of where to find that in the space, and there was a lot to be gleaned from that type of an experience.

Walter Isaacson:

It certainly seems that we’ve come a long way since the days of Frederick Taylor and instructing employees on the most efficient way to lick an envelope, but another way of helping workers concentrate in today’s busy office is having them not come into the office at all. Kate Lister.

Kate Lister:

The trend for the last maybe five years has been more toward activity-based work. Maybe you have an assigned desk, maybe you don’t, but you’re mobile throughout the day. Sometimes that has been not working in the office, going out to a coworking center, for example, or working from home, or as we see people working in parks and coffee shops and so forth. There’s kind of been this understanding that the place of work is kind of an ecosystem, and it’s not just going to an office and sitting at your desk for the day.

Walter Isaacson:

But our workplace ecosystem has shrunk in recent months. With the arrival of COVID-19, offices and co-working spaces have shut down, displacing millions of people who now get to experience both the joys and the perils of working from home. What the office will look like and how many people will be coming back after the pandemic is a subject of endless study and speculation. In the short term, one thing seems clear. Offices will be smarter, and workers will be monitored there like never before. One California-based company called Enlighted already combines location data gathered from employee badges with data from sensors inside light fixtures to automatically adjust office lighting to suit the preference of each worker. Enlighted’s co-founder, Tanuj Mohan, has discovered a new use for this technology. He says it can now be used to identify employees who might not be social distancing or to contact tracing if an employee tests positive for COVID-19.

Tanuj Mohan:

We are able to have the location of the badges in real time across our space. If somebody does contract the COVID-19, and you go into a system and type your badge number in and say, “This badge is affected,” we would run a report in the background and say, “These are the other badges that were either approximate to this person or have used the same spaces during the time this person used those spaces, so there might be some transmission.”

Walter Isaacson:

The post-COVID office will look different in many ways. Some large companies, including Twitter, Square, and Shopify, have already announced that thousands of their employees will not be coming back to the office even after it’s safe to do so. Before the pandemic hit, the vast majority of workers surveyed said they would like to work from home part-time, but they were a lot less enthusiastic about the idea if it meant permanently giving up their space at the office. Those attitudes may start to change now that those workers have experienced full-time remote work, but what will the impact be on their employers? Ben Waber says companies that are planning to shift to a predominantly remote workforce have to be careful. It’s important that they don’t forget that much in the work that happens in the office today is collaborative work, and a lot of collaboration happens as a result of serendipitous encounters. That’s a lot less likely to happen in a meeting held over zoom. Ben Waber.

Ben Waber:

How do you brainstorm for new ideas? How do we even get new ideas? That tends to come through weaker ties, people we don’t know very well, people I spend maybe less than 15 minutes a week with. That communication has nosedived, and that is the social structure that is being degraded right now. In the near term, it doesn’t have much of an effect, but if you think about medium to longterm, what you’re going to see in the vast majority of companies are poor quality products, missed milestones, and, of course, lots of companies have tried things, recognizing that, “Hey, we should try virtual coffee hours,” or things like that. It’s not to say those have no effect, but I have yet to find an example of a company that has successfully replicated those patterns of interactions with weaker ties with people working from home.

Walter Isaacson:

Many of the changes in the workplace that we’re currently witnessing have been underway for several years. The pandemic has merely accelerated their adoption. The smart office will be getting smarter as new technology is developed to keep track of the health and safety of workers. The trend towards remote work will obviously continue, but how often and how many employees will work remotely going forward? These questions can’t be answered yet. Before the pandemic, 5 million Americans were working from home. Kate Lister at Global Workplace Analytics predicts that this number will go up to between 25 to 30 million American workers within the next two years.

Walter Isaacson:

That could allow companies to reduce their office space by an average of 25%. The implications of that are enormous. What will happen to all that extra space and the gleaming office towers that those workers now call home? What about the transportation infrastructure that gets them to and from work? There’s a lot we still don’t know, but one thing seems abundantly clear. We are witnessing what may be the most significant shift in the history of the American office. I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. For more information about any of our guests, go to our website at delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thank you for listening.