If you're an entrepreneur with plans to build or design a new office, Brian Chen and Ethan Bernstein would be good people to know.
Chen is an entrepreneur whose struggles with open offices led him to co-found ROOM, a startup that makes prefabricated soundproof booths that give employees a private place to work and take calls. Bernstein is a Harvard Business School professor who co-authored a now-famous study that found that open offices lead to a 73 percent drop in face-to-face interaction. Inc. recently brought the two together to discuss how companies can build better workplaces while avoiding some of the common pitfalls of office design. The following is an edited excerpt from their conversation.
On the right--and wrong--way to design an office:
Bernstein: We've lived with an assumption for a long time that if we build something a certain way, people will interact a certain way within that space. But human beings don't respond to spaces, they interpret them and then use them for their own purposes. So if you don't give them the chance to define those spaces themselves, you're actually just pissing people off rather than getting what you want out of your workspace.
Chen: When you're crafting digital experiences, you have UX design, A/B testing, and you can iterate in a way that doesn't really have a physical space corollary. Because we don't know how humans will behave in different environments, it really helps to have an environment that is conducive to iteration. When you can do that, then you have the opportunity to craft really wonderful experiences in the office.
Bernstein: We now have the means to have a more agile approach where you change a little bit and you see how people respond. That has at least three benefits: One, you actually learn something and you get better over time. Two, your employees can actually co-create the space rather than you simply doing it for them. And three, you're creating a space that might allow employees to do many things better than they've done them before. You're not just taking their old patterns and putting them on a smaller map. You're giving them a chance to create new, better patterns.
On open layouts and when they work:
Chen: The open floor plan is oftentimes misunderstood. It can engender all of those wonderful interactions and engagements between employees, but only if you sprinkle in the right types of spaces to accommodate other types of activities. By creating room for privacy, you create room for collaboration. The mistakes come when you try to collapse all of those different types of activities into a single environment.
Bernstein: I've been cited for saying open offices are bad. There's nothing inherently bad or good about an environment in which people stop doing as much face-to-face collaboration and start doing more online collaboration or action. If you work in a global enterprise and you want people to draw on expertise wherever it lies in the world, that might mean more electronic rather than face-to-face interaction. It's all contextual. Open offices are not necessarily failing us--the way we're designing, implementing, and using them is.
On how remote work is changing office design:
Chen: There are all sorts of different environments where work can get done because of laptops and cellphones being the primary tools that we use. So the office then becomes less about maximizing productivity and more about competing with your home office and the coffee shop. And because the office now has to compete with this network of places, it has to start looking and feeling very different. It has to really be a place where your employees want to be--not just work. They need to feel comfortable and happy to go into the office every day. That becomes critically important as people become more and more the competitive differentiators between one company and another.
Bernstein: All work and organization design, including physical design, is really contingency-based. And so what we don't want to do is try to find the perfect design. What we actually want to do is find a way to let all of us together experiment with the design in such a way that we might collectively achieve a space that can compete with home, Starbucks, WeWork--all of the other places we might choose to work.