We're at an interesting crossroads in office design where many companies are looking for solutions that will help them work better. Some companies are designing their offices in order to work harder, faster, and automate or streamline everything for convenience. Others are taking a different approach, one which will allow them to work slower and with more intention. Does this seem counterintuitive? In our day and age, probably.

It's called "purposeful inconvenient design," where elements of the office layout create inconveniences which in turn force us to slow down, think through activities, and connect on a deeper level.

While not a new idea, it is one that hasn't hit its tipping point yet among startups and especially in Silicon Valley, though some of the biggest brands in the world have introduced inconvenient elements to their work spaces. These design tweaks also yield some surprising positive benefits. 

Unexpected Creative Collaboration

Pixar's studio in Emeryville, California, is a great example of how an office environment can set up its employees for success in collaboration. Before collaboration became a huge buzzword, then-CEO Steve Jobs was (not surprisingly) ahead of the curve when envisioning the daily work routines for the Pixar staff. As they were constructing Pixar's headquarters in 1999, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson designed and built a large atrium. At first glance, this large open square footage appeared to be a waste of space...until the connections began happening. Jobs believed in the power of serendipity, accidental run-ins, and relationships that could blossom simply if there was a way to ensure eye contact. By housing the office's only restrooms in this central space, the headquarters gently forced people to gather into this area, as well run into each other in the mailbox area and other central social spots. As for the success of Pixar, the rest is history. As chief creative officer John Lasseter remarked, "I've never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one."

Authentic Offline Connection

An office doesn't have to employ remote workers to recreate the isolation of a remote job. Many businesses are already doing this by using Slack, chat, text messages and inter-department video meetings instead of standing up and walking over to a person for a face-to-face conversation. While 'faster' online communication may seem more efficient, it's actually hurting productivity: every Slack notification pop-up or text message buzz interrupts a deep workflow which then takes a person on average 20 minutes to re-focus. Planned social areas, face to face meeting areas, and small group huddle rooms can help. It may seem inconvenient to walk down to another floor or across a large office campus but the benefits include exercise, brain stimulation and authentic, personal connections. 

For example, shoe juggernaut Zappos built an "intentionally inconvenient" office in downtown Las Vegas that removed a skywalk and multiple doors, thereby funneling staff from different departments into common areas where they would have more opportunities for connection. As CEO Tony Hsieh told CNBC, "We don't really telecommute at Zappos. We want employees to be interacting with each other, building those personal relationships and relationships outside of work as well." 

Working with Intention

Some companies are taking a cue from the slow living movement. Slow living encourages individuals to simply slow down, use analog practices, do offline work, prepare meals from scratch, work in a flow or on a schedule that is natural instead of forced, meditate, and more. 

For example, businesses such as Uber, Google and Ben & Jerry's recognized the power of power naps and have built in nap pods or quiet floors so employees can get some rest. And the Dubai-based Esskay Logistics introduced a siesta, where all employees including the warehouse workers can turn off the lights for an hour and get some shut-eye. 

While this may appear to reduce the number of standard working hours by replacing them with activities that seem highly inconvenient--walking, napping, eating, and brainstorming--these "rest and recharge" activities actually allow a person to leverage brainpower, creativity, and become highly productive in the hours they apply to work. This can lead to quicker breakthroughs, a deeply intentional company culture, and a better sense of physical and mental well-being...resulting in less employee turnover.  

While one may not agree with all aspects of how to execute this inconvenient design trend, its core thesis is based on an irrefutable direction in which we're heading in office design: with a committed focus on the health and well-being of the employee. Employees ultimately determine a company's success, and their work environment will largely influence that outcome.  

Published on: Dec 20, 2017
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