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The New Aesthetics of Work

By Stowe Boyd

Over the past decade, how we work and where we work have undergone dramatic change. Telework has become so commonplace that the unlovely term no longer is used. We are simply working wherever we are: at home, at the café, at the airport, and in the office cafeteria. We are spending less time in cubicles as companies seek to unlock creativity and innovation through open space designs, and rethinking the rationale for being in the office, at all.

Ubiquitous connectivity and mobile devices have become the norm, allowing us – or inducing us – to stay always on, always connected. And today, more than 35% of professional and creative work in the US is performed by freelancers1, another shift in the economics and ecology of the world of work.

Clearly, the largest disruptive factor at work has been the emergence of the Web and the impact it had on us as individuals, and on the way that business is conducted. But there are a number of other trends at work here, working independently and in concert, to change the way we think about work, collaboration, innovation, and purpose.

Artifacts of the New Workplace
A good place to take note of the change is with the evolving workplace artifacts. Underlying the adoption of more open, and more public work settings is a new theory of innovation and creativity.

In essence, this aesthetic is based on a few key ideas, supported by psychological and design research:

Untethered Workplaces
Creating chance interactions among people will lead to a higher likelihood of innovative ideas. So organizing office space to create more serendipity has led to many companies doing away with cubicles, fixed offices and desks, and other remnants of the 20th century company.

Alternate Work Environments
To foster productivity in more open office settings, a spectrum of different kinds of work spaces is increasingly becoming the norm. This includes more noisy informal café areas with food and music, work rooms dedicated to project teams over the course of some activity, and small alcoves at the sides of larger work areas where groups of two or three can step aside for a few minutes without the overhead of finding a conference room.

Since more people are working out-of-the office, offices can become smaller, and based on ‘hoteling’ principles: reserving rooms, desks, and other resources on an as-needed basis.

Mobility + BYOD
And of course, this relies on mobile technologies of ultra laptops, tablets, and smart phones, increasingly through a BYOD (bring your own device) approach.

Unwritten Rules of Workplace Attire Get Rewritten
Evolving dress codes are also among the symbols that make it seem as though only lawyers, bankers and other financial types are still wearing the traditional business suits and neckties.

The Beauty and the Beats
But where do the shadows fall in this new tableau of work? Where can the promise fail? Some of the problems that arise are fairly prosaic, but they can lead to a cascade of negative effects.

No surprise, really, that creating open spaces at work can create disruptive levels of noise, which can lead to unexpected behaviors, like wearing headphones. In a recent NY Times piece, Ray Udeshi, a New York-based entrepreneur, said ‘headphones are the new wall’, which represents one approach to dealing with increasingly noisy and public work environments.

More than 40% of the respondents to a recent Berkeley survey reported that workplace acoustics make it harder for them to do their job, while other factors, like lighting, air quality, seating, etc, were rated as making it easier to work.

The biggest issue with open space sound is that it distracts from the sense of privacy, so people are less likely to indulge in discussions they would like to not be public – at least in part.

Many companies have reengineered work spaces acoustically using so-called ‘pink-noise’ systems, where sound at the same frequency range of human voices is played on speakers. Voices that could be heard 60 feet away can be damped to nothing at 20 feet. So people can take off the headphones, and speak more openly even while working in an open space with other people nearby.

Cultural Norms: Perceptions at Play for New Workplace Design
The other barriers to gaining the benefits that these new architecture affordances offer include the social cues at work. It’s one thing to say that the company wants to engender chance interaction, another to organize the work place to actually increase the likelihood of such interactions, but another to create a culture where informal chatting in the café is considered a legitimate part of work.

As Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks laid out in Who Moved My Cube, proximity and privacy have to be accompanied by permission:

“Culture and convention shape our view of what constitutes appropriate behavior in a particular environment. In an office, people generally deem a space to a comfortable, natural place to interact only if a company culture, reinforced by management, designates it as such. This was evidenced at a consulting company we studied, where “real work” was done only at one’s desk or in meeting rooms. The luxurious coffee lounge was usually empty: employees would come in, grab a cup of coffee, and leave. Company culture did not give them permission to stay and talk. In contrast, at a creative collaborative we observed, where designers, advertising people and architects shared an office space, sitting on sofas and chatting in the centrally located café was seen as part and parcel of the creative process.”

Other cultural missteps can undo established patterns of informal interaction, like bringing in a fancy new espresso machine and disrupting an afternoon coffee klatch based on one person making a new pot of coffee and inviting others to share it.

Fast and Loose. Perhaps an oversimplification, but this new style of work is fast and loose compared to what it is displacing. The new thinking about work spaces and the principle of working wherever we are means we are never more than a few seconds way a from reading a critical email, sending out a proposal, or pulling up a chair next to a friend and hammering out a design. We are less bound to a desk, a filing cabinet, or even the specific devices we use to do our work. And finally, we are less tied to the physical restrictions of working in one place and less constrained - for better or worse - by a 9-to-5 agenda.

From Place to Purpose: Evolving the Meaning of Work
This cuts to a deeper level, as well. Below the Aeron chairs and pink-noise generators, and motivating BYOD, freelance nation, and the relaxing of ties between employee and company, there is a fundamental shift at work in the relationship between worker and their place of work. Is our work becoming more and more placeless because we are less certain of employment, and the pact between business and employee is less likely to represent a long-term commitment on either side?

At the same time, the new aesthetic of work leads individuals to find greater personal satisfaction even if they are more precarious. In his new bestseller, Drive, Dan Pink makes the case that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the keys to personal happiness, and we may be more likely to find those in a faster and looser world of work.

email your comments to: teresa@intervista-institute.com

1. A Jobs Plan for the Post Cubicle Economy - Sara Horowitz - The Atlantic

© 2012 Intervista Inc.

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