The death and life of great American offices
July 29, 2013
I’m about to finish a book called _The Death and Life of Great American Cities_. It’s an extremely well-known book on urban planning; Jane Jacobs was one of the first to reject large-scale urban space engineering. As far as I know the book ultimately led to the development of many of the urban trends we value today (mixed use, high density, variety in housing stock, contiguous neighborhoods).
There are many things I appreciate about this book. One is its focus on organicness within a city in opposition to deliberate large-scale planning. Jacobs likes short blocks, for example, as a way of allowing pedestrians to experiment with different routes and therefore come upon new businesses and use their transit time more effectively. She likes varieties of building types (old, new, short, tall, high-rent, low-rent) since different types of buildings can support different uses. And she likes mixed uses because they bring about the presence of many different groups of people, at all hours of the day, who help to keep the streets safe by simply being there, and bring customers to local businesses.
The company I work for moved again a few months ago, so the space we occupy has been on my mind. We have an open-plan-ish office (not as open as it once was, unfortunately), which I really appreciate and which helps collaboration. I overhear bits of conversation all the time that often save me or others huge amounts of work, for example a discussion about a new marketing idea that I can quickly support or advise against based on data I happen to have, or shared experiences about the best ways to work with a particular person outside our department.
Some of Jacobs’ rules for urban planning seem to apply here, too. High density and contiguous desk space are great for productivity as I just said; I can’t imagine doing my job properly if I had my own office, and I think this would be even more important if I were a more senior manager.
Mixed use is one area we’re not as successful in. We need much more space where people can have different types of meetings (large, small, casual, confidential, social, business). I had a meeting in the stairwell last week and I expect the hallways are next. Of course space is extremely expensive so this is a difficult problem. But you’re spending a lot of time and money building a great team, so a 1:1 ratio of collaboration space to individual space seems doesn’t seem unreasonable.
It also isn’t clear to me why we have standard individual space, i.e. a standard desk size. I am often away from my desk, and even when I am at my desk, I’m fine with being interrupted constantly. But an engineer or a salesperson will have totally different needs for space and privacy which could be accommodated better with a variety of desk size options, and which would also allow for more flexibility in arranging people and facilities. Should you bring your own desk to work?
As I mention above, Jacobs talks a lot, too, about the importance of constant foot traffic in a neighborhood, both for reasons of safety and also for reasons of commercial prosperity and general asset usage efficiency. In the office, the main value of foot traffic is collaboration. You can run into a lot of people in one walk from your desk to the kitchen and have a lot of important conversations that way. We also know that sitting at a desk all day is bad for your health. Maybe offices should encourage more mobility and circulation as a general rule, and even abolish the desk altogether.