- Bean bags
- Bright walls
- White boards everywhere
- Sometimes naming meeting rooms after cool movies
- Other times it means having tables that are odd shapes
- It might even mean a foosball table
This article is a recent 2015 link that showed up in my Facebook feed. It’s supposed to be a list of “The Worlds 30 Coolest Work Spaces”. The thing is, all I see are hoax-y, tacky spaces.
Bright, funky office spaces are a marketing technique. They’re aimed at both the employees and the customers. It lets them employees feel like they’re working at a cool company. It’s also an attempt to convince customers that they’re buying from a smart, modern company.
But Does It Inspire?
What I’m skeptical about is whether any of these offices inspire creativity. I think probably not. Things that are inspiring show us what’s possible. They bring forward our dreams and whisper that anything’s possible with great effort. Inspiring things solve what had gone for millennia unsolved.
Funky office spaces don’t do this. Funky offices feel random and lack a grand design. Cool, a ping pong table you don’t use and turf instead of carpets! Now all the geniuses will flock to your headquarters! Regardless, I am glad to know that even as I arrive at my cube each morning, someone out there is sitting in a bean bag, drinking an Odwalla juice, and lookin’ super smart.
I will admit that tacky, pastel colored workspaces have some value. Ambitious people want their life to count and walking into a cubicle row seems to scream “you’re worker #3,713 and you don’t matter”. That speaks to the terrible design of cubicle rows more than to the great design of funky offices though. Cool office spaces preserve a little sense of humanity and individualism but, still, they just aren’t inspirational.
How Did It Ever Get That Bad?
Funky offices’ main value is in rebelling against the horribly boring office spaces most people spend 40 hours a week in. It’s stunning that so many companies force employees into dull workspaces, treating them like drones. Who dreams of white walls, cubes, and generic artwork on the wall (if there’s any decoration at all)!?
Every time you do or build something, you are bringing something into existence. In that moment, there should be a sense of responsibility for the quality of that thing, shouldn’t there? People who feel compelled to do their best, they build the things that people will stand in awe of. It is discouraging to see how many people have built dull creations which will never be admired by anyone.
We Are Creative, We Play Darts! Brightness!
You may have noticed that most of the companies with cool office spaces are companies selling the idea of creativity. Marketing companies stock up on nerf guns. Smart-creative companies put white boards up everywhere, in case you feel a sudden moment to scribble your genius on the wall. I can see the office tour now:
“You’ll see we’ve got plenty of whiteboards in the halls, kitchens, and stairwells. That’s because sometimes our employees can’t hold-in their creativity until they get back to their desk.”
“Aren’t you a tech company? Shouldn’t they have smart phones and tablets?”
“Yes… well, whiteboards are more for… group creativity.”
“But weren’t most inventions, historically, invented by individuals? And why don’t they just used a shared Google doc for collaboration, so everyone has a copy after?”
“Because, then there would be… no white boards.”
Companies that want to be perceived as thinking “outside the box” design their office to showcase just how “outside the box” their company is. That has created a barrier that keeps other companies from doing away with cubicles. Many big companies don’t want be perceived as creative, “outside the box”, or trendy. Big employers like banks and insurance companies want to be taken seriously and viewed as professional.
I wish that the first company to add character to their office’s had been a bank or insurance company. That way a cool office space wouldn’t be about being playful, it would be about providing people with a more interesting place to spend their day. It would be about rejecting cubicle farms.
Embrace The The Real Thing!
As for the so called “creative companies,” I think they need to bring it to the next level and accomplish what they set out to do. They need to become creative. They need to encourage invention.
Most big company innovations are in the form of them acquiring various small start-ups. The creativity comes from outside the company and gets acquired by the big company with the colorful office space. The start-up company worked out of a garage or at a kitchen table. The big company has a space they paid a designer thousands to design.
Maybe if big companies redesign their office space to truly induce creativity, they’d save a few billion on acquisitions. That’s not a joke either.
I think companies like Google should redesign their office spaces to be less playful and to be conducive to intense focus and invention. Something like 3/4 of Google’s profit still comes from its original product despite launching many new products. Google’s second most used product, YouTube, was an acquisition. Google pays large sums of money to companies like Camenzind Evolution for their office spaces, but do they look like good places to focus?
I want to see a company drop just as much money on their office, but on totally different things. I want to see a company give people places to ignore the world while they create a masterpiece. I want to see a company build an office that reminds people of what’s amazing.
There would be a few rules:
- No bean bags
- No silly chairs
- No ping pong table to sit neglected in the corner
- No work areas that are so bright you’ll get a headache within an hour
- Add nothing unless it’s functional or inspiring
I do think you can design workspaces that inspire and I do think brilliance inspires brilliance.
Forget great rooms with big beams and high ceilings. That’s not good enough. Look for designs that are simple and powerful. Harness the natural beauty of the world:
Steve Jobs loved to take long walks for one on one meetings. I have that in common. I get restless when talking and think clearer as I walk. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone feels this way. That must be what Jobs felt because his appreciation for the effect of walking on thinking is evident in the design of the new Apple campus:
I wish more corporate campuses would have walking paths where they’d encourage employees to just “take a walk”. It wouldn’t be their lunch break, it would count as working. Walk, talk about the future of the industry, what other companies are doing wrong, and what other companies are doing that you find inspiring
Also, companies should build lots of kitchens. Do you know how many ideas happened at people’s kitchen tables? Kitchens get you away from the clutter of your desk. It’s just you, the table, and your work.
However, kitchens get busy around lunch so we need a plan B… a company library! This is a whisper-only area. There’s even a sign that says so. And it is full of all the greatest books. The tables are long and there’s a grand fireplace to sit by and ponder your thoughts.
Also, we need “leave me the f* alone rooms”. We put so much emphasis on teamwork that we forget that most of the greatest accomplishments in history were achieved in moments where a singular individual said “aha!” and mankind immediately took a great leap forward.
Isolation is underrated. Newton came up with the laws of motion when he was hiding away in his house trying to avoid getting the plague. More companies should buy cabins way up in the middle of Canada or tucked away in the Alps. They aren’t for family vacations. They aren’t even for team vacations. They are for individuals getting away and concentrating intensely.
Steve Wozniak said it best:
I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by a committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone.
This model won’t work for every company. However, for the tech companies where they live and die depending on whether they innovate fast enough, this matters. It’s not a sure-fire thing but that secluded cabin is x100 more likely to induce invention than orange walls, half-moon shaped tables, and bean bags.
Einstein in his study at his home in Berlin