Rejecting the ‘office as a playground’ approach to office design


Invest yourself in everything you do. There’s fun in being serious. – John Coltrane  

There seems to be a growing trend toward seriousness at work. I’ve heard this from many people recently, and one cause may be that increased autonomy must be accompanied by higher accountability (see Work skills for the future: accountability), which in turn makes people more deliberate at work.

As the Coltrane quote suggests, that doesn’t exclude fun, per se, or playfulness, but it is serious play.

As an aspect of this, I have stumbled across several office redesigns where the designers explicitly reject the ‘office as a playground’: the anarchic, Nerf-gun, scooters-in-the-office, free-form placelessness associated with the dot com entrepreneurial spasm of the early 2000s.

A recent example is the design for the New York office of Wieden+Kennedy — the well-known creative agency — by WORK Architecture Company. As they write about the project, 

The design for Wieden+Kennedy New York moves away from the office-as-playground to put work back at the heart of creative work. After a foray into the history of the workplace, research revealed that while advertising agencies have always been at the forefront of cutting-edge office design, no single workplace trend has replaced those that came before. Rather, the ways that people work have continued to evolve, layer and multiply.

Because work at Wieden+Kennedy is highly collaborative, WORKac designed the widest possible range of discussion spaces to accommodate meetings and gatherings of varying size, privacy levels, and duration. Teams can choose to hold quick reviews standing up at 10 foot long “Over-The-Counter” blackened steel tables; have informal discussions in lounges with comfortable furniture and natural wood floors, raised to different levels to create a sense of privacy; or gather in the kitchens for working lunches.

More traditional meetings can be held in conference rooms that range in scale from smaller, intimate “Phonebooths,” to “Picnic-Table” meeting rooms that accommodate up to 10 people to larger, formal “Wide-n-Long” conference rooms. Glass walls create a sense of lightness and transparency in the space. Clusters of these different meeting spaces are organized around groups of 20-25 people in open offices, featuring polished concrete floors.

We are in a time of revolution in the workplace, a rapid expansion of forms and formats, accelerated and mediated by shifts in communications — especially mobile — and the new protocols of work arising from cultural and technological shifts.

Designboom said the office

embraces urban density as its motto: a minimal compression of individual work spaces that opens up room for a gradient of diverse collective spaces.

WORK.ac devised a series of architectural elements in four categories: open office, private offices, meeting spaces, and communal spaces. This is the palette they used to landscape the building.

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And the result:

Weiden+KennedyNYC_Photo©BruceDamonte_04_945 Weiden+KennedyNYC_Photo©BruceDamonte_10_465_crop Weiden+KennedyNYC_Photo©BruceDamonte_17_465 Weiden+KennedyNYC_Photo©BruceDamonte_18_465 Weiden+KennedyNYC_Photo©BruceDamonte_19_945 Weiden+KennedyNYC_Photo©BruceDamonte_29_945 Weiden+KennedyNYC_Photo©BruceDamonte_31_465_crop WORKac_W+K_Yoga-in-the-park_465_lighter W+K_packed-coin-stair_465_crop

A beautiful and modern workplace — one that fosters working together and accepts the need for mobility — is a huge force multiplier.

Just as the individual has to devote themselves to their discipline, and focus to get things done, the business has an obligation to focus on culture and technology, and infrastructure. The most basic technology is the work environment, although we have a tendency to think of it in different terms.

I plan to profile other great examples or work architecture — like the recent redesign of Square’s headquarters (see Another take on offices: something other than open or closed) — on an ongoing basis.

Relevant Analyst
Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

Lead analyst, future of work Gigaom Research and stoweboyd.com

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