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The Big Problem With Top-Down Office Design

After enough study of human behavior, it becomes apparent that, oftentimes, leaders don’t always act in ways that benefit their followers. Economists and political scientists call this the agency problem. What is a leader if not an agent of the people? They are supposed to lead. They are obligated to consider their principles’ best interest. This problem has bled into every aspect of how our financial and political systems operate. 

Urban planning is a place where agency problems are blindingly obvious to spot. There are notable failures around the world, from poor zoning policy to insufficient planning for growth to legacies of racism and classism, particularly around housing. While the fault gets placed on professional urban planners the discipline’s integrative nature, taking cues (and following orders from) other principles, like economics and politics, means that it is particularly vulnerable to being negatively impacted by external forces.

Someone has to make the hard decisions when it comes to space planning, making it a top-down process. This can create opportunities for leaders to focus on the wrong things when it comes to helping the people who use it. A great (horrible) example is Brasilia. The federal capital of Brazil, Brasilia was built in five short years to be the perfect Brazilian city. Rigidly-planned buildings housed governmental offices or living quarters, while expansive parks offered open space. The master-planned portion of the city, with its sweeping highways, long parks and copy-pasted buildings, looks like artwork from the satellite perspective. 

This appearance hides a number of major challenges facing the city. The rigidly-planned housing available within the city was unable to absorb the impacts of the construction workers who actually constructed the buildings, as well as the subsequent waves of transplants to the area. Designer Lucio Costa’s aggressively car-centric design allowed plenty of space for streets and exit ramps of all sorts, but shorthanded the pedestrian in a major way. While Brasilia is loved by some, it has failed to evolve organically as a city, largely the result of its prescriptive design. 

The downfalls of top-down design don’t just show up at the city level. Take a look at your local architecture and development website, and you’ll inevitably see tons of people, NIMBY or not, complaining about the newest urban planning initiatives. At an even smaller scale, consider the dynamics of design within office buildings, where spaces are generally expected to be used as-is regardless of the particular needs of their rank and file occupants. If there are cubicles, the employees will get cubicles, even if they primarily need to collaborate. If there are private, enclosed offices, that’s what the employees are going to get, even if they were less productive in the privacy of separate workspace. 

This is a huge challenge facing open offices today, as well. In our most recent research report, we investigated the studies and media surrounding the increasingly-common open office, the vast majority of which is overwhelmingly negative. This makes sense, since there are a lot of different types of employees who wouldn’t like the open office layout: people who have been used to enclosed offices or cubicles for their entire professional lives, people who are easily distracted by noise, people who don’t want or need to collaborate, and people who make a lot of calls. For fun, think about the workspace in the television show The Office. Is it any wonder that the employees of Dunder Mifflin waste seemingly 90% of every workday? It’s an office full of phone-centric salespeople and concentration-heavy accountants, and the majority of them work in the same open space without even a semblance of privacy or room to focus. Of course, they spend all day planning parties and bothering each other. There’s no way you’re buckling down to knock out an expense report or close a big sale in that kind of environment.

As in Brasilia, one of the fundamental challenges of the modern open office (or really, the office in general) is that it prescribes the use of space instead of providing a spatial canvas for employees to use as they see fit. There is no flexibility. Of course, companies have size parameters and budgets to work within, but it doesn’t excuse the vast majority of offices that simply tell their employees to sit down at their desk and power through the day, especially in an age when workplace flexibility has been shown to increase productivity. Solutions for these inadequate spaces don’t even need to be tech-centric. Urban planners and designers have been using design charrettes to gain stakeholder input for years. 

CBRE’s Peter Andrew, the senior director of workplace strategies in Asia Pacific, mentioned using a similar approach. According to Peter, CBRE has been finding success with “rapid two-day workshops where we bring a large group of senior leaders into a room and facilitate a debate and discussion around how [the office space] works, as well as the underlying design principles…in the last 18 months of experimentation, I’ve seen more creativity in the completion of work environments than I’ve ever seen before.”

Whether the scale at hand is the office or the city, spatial planners cannot afford to design from the top down without user buy-in. Imagine taking a software project from alpha to public launch, completely skipping the beta test. What a disaster that would be! The same can be said for physical spaces. Brasilia may have been built half a century ago, but its lessons, and its car-centric streets, live on.

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