Good Office Design

Jason Kottke points to a 2000 article by Malcolm Gladwell, which “draws parallels between good office design and the ideas in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities”:

The task of the office, then, is to invite a particular kind of social interaction–the casual, nonthreatening encounter that makes it easy for relative strangers to talk to each other. Offices need the sort of social milieu that Jane Jacobs found on the sidewalks of the West Village. “It is possible in a city street neighborhood to know all kinds of people without unwelcome entanglements, without boredom, necessity for excuses, explanations, fears of giving offense, embarrassments respecting impositions or commitments, and all such paraphernalia of obligations which can accompany less limited relationships,” Jacobs wrote. If you substitute “office” for “city street neighborhood,” that sentence becomes the perfect statement of what the modern employer wants from the workplace.

To maximize the amount of contact among employees, you really ought to put the most valuable staff members in the center of the room, where the highest number of people can be within their orbit. Or, even better, put all places where people tend to congregate–the public areas–in the center, so they can draw from as many disparate parts of the company as possible. Is it any wonder that creative firms often prefer loft-style buildings, which have usable centers?

Another way to increase communication is to have as few private offices as possible. The idea is to exchange private space for public space, just as in the West Village, where residents agree to live in tiny apartments in exchange for a wealth of nearby cafs and stores and bars and parks.

A more direct approach is to create an office so flexible that the kinds of people who need to spontaneously interact can actually be brought together.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.