Function Over Form

Function over Form


When we tell people we design and build commercial office spaces, they are likely to think about many things — blueprints, construction, walls, carpeting, furnishings — the list could go on forever. But they are not likely to think about the two things that make the business most fascinating to us: people and psychology.  Function over form.


Case in point: In recent years, high-profile companies like Google, Yahoo, eBay, Goldman Sachs, American Express, and Facebook adopted open office spaces. Billed as communal environments, they were praised as doing everything from fostering collaboration to reducing cost, from making management easier to improving workflow. They were cool. They were popular. Even made senior management folks feel edgy and progressive. It accounted for nearly every tangible factor imaginable. But they ignored two things, both intangible: people and their psychological needs.


We’re Only Human

As is always the case with human nature, it takes a while for empirical evidence and common sense to sink it. But even human nature cannot defy the inevitable. And so the tide began to turn.


The Wall Street Journal published “Open Offices Are Losing Some of Their Openness“.
The Boston Globe published “Open Offices Seem Great — Until You Work in One”.
Inc. published “9 Reasons that Open-Space Offices are Insanely Stupid”.
The BBC published “Why Open Offices are Bad For Us”.
Fortune published (at least) two articles: “The Open-Office Concept is Dead” and “It’s Time to Bring Back the Office Cubicle”.


What happened? Humans are social animals, right? No. Bats are social animals. Wolves are social animals. Crows, dolphins, meerkats, and sea otters are social animals. Humans are selectively social animals. And that makes all the difference.


As selectively social animals, we need privacy, quiet, space in which to concentrate. In fact, psychoanalyst, clinical psychologist, and New York University professor, Ester Schaler Buchholz, devoted an entire book to our need to be alone: The Call of Solitude. And we can find the inevitability in what companies are now (re)discovering in Dr. Buchholz’s intent to: unshackle aloneness from its negative position as kith and kin to loneliness … She laments many of her patients’ inability to grow inwardly by fostering their self-reflective and imaginative lives.


The Contemplative Animal


But our need to connect with ourselves is nothing like news. And it shouldn’t surprise us. Henry David Thoreau was writing about our self-reflective and imaginative lives, our need for quiet introspection, in 1862:


In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while. (“Life Without Principle”)


There is nothing new under the sun. Everything old becomes new again. And everything in nature turns in cycles. Maybe we would all be more cognizant of those truths if we gave ourselves more unfettered and undisturbed time to reflect on them. At the very least, we might not be surprised at our needs for quiet and privacy, even at work.  Function over form.


Want to design the best workplace for your people? Ask them how they work.


Contemplate that.

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