The shaping of us

We meet Lily Bernheimer – environmental psychology consultant, researcher and writer – and run a chapter from her new book.

Lily Bernheimer is an environmental psychology consultant, researcher, and writer. She is Founding Director of Space Works Consulting where she consults on how to make workspaces, dwellings, and urban environments work for the people and purpose they serve. Lily has specialized in developing evidence-based design strategy and metrics for workplaces and other complex environments, including a recent major initiative on Wellbeing in Prison Design. She was a 2015-2016 Research Fellow at the University of Surrey, where she obtained her MSc. in Environmental Psychology, and also holds a BA from Brown University. Her book The Shaping of Us, published by Robinson, is available now. The extract below is reproduced with kind permission.

Tell me about Space Works Consulting.
Space Works is an environmental psychology consultancy, so we work with architects, designers, and organisations to make everyday spaces truly work for the people and purposes they serve. I started out my career in New York City, thinking I wanted to be an urban planner, but was ultimately drawn to researching how to design our cities, homes, and workplaces better for human well-being through environmental psychology. Unfortunately, much of this evidence remains locked away in journal articles that designers and policymakers can’t access or make use of. After coming to the UK to do my MSc. at the University of Surrey, I co-founded Space Works to bridge this gap between academic research and practical application.

We have worked with co-working spaces like Impact HUB Kings Cross and housing developers like Grainger plc. on projects ranging from design strategy to applied research. Most recently, we collaborated with Matter Architecture to evaluate Britain’s newest prison, HMP Berwyn, and advise the Ministry of Justice on how to better design prisons with well-being and rehabilitation in mind.

You begin the book with a Winston Churchill quote: ‘We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us’.
Oddly enough, I wasn’t consciously thinking of the Churchill quote when I came up with the title for the book! Churchill was right, of course. But humans have been around far longer than buildings. And before buildings, the natural environments of our evolution played a foundational role in shaping us to be the creatures we still are today.

Building bigger, more “efficient” skyscrapers and super-highways, over the past century, we somehow seem to have lost sight of the critical role that built and natural environments play in shaping well-being, community, and our very identities. Writing and researching this book, I came to believe that enabling people to take an active role in shaping the everyday spaces of their lives is critical to restoring a natural biophilic quality to our built environment.

What kind of spaces do we like?
We like spaces that flirt with us – complex and mysterious settings – without threatening the achievement of our goals. While orderly layouts like American street grids or a floor of cubicles are straightforward to navigate, they aren’t the environments we love most. We prefer streets that curve out of sight, leading us on with a tantalising hint of what lies beyond; spiral staircases and canopies of forest trees.

The spaces we love most balance legibility with mystery, order with complexity, and comfort with awe. We are drawn to expansive mountain-top views and the ornate patterns of art-deco towers, but also crave the shelter of a simple protected courtyard and cosy nooks like window seats. The built environment supports our well-being best when it echoes the natural world in some way – through pattern, dimension, light, layout, noise – the scale and tone of the world that we were built for.

Isn’t that pretty obvious?

Well, yes and no! Our behaviour is often quite counterintuitive. We assume that traffic lights and curbs protect pedestrians, but actually drive more safely when we’re forced to pay attention to our surroundings. Promising parks often become magnets for anti-social activity, and modern housing developments intended to be more hygienic and egalitarian have often failed to support community as effectively as the so-called “slums” that were torn down to make way for them.

Take the distinction between the British roundabout and the American four-way intersection. As an American, British roundabouts intuitively felt less safe to me when I arrived in the UK because I wasn’t used to them. But our intuitions often deceive us. Statistically there are 32 possible vehicle crash points in the standard American intersection, compared to only 8 in a roundabout! American streets literally set us up for collision.

What’s even more surprising is the story behind the British roundabout. Roundabouts were common in both the US and the UK as automobile use grew in the first half of 20th century, but were largely abandoned in the post-war US planning. Why did Britain persevere in perfecting the format abandoned by her American cousins? The British government paid for hospital bills as well as highway construction! So while we can’t say that roundabouts make the British more collectively minded or that the grid system makes Americans more individualistic and confrontational, there is a fascinating synergy between design and culture which isn’t immediately obvious.

When it comes to something like refuge and prospect – our seemingly evolutionary preference for hill-top houses with ocean views – research confirms what we anecdotally know. But you might be more surprised to learn these environmental preferences deeply impact our health and productivity. Office workers sitting in what I call “ninja-proof seats” (see below) – those where you have your back to the wall – actually demonstrate increased concentration and cognitive performance.

You’ve got offices in the UK and US. Has it ever occurred to you that most of the examples of bad practice in urban planning etc seem to come from these countries, and a lot of the good is from the Netherlands, Scandinavia etc?

Before coming to the UK, I thought the US must take the cake for bad urban planning practices. But I now feel that there must be a special place in ugly-building hell for badly designed British buildings. Because we share some faults, the UK and US have a lot to learn from each other.

Northern European countries certainly have many best practices to offer, but there is a real danger in saying, “Look how great things are in the Netherlands. If we just graft these Dutch street design principals onto British streets, the culture as well as the form will follow.”

As architect and WikiHouse co-founder Alastair Parvin put it brilliantly when I interviewed him, ‘What most people call bad design isn’t bad design. It’s really good design for a totally different set of economic outcomes, which is producing real estate.’ To truly repair our dysfunctional streets and cities, we have to re-work the underlying economic and social structures that have created them as well. Our current system – relying on a small number of profit-driven developers to develop the majority of our housing – is rigged to prioritise profit rather than well-being, community, or beauty, and that shows.

We also have much to learn from places in our own countries like Detroit – where communities are taking urban development back into their own hands – and projects such as WikiHouse, which empower people to build their own housing. When people are involved in shaping their own streets, homes, and workspaces, we find a variety of social and psychological benefits such as lower crime rates and higher levels of well-being, agency, and “collective efficacy”: the level of trust, cohesion, and informal social control.

As I read the book I noticed that the work of an environmental psychologist is quite over-arching, i.e. drawing in aspects of occupational, social, clinical, health… 

Absolutely. Because environmental psychologists study all types of spaces there is a lot of overlap with other areas of psychology. We often draw on research from occupational, health, or social psychology, and are keen to collaborate with these disciplines.

The tools we use can be applied to improve any kind of space: work, home, institutional, and public outdoor spaces. And while the field is formally a subset of psychology, it is really an interdisciplinary domain, drawing people with backgrounds in architecture and urban planning.

We also share some things in common with the “design thinking” or human-centred design approach. Products like websites and cars are never put into use without tweaking and testing to make sure they work for their users. This iterative design thinking approach is now applied to improve everything from social services to rural African water collection systems, but is rarely employed to evaluate and improve buildings. Environmental psychologists essentially do this type of “user experience” testing for buildings.

‘Ruin porn’ was a new one on me!
I’ve always been fascinated by the role of time in our environmental preferences. Why do we love old buildings and cities so much? And why do our attempts to mimic them today seem to fail so spectacularly? Did we used to have better building techniques? Or is it something about the impact of time and wear that makes these places more lovable? Ruin porn technically refers to our fascination with buildings in states of decay, but these two questions actually appear to share a common explanation.

Natural scenes are marked by fractal geometry, which involves a specific recipe of order and complexity. We see fractals most obviously in trees and coastlines, which repeat self-similar forms on smaller and smaller scales. Because our visual perceptual system evolved to function in this fractal world, we find these environments calming and pleasing. Gazing at a tree can swiftly reduce blood pressure and the circulation of stress hormones, as Roger Ulrich famously demonstrated.

As it turns out, traditional building forms around the world also consistently embody fractal qualities – from the detailing of window frames to the cascading domes of Hindu temples and the configuration of London’s streets – explaining the enduring appeal of these structures. Fractal geometry had not been formally identified in the times of John Ruskin, who famously for advocated the beauty or ruins. But parallels between his theories of compositional and architectural beauty and fractal geometry have more recently been identified, which may also help us understand aesthetic allure or ruin porn.

It’s an extremely well-written book, yet it’s your first. Did you find it easy?
Thank you! No, I would say it’s probably the most difficult thing I’ve done.

Summarizing a vast body of research findings in terms that are faithful to the evidence but also fun and accessible is quite a task. I did really enjoy enlivening the research with anecdotes from my own life and work. My father is a poet and my mother is a librarian, so I come from a literary family and have kept a journal since I was twelve. It was fun to bring a creative, personal voice into play with the material I consult on professionally.

How is this field changing?
Early environmental psychologists focused primarily on architectural issues, asking questions like “Do people prefer peaked roofs? Are we more irritable in crowded rooms?” Today there is a much stronger emphasis on the natural environment and understanding behaviour in relation to sustainability. My interest has always been in aligning these two sides of environmental psychology. We will have a much easier time getting people to adopt sustainable innovations like energy efficient light bulbs if they also produce a warm light quality with positive mood and circadian impacts similar to sunlight.

 

The Defeat of the Ninja-Proof Seat
The Hawthorne effect, personal space bubbles, and the open-plan office

When I try to explain environmental psychology to some­one new, they always say the same three things:

‘So you ask trees about how they feel?’

This, they clearly think, is a very witty comment that I have never heard before. Mine is a vast, murky, unknown topic to most people. So I explain to them how I apply environmental psychology research to create better workspaces. This clicks immediately. And they say, ‘Oh, my office is terrible! We should get you in.’ And then they almost always say, ‘Can you make us a Google office?’

If you work in an office, or a factory, or even a school, you probably feel the same way. Only fifty-three per cent of workers surveyed by the Leesman Index (the largest independent database of workplace effectiveness data) say that their workplace enables them to work productively. Many of us have become used to spending the majority of our waking hours in dull, grey boxes with slightly fuzzy movable walls. But when you take a step back, it seems quite strange that all these buildings dedicated specifically to getting work done don’t work as well as they could for that purpose.

Researchers and businesses have been trying to figure out how to make workers more productive for a long time. It began in 1924 at a manufacturing plant outside Chicago. The Hawthorne Works was a flat, grey factory with twin chimneys billowing smoke out into the flat, grey Midwestern sky. Inside, twelve thousand workers were working on assembly lines, wind­ing coils to manufacture a hot high-tech device called the telephone. The company, Western Electric, wanted to find out if they could make the workers work a little faster by shining a bit more light in this grey box they worked in.

A group of researchers led by a man named Elton Mayo started running some tests. They shone more and less light at certain times on different assembly lines. And like all good researchers they also had a control group, whose lighting levels stayed constant. The workers with more light did work faster. But strangely, the control group workers were more productive as well. Next, they tried low­ering the lights, and the workers were able to maintain production levels even when lighting was reduced by seventy per cent. Finally, they pretended to raise the lighting while actually keeping it con­stant. Not only did productivity increase but the workers also told them how happy they were with the improved lighting!

At least, that is how the story goes. The Hawthorne Effect, as it came to be known, is highly debated. It has an almost mythical status in the worlds of occupational psychology and human relations. The original studies themselves were never formally published, but were recounted and reinterpreted by many subse­quent researchers, a little like a ghost story. More recent scrutiny has uncovered major statistical and methodological flaws.

But the impact the Hawthorne Effect has had on workspaces is difficult to overstate. Researchers concluded that the presence and attention of the research team and the novelty of change had made the workers more productive. And this led many people to believe that environmental factors like lighting were less important to productivity than social factors like supervision. The Hawthorne studies helped give birth to the human relations movement, which you now find embodied in your company’s HR department. It led businesses to focus on management, social relations, and motivation rather than the workspace itself. It led researchers away from looking at factors like layout, noise, and light quality – how the shape of a table might make us more collaborative, or the height of the ceiling might make us more cre­ative. Or how not being able to make the space our own in some way might make us want to spend as little time there as we can.

On some level we know these things affect us. I once worked in an office full of software engineers who were obsessed with what they called ninja-proof seats. A ninja-proof seat is one with its back to the wall so you can be sure no ninjas can sneak up from behind. Setting aside questions of whether ninjas can fly or climb walls, your computer screen can’t be seen without your knowledge. Our original office was an industrial conversion in New York’s West Village, although it wasn’t really converted for office use. It was a small sail-making factory that a flamboyant man named Franz had fitted out with Grecian columns and internal balconies, before running off to Berlin and subletting it to our organisation. This meant there were many internal walls and small spaces. In the largest room the software developers had arranged their desks in a large U so that everyone could have a ninja-proof seat.

As the organisation grew, we needed to move to a larger, more professional office. The new space was lovely, with outstand­ing amenities like a living green wall, well-stocked kitchen, and expansive views. The company was vying to attract top engineer­ing grads, wooing them with a workplace they would never want to leave. But as you often find with these Google-esque offices, lots of energy had been put into these eye-catching extras, and much less into the workstations themselves. It was essentially a large open-plan office with long rows of desks down the centre.

And this meant there were no ninja-proof seats! Not a single one. The developers’ complaints were dismissed as irrelevant – except for the most fearsome socks-under-Birkenstocks-wearing coder, who was mysteriously allowed to claim a broom closet for his sole use. (He may possibly have had a reputation for being more productive than all of the other developers combined.) The HR team was convinced that ninja-proof seats were mainly good for getting away with playing video games at work.

The term ‘ninja-proof seat’ may only be used by those fluent in Python and JavaScript, but you will find people who are adamant about their need for one in any office you go to. This is because they provide what geographer Jay Appleton calls refuge and pros­pect. If you imagine a time when we were being chased by lions and men with swords, certain places would be much safer than others. Climbing up a hilltop would allow a good prospect of approaching threats. Building a fort against a mountain face would be even better as it would provide refuge, and limit the directions these lions or pirates might attack you from. Our preference for ninja-proof seats works on the same principle. Many people feel most comfortable and at ease when they have their back to the wall rather than an open room or door.

More importantly, we actually concentrate better on our work and demonstrate increased cognitive performance in ninja-proof seats. Then again, some people aren’t bothered about where they sit or what type of lighting their office has. Certain personality types, like introverts, may be much more strongly impacted by issues like noise. And others may report that it doesn’t bother them, but their performance is nevertheless impaired.

So how did we come to find ourselves in these monotonous boxes called offices?

Before the industrial revolution, many people’s work happened in and around their homes: farming adjacent lands, running a shop downstairs, or even weaving in the kitchen. The industrial revolution brought many people’s work out of their homes, collecting them together in big boxes called factories. The form and location of early factories were typically determined by sources of power and light. Mills required fast-flowing water power, so they were often built near hilly streams, removed from low-lying coastal commercial centres. Waterwheel technology worked by turning a long shaft, which powered machinery inside the mill. Reliance on natural light required a narrow building no more than 60 feet (18 metres) wide. So mill factories were shaped as long narrow boxes.

Iron, structural steel, and concrete revolutionised the scale and form of factories, and then offices. But our concept of pro­ductivity has continued to be defined by a factory-based notion of workers as cogs in a machine striving to obtain perfect effi­ciency. The foundations for this concept of productivity were laid by a man named Frederick Winslow Taylor. Studying industrial efficiency in factories, he developed an approach called ‘scientific management’, or Taylorism, and pioneered the practice of management consulting. Productivity has tradi­tionally been defined as the ratio of output to inputs, including things like materials, labour, and capital. In the factory model, you put these in one end, and get telephones, rubber ducks, or some other widget out the other end. Similarly to the design of our streets, the concept of productivity comes from an engineer­ing framework, aiming to achieve the maximum output possible for a production process, given a set level of input. But trying to achieve supreme technical efficiency may not always make eco­nomic sense.

Assigning each worker to their own box of space was a key strategy in the design of traditional offices and management systems. With everyone in their proper place, materials, productivity, and output could easily be accounted for. But the rise of information and communication technologies has caused what employment studies expert Alan Felstead calls a ‘weakening of the spatial fixity of the workplace, with workers increasingly detached from their personal cubes of space.’

Now, rather than being stationed in a set desk or cubicle for forty hours a week, office workers are told the key to productivity is to plug themselves into different ‘hot desks’, roam from workstations to soft-seating break-out pods, and vary their work location between home, office, and cafés on a daily basis. Companies are even beginning to sublet desks within their own offices through services like Deskcamping.

The parade of office design trends keeps marching on. But it is important to differentiate innovations motivated by new working patterns and research findings from the latest fad for air-plant terrariums. Setting aside whatever you may have been told about goat-hair carpets and living walls, what do we really know about what we need to be effective at work?

Outside of the artificial lab environment, the office provides perhaps the best testing ground to consider the plethora of environmental factors influencing our mood and behaviour from moment to moment. Do you work more efficiently in complete silence or with mild background chatter? Is it easier to concentrate in a cubicle, or to collaborate in an open floorplan? We have inputs to consider like light, noise, layout, dimensions, and temperature. And we have outputs to consider like individual efficiency, creativity, collaboration, and the elusive metric of productivity.

In 2013, University of Sydney researchers Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear conducted a study to try to pinpoint exactly which indoor environmental qualities are most important to workers’ overall happiness with their workspace. They looked at satisfaction with air quality, thermal comfort, lighting, layout, acoustic quality, cleanliness, and even furnishings. Reviewing over forty thousand survey responses from the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment database, they found one crucial satisfaction factor that outranked all the others: the size of one’s individual office space.

Personal space is like an invisible bubble that we wear around ourselves wherever we go. When pigeons perch on telephone lines they tend to space themselves evenly apart, and people do the same thing. Think of how we stand in bus-stop queues.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall was one of the first research­ers to establish these basic dimensions of personal space – ‘proxemics’ – through a series of observational studies con­ducted in the 1960s. Hall discovered that people have four key sizes of personal space bubbles, which they inflate and deflate depending on where they are and who they’re with. Proxemics are the spatial requirements of humans and animals. But Hall believed there was more to read into these dynamics than calcu­lations of population density. He saw the space between people as a form of communication.

Working in the US State Department to train foreign service personnel for posts in disparate parts of the world, he encountered intercultural communication issues from Japan to Syria to Germany. He found that ‘the way in which both time and space were handled constituted a form of communication which was responded to as if it were built into people and, therefore, universally valid.’ This ‘silent language’, he believed, functions as part of the DNA of the cultures it is rooted in.

Hall studied various cultures, but particularly his own: middle-class Americans of northern European descent. We must remember that, in his day, the state of ethnic integration in the US was primeval. So while this may sound like an oddly specific definition today, it was relevant at the time. Even within the US, he found that different ethnic and socioeconomic groups had different personal space norms.

In the language of Hall’s subculture, the most intimate level (0 to 1.5 feet) is reserved for romantic partners, comforting gestures, and special scenarios like sports and theatre seating. At the personal level (1.5 to 4 feet) we interact with close friends and pass by people in a shop or the office kitchen when necessary. For more formal and impersonal dynamics, we bring out our social distance bubble (4 to 8 feet). And for public settings – performing or speaking to an audience – we prefer a distance of more than 10 feet.

These thresholds aren’t completely arbitrary. They are defined by human scale in relation to cultural norms about acceptable interactions. In the personal zone, you are within reach: standing elbow to elbow or one arm’s length away. The social zone tends to place you just out of reach. And at the public distance, you are roughly the length of two not very tall people apart. I tested this out a few times recently, and was surprised to find how accurate it was. Whether sitting or standing, I found myself reliably just out of reach from the informal acquaintances I was in conversation with.

While it is whimsical to imagine ourselves bobbing about our days in big pink bubbles, it is important to add that there are some limitations to this metaphor. Our space bubbles are not actually spherical, for one. We have a higher tolerance for the proximity of others behind us than in front of us. Our bubbles also aren’t like armour, protecting us from everything we interact with. They are permeable, allowing chairs, sandwiches, and even cats and babies into contact. They’re more like force fields that operate only in relation to other people, bristling into action when they come into proximity with other humans. Finally, the idea of personal space as a bubble may emphasise protection too much over communication. And while architectural elements are allowed into our space, our bubbles do shrink and warp enormously in relation to our physical surroundings.

As rooms get smaller, personal space bubbles expand. Men in particular seem to desire more personal space in environments with low ceilings. Our comfort zones require more space in narrow rooms than square ones, in the corner rather than the centre of the room, when we’re inside instead of outside, sitting down rather than standing up, and in more crowded spaces. As with the concepts of refuge and prospect, this may relate to basic survival instincts. In more constrained environments, we need more personal space to keep our flight and fight options open.

The personal space bubble is the most basic dimension of people and space. But what happens to different people’s bub­bles when they come together in the space of an office? We are all familiar with the idea of territory, but how does it differ from personal space? While personal space is invisible and movable, territory is relatively fixed and visible. Territories also tend to be larger than personal spaces. They relate to the idea of ownership, and can extend past the individual to small and large groups of people.

Like many features of human behaviour, psychologists are split on whether territoriality is innate or learned – whether we are born with the instinct to put up fences around our properties or learn this custom during our upbringing. In the animal kingdom, mammals, insects, birds, and even fish define and defend territory in various ways. Territory functions as a way for these animals to control mating opportunities and access to resources such as food and shelter. Dispersing population ensures that a particular area doesn’t become overpopulated, threatening the survival of the species as a whole.

Humans differ from other animals in that we have developed extensive physical and legal structures to mediate territorial relationships. And this means that we use physical conflict to defend individual territory less often than many of our animal counterparts – at least in recent history. We also invite people into our territories, which wildebeests and hyenas don’t tend to do. And when we do battle for territory we like to do it in groups, whereas other animals tend to fight individually. Still, territory is critical to our sense of safety and survival.

American researchers in the 1970s identified three main levels of territory, which we define and defend in different ways. A primary territory is a place we feel very strong ownership over, such as our home or an individual office. Even if we don’t actually own our apartment or office, we feel a high degree of control over who can enter these areas and how they will be used or decorated. A secondary territory is a place that we feel a moderate sense of control over, such as a local pub, classroom, or community garden. Public territories are public spaces such as parks, streets, and sidewalks, which we have little control over. But even in these spaces, we may temporarily claim territory by parking in a parking spot or laying out a picnic blanket.

One of the main ways we define these territories is by personalising them. Personalisation is the purposeful decoration, rearrangement, or adaptation of an environment to reflect the identity of those who occupy it. It is estimated that seventy to ninety per cent of working Americans personalise their workplace in some way, though women are more likely to personalise their desks than men, and use more plants and social items like photos. Studies indicate that personalisation has many benefits, such as greater satisfaction with work, increased well-being, higher morale, and lower staff turnover. These positive psychological benefits are understood to be a result of support for the expression of identity and distinctiveness. But bureaucracies and corporations have often unfortunately resisted personalisation in the workplace.

Personal space, territory, and personalisation all relate intimately to privacy. Social and environmental psychologist Irwin Altman believed that they were all smaller pieces of the bigger issue of how we control our privacy. Altman suggested that privacy is not just the state of being in private; it is the ability to selectively control access to yourself. Like personal space, privacy is just as much about communication as it is about separation. We often find that more private spaces are more personalised. Compare a private office to one shared with others, for instance.

The only private office I have ever worked in was at my first job at the Gotham Center for New York City History. As part of the City University of New York Graduate Center, it was housed within a behemoth of a building filling the entire block at the corner of Thirty-Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan – right across the street from the Empire State Building. The cafeteria on the top floor had a glass ceiling, through which you could peer up at the Empire State at an uncomfortably close angle. The Italianate structure had been a luxurious department store, called B. Altman & Company. Many years before, my grandmother had spent Saturdays perusing the same floors, when they were stocked with small leather goods, neckwear, and a blouse bazaar. But the building had been largely gutted in renovation, so only a few traces of this history remained – the windowsills, a railing in a back stairway where I would steal away to glimpse the sun.

By my time, the building was a maze of long interlocking corridors with identical grey doors. My office was a little windowless cube off a windowless hall. Sometimes I was joined by another woman named Melinda who talked a lot about her cats. But mostly I was alone in a small dark room. I spent a lot of time imagining myself on a spaceship. It was not the most stimulating environment – I found myself getting very sleepy. So I never had any desire to close my door. I kept it open to watch academic superstars like geographer David Harvey passing by.

The saving grace of this solitary space was that I could control certain key elements. I played the radio and adjusted the furniture. But more importantly, I never used the harsh overhead light, which made me feel like my brain was in a microwave. Using a few lamps with a softer quality of light made a huge difference to my happiness. Working away at thrilling tasks like filling in Excel spreadsheets with the names of New York City public school teachers, I yearned for the stimulation of engaging co-workers. The Gotham-themed prank calls I received (‘Hello, this is the Joker, can I speak to the Batman?’) became the social interaction highlight of my day. But with more people comes less control. And if I hadn’t had control of these few little factors, I was certain my performance would have suffered.

When people get in touch with my consultancy today, it is usually because they have decided that an open-plan office is the answer to their problems. Typically, there is some other motivating factor. The company is expanding, the lease is up, or they have raised funds to give their tired digs a facelift. They want it to be sustainable, creative, productive! And they have also heard that this open-plan, hot-desk thing is the thing to do. But somewhere along the way, problems start to appear – often when they are well into the process of working with an interior designer or fit-out company. Initial plans have been drawn up and the finance team is enraged! Why have they all been shoved into one windowless corner? Or perhaps it is the reclusive research unit who are concerned about being placed directly next to the chatty recruitment team.

The modern open-plan ideal was popularised in the late 1950s with the ‘bull pen’ format, where desks are laid out in straight rows without partitions. Office landscaping, or Burolandschaft, a German concept introduced to the US in 1964, divides a space with interlocking shoulder-height partitions, filing cabinets, and potted plants. These innovations were expected to be more efficient for teamwork, facilitate easier supervision, and reduce renovation expenses. This trend was taken a step further with the ‘non-territorial office’, in which employees have no assigned desk. Non-territorial working began to appear as early as the 1980s, but is now known more commonly as hot-desking. In non-territorial offices design, the bias against personalisation is essentially built in.

Max Weber, a pioneer in the study of bureaucracy, alleged that work systems were increasingly efficient as the work itself was more depersonalised. Particularly when brought out of the private office, personalisation has been discouraged as ‘blight’ on the clear expanse of desks. This is unfortunate because the assumption that physical neatness is connected to organisational efficiency has not been supported with empirical evidence.

The move to open-plan offices has been motivated by both economic and ideological objectives. In an open-plan office you can fit more people into a smaller space. Less space is taken up by walls and doors. And you can more easily reconfigure space to accommodate organisational change. The economic advantages have been well demonstrated. And with hot-desking, the savings can be even greater. Ten employees can typically be served with only seven workspaces, correlating to enormous savings on an expense which is second only to staff for most companies. Citi has recently been able to accommodate two hundred workers with only 150 desks in their New York office.

This all sounds wonderfully open and flexible. Open-plan pro­ponents envision these offices as dynamic collaborative places, where conversations take place in the open, knowledge is shared freely, and people can spontaneously collaborate. They have argued that open-plan offices improve individual and organisational productivity by promoting greater communication and collaboration. These are lovely ideas. But unfortunately, the evidence does not corroborate these claims. In fact, it suggests the opposite.

There is quite an extensive body of research in this area, with researchers generally finding that open-plan layouts have a negative impact on people’s happiness with their offices. The move from closed to open offices makes many people feel they can’t do their work as well, and has been linked to slumping job satisfaction and productivity. Research over the past four decades has consistently identified two main problems with open offices: privacy and noise. If you work in an office, you probably know the worst type of noise – your co-worker a few feet away telling the thrilling story of how their Chihuahua choked on a chicken bone over the weekend. Loud and clear, irrelevant but intelligible speech makes it very difficult to work.

A group of Finnish researchers led by Annu Haapakangas found that nearly twice as much working time is needed due to noise in open offices. This type of noise interferes especially with individual work requiring higher cognitive processing and com­plex verbal processes. Noise may specifically reduce productivity by making workers less motivated. What’s ironic is that we have known about these problems with open-plan offices for quite a long time. As far back as 1982, Alan Hedge at the University of Aston found that open-plan office workers were less happy with their offices due to the same two issues: decreasing privacy and increasing disturbances. Hedge’s systematic study found the work itself as well as the workers’ well-being was affected. While the open plan did allow for more flexible space use, Hedge found almost no evidence to suggest the flexibility was actually taken advantage of at the organisational or personal level.

In environmental psychology, ‘sociopetal’ space describes environments that facilitate interaction and communication, whereas ‘sociofugal’ space does the opposite. The seating you typically see in airports and theatres, for instance, is sociofugal. Long rows of seats facing the backs of other seats don’t orient people towards interacting with each other. The spacing of seating is one component of sociopetal space – people seated outside Hall’s social distance are less likely to interact. But seating geometry is also key. As with our four personal space bubbles, we use four key seating geometries for different social dynamics. And when we have to fit ourselves into these formats, they cue us to take on those stances as well.

The first one is obvious. When you come into a room to play a card game or enter a tense business negotiation, where do you sit? Across from your opponent. But what about when we meet a friend to catch up over coffee? Do we sit across from them as well? Or perhaps side by side, as benches and couches invite us to do? This is what personal space researcher Robert Sommer expected to find. But he discovered that people actually tend to sit corner to corner when conversing: a 90-degree orientation. While we tend to think that sofas are a good place to get together for a chat, side-by-side or 180-degree orientation can actually be detrimental to conversation. In cooperative situations people tend to sit adjacent, as this facilitates looking at the same material. But what about sharing a table with someone you don’t know in a library or crowded café? When people want to ignore each other they tend to sit diagonally – ‘catty corner’ as we call it in the US.

Much of this comes down to eye contact. Sitting directly across from someone allows direct eye contact – an ideal oppositional position, which can be too intense for more friendly situations. Similarly, strangers sit diagonally to gain greater distance from each other, but also because it allows them to avoid eye contact.

Extend these concepts to broader office layout and you can start to see how an entire workspace can function sociopetally or sociofugally. Are people spaced close together or far apart? Facing in towards each other, or outwards? Office design trends have reflected changes in the nature of our work, as well as notions of how cooperative or independent our work should be. Sociofugal cubicles isolated paper-pushing white-collar workers, while shared hot desks are intended to foster creative collaboration for today’s multi-tasking knowledge workers.

But let’s get back to Alan Hedge. His 1982 study found that open-plan offices were successfully sociopetal, but more socialising did not help workers do their jobs better. No evidence for the idea of open-plan offices improving productivity was discovered. Of course, many things have changed since Hedge conducted his research. Many more people now work from home at least one day a week. Could this provide the critical balance of private space? And to many workers today – especially younger ones – the idea of ever having a private office may sound as fantastical as having a private jet. Have changing expectations changed perception of open-plan environments?

The 2013 study by Kim and de Dear mentioned earlier re-examined some of Hedge’s findings, specifically comparing workers’ satisfaction with various indoor environmental factors depending on different office layouts: private and shared enclosed offices, cubicles with high and low-level partitions, and open offices with little or no enclosure. Unsurprisingly, the private office was favoured, followed by semi-private. The different types of open-plan offices received similar scores. But one thing was clear: cubicles were the most detested. Across office types, the amount of individual working and storage space was the most important factor in how happy workers were with their workspace.

Interestingly, the importance of other factors varied consider­ably between office types. Visual privacy was ranked as least important to those in private offices, and became more important the less enclosed the office was. Noise level was also seen as more important by those in open offices, but sound privacy was even more important than noise level and visual privacy. Partitions were found to help with visual privacy, but not sound. What can we take from this? One conclusion is that factors are often considered ‘less important’ when they are working well. People enjoying the benefits of their own office may say visual privacy isn’t that important, because they don’t know what it’s like to have colleagues constantly peering over their shoulder.

Even in the private office, satisfaction with sound privacy is much lower than satisfaction with visual privacy – probably due to the use of flimsy lightweight partition materials, which don’t adequately block sound. And much in line with my own experience, lighting levels were also seen as more important in private offices.

All in all, people are deeply dissatisfied with sound privacy. But this doesn’t have as much impact on overall office satisfaction as the amount of space they have. This may tell us as much about what people expect from their offices as it does about productivity. While noise may be more annoying, not having enough space feels like more of a slap in the face.

And as for collaboration, open-plan workers were no more satisfied with how easily they could interact with colleagues than those in private offices. Further, insufficient interaction was not a major source of discontent for anyone. Some researchers have even suggested that open-plan offices may be detrimental to communication because they provide few opportunities for confidential tête-à-têtes.

The supposed sociopetal benefits of open-plan offices do not seem to outweigh their noise and privacy deficits. And yet, we already have quite a lot of open-plan offices on our hands. So what can we do to make them work better?

Companies looking at smarter strategies for open plans and hot-desking have a lot to learn from co-working spaces such as the Impact HUB network. Impact HUB is an international network of over eighty co-working spaces at the forefront of thinking and design for the twenty-first-century model of work. The organisation was founded to nurture the social innovation sector by providing professional workspace facilities, business incubation support, and a community network. A social enterprise itself, Impact HUB operates on a ‘federated’ model (a friendlier and more open sort of franchise) and has grown to serve over thirteen thousand members in cities ranging from Milan to Kuala Lumpur and Harare. But it all began in London.

Serviced offices like Regus have been around for some time. But the current craze for co-working spaces is a fairly recent phenomenon. The very first Impact HUB opened its doors in 2005 in Islington, with the Kings Cross office coming soon after as the first purpose-built HUB. In 2008, everyone was getting excited about this new concept of ‘co-working’. So they built a perfect space for that purpose: collaborating, meeting, and coming together. A space for a diverse community of freelancers and social enterprises to cross-pollinate ideas and projects.

It’s a stunning space in an old warehouse building across the street from Kings Cross station. The structure was renovated by Architecture 00 to maintain much of the original stonework and wooden beams, while opening up the space through a central atrium beneath a giant peaked skylight. Meetings are held in glass cubes that seem to hang in the air between the two main floors. And the entire ground floor can be transformed into an event space through Tinkertoy-style furniture, which comes apart to hang on the wall. With such a beautiful space, what could possibly go wrong?

Five years after opening, Impact HUB Kings Cross (IHKC) were experiencing some growing pains. They asked us to take stock of how their space was performing, and how it could better support the many functions and people coming together there. We spent a few weeks studying what was happening in the space. We talked to people and asked them to fill out a survey. But we also analysed their behaviour objectively. At set intervals on different days, we noted how people were using different parts of the space, how full it was, and what the noise levels were.

We found that they were very happy with the look and feel of the space. ‘We love the wooden beams and historic texture of the space,’ they said. ‘The natural light is an amazing asset!’ But when we asked people what type of work was most important to their time at the HUB, a different picture emerged. Forty-eight per cent of members said that individual work was the most important function for their HUB time. This was followed by phone and video calls at thirty-one per cent, and meetings at only thirteen per cent. Our observations confirmed that people did spend the majority of their time working alone – fifty-eight per cent of the time on average. But looking at how well the space met these needs, we found it didn’t align with their priorities. Members said the space worked much better for meetings than it did for individual work or phone calls.

In all the excitement about collaborative work, less space had been reserved for solitary activities like focused work and phone calls. The need for spaces supporting quieter and louder work had been underestimated. There really wasn’t any adequate place to politely pop away from your desk to take a long noisy call. This meant that volume levels were high throughout the space at peak times, impacting many people’s ability to focus. You could almost see a domino effect rippling around the room, as each person’s decibel level rose a little higher than their neighbours’. Heavy-duty headphones were pulled out and spiteful glares darted at the worst offenders.

Sound levels in the space told a similar story. The ground floor area included a café and was generally regarded as the noisy area. Our research confirmed this. But it also told us a bit more. The upstairs is a doughnut-shaped space divided into two working areas by an open atrium. The back area had by far the lowest noise disturbance levels, while the front area fell right in the middle for noise levels.

Working with the IHKC team and an innovative Dutch fur­niture company called PROOFF, we developed a design strategy accommodating more specialised and secluded space for phone calls in part of the front upper area. It was not a very easy space to add features into. Many subsequent Impact HUBs, such as the Berkeley, California, branch were equipped with built-in phone booths – tiny rooms just big enough for one or two people. Many furniture companies now offer a host of pods and banquette booths promising to provide the precious asset of sound privacy. But the unique layout of the IHKC space wouldn’t accommodate any of these options. The ground floor had to remain completely flexible for event use. And the hollow first floor plan was further complicated by lovely collections of wooden boxes hanging from the exposed brick walls to provide library and storage lockers.

One of the other things our space audit identified, however, was under-utilised areas. One of the front corners was being used as break-out space, filled with big bean bags and some other shabby chairs. I was a fan of the bean bags myself – perfect for sneaky napping! But I had to admit that very few people used them. The break-out area utilisation stood at thirty-five per cent. The space needed something that could function as a phone booth or a meeting room, and PROOFF had the perfect solution. If evil aliens captured a classic wing chair and subjected it to cyborg and genetic mutations, it would probably look a lot like their EarChair. These oversized, angular armchairs have grown even more oversized ‘ear’ wings. In addition to making you feel like you’re on a space station, these ears have been carefully engineered to avoid sound leaking. Placing two chairs facing each other creates a sort of whispering gallery.

Introducing three of these creatures into the King’s Cross break-out space was an interesting experiment. But the EarChairs quickly became such popular phone booths that the space managers had to ask people to limit their calls to one hour so everyone could have a chance! They were set up sociofugally – facing towards the wall to enhance privacy – but could easily be arranged more sociopetally if desired. With the addition of two fuzzy wall-mounted phone boxes, five sound-mitigating enclaves had been added to the space.

But more importantly, creating specialised space for noisy calls helped to change the social norms in the other areas of the upstairs space. With appropriate amenities for calls elsewhere, people started being more considerate. The decibel domino effect subsided. The EarChairs helped create a mid-volume level space in the front upstairs area, while the back upstairs area was used for quiet activities.

Impact HUB Kings Cross faced many of the same problems we find in generic open-plan and hot-desking offices. But a big part of the problem was the imbalance between function – workers’ needs – and form. So while we know open-plan offices can be problematic, much can be mitigated by getting the right fit between people, purpose, and place.

The tendency towards one-size-fits-all solutions is a problem that has plagued workspaces across decades and design trends. With the latest craze for Google-style AstroTurf and ball pits, we’re still failing to ask what would work best for the people and purpose of specific spaces.

Of course there are a number of factors we know are important to supporting well-being and productivity at work across the board. According to Jacqueline Vischer, an environmental psychologist at the University of Montreal, these factors impact us on three levels: physically, functionally, and psychologically. Issues like good air quality, moderate temperature, and cleanliness impact our well-being on a basic physical level – traditionally given the icky-sounding description of ‘hygiene factors’. In addition, layout and space allocation affect our performance on a functional level, as we saw at Impact HUB Kings Cross. But we must also consider the loftier psychological level: the look and feel of the space, the colours and textures, light quality, and dimensions.

Curved forms, for instance, make us feel calmer than angular ones.  The presence of plants in an office can reduce blood pressure and increase attentiveness and reaction time by twelve per cent for people performing stressful tasks on a computer. And while an adequate level of lighting is a functional factor for the tasks at hand, lighting quality affects us more deeply. Having larger windows and sitting closer to them has been linked to higher productivity. Having a good view and blinds to control glare has a positive impact also.

Many studies may not account for these psychological factors because they don’t ask about them. And even if they did, people might not realise how much these factors impact them subtly. Vischer has questioned the overwhelming focus on satisfaction as a metric of successful offices. Satisfied is a funny term. It brings up an image of a fat, grinning cat. Is that what we are looking for our workspaces to inspire? As we have seen before, people don’t always have a good sense of how things affect them. Or what they may be missing.

Over the years of working in offices I’ve developed a checklist that brings the best of this research together with today’s most pressing workspace issues. I call it the BALANCED Space checklist because it provides a framework to balance the needs of people and purpose with the constraints of space and budget. To balance what’s already working well with what could be better. And, of course, because it forms a handy acronym:

B Biophilia: natural elements, materials, views, and patterns

A Atmosphere: light quality, air quality, temperature, and smell

L Layout: space utilisation and allocation, wayfinding, and circulation

A Amenities: supporting good nutrition, fitness, ergonomics, and rest

N Noise: avoiding disturbing noise levels, friction points, and design flaws

C Cohesion: community, communication, and control

E Energy: reducing use of energy, resources, and waste

D Design: colour, shape, material, proportions, detail, and style

It’s a framework to identify needs and patterns specific to space, organisation, and people. Layout and Noise may be assessed objectively, as we saw at Impact HUB. Biophilia and Cohesion may be assessed through interview and observation. And this all comes together to inform design strategy and priorities.

We hear a lot of things about the wonders of standing desks, living green walls, and meditation rooms. So how do you know which of these novelties are most important to invest in? And what do you do if you can’t afford any of these things? So much of what we hear about offices is reserved for the upper echelons. What can you do with a basic office space on a minimal budget?

This was the exciting challenge I had in working with Happy City, a Bristol-based well-being charity who also run a co-working space out of their office. Working to move and expand their office on a very low (as in virtually non-existent) budget required some resourceful creativity. Like my New York workspace with its ninja-proof seats, the old Happy City was an unconventional office space. With hardwood floors and two walls of light, airy windows overlooking colourful street art by Banksy and others in Bristol’s hip Stokes Croft district, it didn’t really feel like an office.

The new space was a characterless 1960s unit with the tired bluish carpets and suspended ceilings typical of the era. Everything about the place said ‘dull, grey office’, so we knew we had a lot of work to do to recreate the character and culture of the old space. First on our checklist was Biophilia. The wooden floors and plentiful natural light in the old space were major benefits we couldn’t transfer to the new space. To counterbalance the sterile nature of the new space, we filled it with plants and made use of as many natural materials as we could. A DIY approach – involving co-working members in creating the office and using reclaimed materials – was key.

We started by populating the office with cheap and hearty dragon plants, and asked everyone to bring in one plant of their own for variety. We worked with local furniture recyclers and resellers to source bookshelves, desks, and chairs, and got donations from other offices closing down. Co-workers helped us re-paint the furniture and walls, brightening up the grey space with a palette of bright green, white, and natural wood tones, and Happy City’s signature colour: hot pink.

Clever layout choices are another way to make a big difference on a small budget. Before moving in, we used string to map out where the major pieces of furniture would go. We used bookshelves with plants on top of them to define the space and create smaller territories, including a lounge where people could eat lunch, peruse the Happy City library, or take a nap in the bean-bag pile – amenities supporting healthy eating habits and rest are key to well-being at work.

There was no budget for fancy phone booths or sit/stand desks, so we created our own DIY solution. We employed a carpenter to transform an old, wooden door into two café-style bars with window views – one in the lounge and one further into the office. With the addition of some freshly repainted bar stools, these lovely spaces overlooking a tree-lined street have become the pride of the office. Some people use them as impromptu standing desks, while others just like to break up the day by moving to different spots depending on what they’re doing – a rising trend in office design now known as ‘activity-based working’. The bar seating in the lounge is particularly popular for people to slip away to when they want some privacy for phone calls. The lounge area doubles as a casual breakout meeting space outside of lunch hours, in addition to the formal meeting room we had built.

Lastly, we thought very carefully about how to lay out the actual workspaces in the office, and who would sit where. Happy City co-founder Mike Zeidler had previously helped found the Bristol Hub – one of the first Impact HUB network spaces outside of London. While the Bristol Hub ultimately branched off on its own, Happy City had inherited three of their signature petal tables: a trio of different sized, tear-shaped desks branching out from a central point, which can be fanned out to suit the shape of the room. These petals – also made from reclaimed wood – were much heavier than their name suggests, so it was important to get the layout right. We experimented with different formations using string laid out on the carpet to get a sense of how the spacing and circulation would feel. And in positioning the petals, we made sure not to forget about those sneaky ninjas!

While we all might ideally like an office seat optimising refuge and prospect, these can be hard to come by. Working across different offices, I’ve found many people have a strong preference for one or the other – they can be divided into ‘refugers’ and ‘prospectors’. We’ve discussed ‘people factors’ in the workspace in terms of the nature of people’s work and how much they work with others. But some preferences just come down to individual personality. The size of our personal space bubbles, our penchant for personalisation, and desire for order are all influenced by personality.

We’ve all heard of introverts and extroverts, but this is just one aspect of personality. The Five Factor Model (FFM), or ‘big five’, is considered the most scientifically robust tool for measuring personality. Through many years of research, psychologists have come to define people’s personality in terms of their ranking on five key traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. These traits can impact our built environment preferences and can even be communicated by the spaces we inhabit, as personality psychologist Sam Gosling at the University of Texas has demonstrated.

People high in introversion, low in agreeableness, or high in neuroticism may more often be refugers, for instance. While we are all instinctively drawn to spaces with refuge and prospect, a need for more personal space is linked to introversion and higher rates of anxiety. Introverts are overwhelmed by excess stimulation and draw their energy from solitary pursuits. You’ll often find them sequestered away in their own little fortress at the back of the office, where they can survey the room. Sitting on the periphery can also be a sign that you are low in agreeableness: the tendency to be helpful, cooperative, and sympathetic. But refugers certainly shouldn’t get a bad rap: introverts can be highly inventive and productive types who need their own fortress to flourish.

Extraverts, on the other hand, are excitement seekers and get easily bored without stimulation. The intriguing potential of a prospect position helps reduce boredom, which may attract the extravert. These cluttered, chaotic, and colourful types like to surround themselves with knick-knacks related to their many activities and warm, saturated colours like red. They have a high need for social interaction and less need for personal space, so you may also find their desk at the circulation crossroads where they can catch people passing by. Notice a welcoming extra chair, or biscuits to share? These features invite people in to stop and chat. But with their days so busy, extraverts often don’t have enough time to tidy up! While you might think that a cluttered workspace would scare people away, a controlled amount of clutter is actually more inviting than either a sparse space or an overstuffed one.

Highly open people – who are creative, intellectual, and amenable to new experiences – may also prefer prospect-oriented window seats for enhanced inspiration and creativity. Open people tend to be artistic and imaginative, so you may find artwork or remnants of creative projects at their desks. A highly personalised office can signal either openness or extraversion, but the workspace of an open person is distinguished by being stylish, unique, and versatile – reading material and music collections betray their insatiable appetite for diverse genres. Personalisers are more likely to have greater job satisfaction, psychological well-being, and even physical health, so personalised workspaces have benefits for both employees and employers.

An extremely tidy and organised workspace tells people that you are conscientious: orderly, disciplined, and cautious. You’ll find these minimalists’ desks stacked with organised files, sharp­ened pencils, and calendars planning for 2019. Conscientious people tend to be hard-working, reliable, focused, and achieve­ment-oriented – they like to make plans and follow routines. And while such desks may be lauded by anti-clutter guru Marie Kondo, these may also not be the most creative or innovative folks around.

Finally, anyone who has worked in a hot-desking office or co-working space is familiar with the expander. Every day, their portion of the desk seems to grow a little bit bigger with a new stack of files or that kettle they bought and haven’t managed to take home yet. You pop out for lunch and return to find your spot occupied by their half-finished sandwich! Highly territorial behaviour may signal that a person is more dominant and aggressive, or less sensitive to others around them. You may find the expander in the centre of the room, as central-seaters tend to be more dominant and defensive of their space than those around the edges. But it’s also important to point out that scarcity of space and uncertain ownership make people more territorial. Today’s highly shared workspaces can bring out the expander in anyone if not carefully designed and managed in consideration of human needs.

Most offices are likely to have a mix of people with different personality traits. But certain industries do seem to attract certain personality profiles. Tech workers tend to have high rates of introversion and low rates of agreeableness, which may lead to a greater need for ninja-proof seats, as we saw with the software developers in my New York office.

But whatever type of office you’re in, the key to making it a productive and healthy workspace is to make sure it fits the needs of the people working there, and the purpose of their work. Back at Happy City, we used an office-wide survey and conducted interviews with members of different teams to understand people’s needs and preferences. We placed the refugers in ninja-proof seats, and gave the prospectors window views. And we also planned seating according to noise levels and working needs. These are quite simple steps. So simple, that they might be considered irrelevant, when they are actually some of the easiest and least expensive ways to make an office better fit for purpose. The layout of Impact HUB Berkeley (pictured here) provides a particularly nice example of how to optimise refuge and prospect needs in a small space, arranged quite similarly to Happy City.

One last key lesson from the Happy City office is that it was very much a work in progress. Their team and members have experimented with different positions for desks and bookshelves, upgraded furniture as more suitable pieces became available, and encouraged co-workers to make their own mark on the space. Happy City have taken time to let the space grow and develop, softening the hard edges over time.

Of course, this DIY approach wouldn’t work for everyone. But corporates may have more to learn from this model than they realise. Like shared streets, co-working spaces present a model for managing space that is often more fluid and flexible than the engineering-driven, Taylorist, top-down model of efficiency and productivity. And they create places that people are attracted to. Spaces that feel like places instead of fuzzy grey boxes. We will delve further into the impact of biophilia, light quality, and specific design features later on. But perhaps the most important point of all is cohesion – how the place comes together in relation to people and purpose. The cohesion element on my checklist brings together the related issues of control, communi­cation, and community.

Researchers at the Centre for Facilities Management Development at Sheffield Hallam University have found that effective communication can have a huge impact on how happy workers are with a hot-desking transition. Working with a blue-chip company called FinanceCo, they discovered that workers engaged in various communication strategies were more satisfied with the final hot-desking arrangement. The end results were the same across FinanceCo’s buildings: approximately five desks per six full-time employees, shared on a team-zoned basis. Communication made the key difference in how happy workers were with their new, non-territorial office.

And by communication, I don’t mean one-way communica­tion from the management to the general staff. A feeling that feedback was heeded was key to satisfaction, as were quality and frequency of communication in the FinanceCo study. Research has also found that even the negative effects of noise exposure can be reduced if people can control the noise to some extent. The dynamics of control, communication, and com­munity are inextricably intertwined with the culture the space has grown out of.

On a recent trip to New York, I had the opportunity to visit Google’s famed Manhattan office myself. And I had to admit, it was pretty impressive. Exploring the endless succession of Lego playrooms, treehouses, green-walled eateries, and break-out areas resembling Sherlock Holmes’s study was like progressing through increasingly fantastical levels in a video game. So given choices between working in a vintage train car café, a library study stocked with comic books, or an indoor AstroTurf garden with deckchairs overlooking the Manhattan skyline, what’s the best thing about the Google office?

‘Honestly it’s more the food, and the juice and gym, and the game room,’ one employee named Chris told me. ‘I think it’s more about having all the different wacky features, going to a different part of the building and being surprised.’ Exporting any one of these possibly gimmicky, certainly expensive elements on its own isn’t likely to have the same impact as their combined effect. The variation of environments gives employ­ees choice, control, and flexibility. ‘People make the jump from thinking it’s these cool office features that lead to Google’s success,’ Chris said, ‘but it’s really the company culture that underlies them.’

Rather than fancy football tables and slides, we may just need a few good ninja-proof seats.

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