Thursday, January 8, 2009

Jane Jacobs on the workplace via malcolm gladwell

I'm a fan of Malcolm Gladwell's writing. It never fails to make me think, and I value that reaction to his writing. Back in 2000 he wrote a column for his gig at the New Yorker about Jane Jacobs and the nature of workplace design. Its interesting and touches on many issues that reinforce the notion that cubicles are not the best work environment to bring out the best work of your people, and yourself.

Jane Jacobs wrote on urbanism and neighborhood design. Best known for her book "Death and Life of Great American Cities" it was a reaction against the urban renewal projects of the early sixties. She argued that the tall apartment buildings built to replace run down neighborhoods lacked the qualities that built successful urban neighborhoods. She advocated density, diversity, and the complexity that comes with city life. The front steps, front porch, become the eyes and hand shake of the neighborhood, social stimulus that builds the relationships between neighbors that make the neighborhoods strong.

She was right, but now so many years later we know how right she was. Enter Gladwell who interprets so much of her advice as being relevant to the workplace.

The office used to be imagined as a place where employees punch clocks and bosses roam the halls like high-school principals, looking for miscreants. But when employees sit chained to their desks, quietly and industriously going about their business, an office is not functioning as it should...

...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.

Its a worthwhile read if you are interested in the design of the workplace, or if you are thinking about what can be done to improve your own office. There is an interesting account of the experiments of the Chiat Day advertising agency who at one point tried a completely non territorial office in their NYC bureau. Nobody had a desk, all computer files kept on a central server, workers checked out a laptop and phone in the morning, and wandered the environment which provided a range of settings. There were cafe like table areas, living room like lounges, and even some completely precedent-less spaces. Widely published and admired, it eventually self destructed. Workers feeling placeless rebelled, staking out private areas, until finally a different organization had to be established. The office in LA described in more detail burned out as well sometime later, the agency relocating to a more conventional workplace, all this well after Gladwell's article. (the demise well documented in Wired Magazine: Lost in Space). Despite the promise Gladwell saw in this experiment back then it perhaps went too far for the times. Similar workplaces exist today, perhaps on not such a large scale. Chiat Day's failure broke many barriers for the new workplace models we see today.

Designs for Working by Malcolm Gladwell

via the Junto blog

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