Soft Work

Disegno #21 (2018)

Image courtesy of Vitra.

In 1660, the naval administrator and English MP Samuel Pepys recorded his impressions of everyday office life in his diary. Even today, these observations remain startlingly relevant:

2 January: So went to my office, where there was nothing to do.
13 January: Thence to my office, where nothing to do.
14 January: Nothing to do at our office.
1 February: This morning I lay long abed, and then to my office, where I read all the morning my Spanish book of Rome.

Like Pepys, I’m writing this essay from my office and I’m afraid the boredom is already starting to bite. While you might have sailed through that introduction and straight into this paragraph, I’m ashamed to admit that I took a 10-minute break. I don’t own a Spanish book of Rome so instead I pretended to transcribe an interview, while actually listening to ‘Intergalactic’ by the Beastie Boys. Twice. I like my sugar with coffee and cream! Actually, coffee might be nice. I’ll be right back.

Please don’t judge me, because this kind of lily-hopping procrastination seems endemic to offices. “Why can offices be so boring?” wrote the journalist Gideon Haigh in The Office: A Hardworking History, a 2012 study of the space. “It goes with the territory. There is a monotony to their condition, to the restricted space, constant temperature and unchanging light. There are inhibitions on behaviour – restrictions on physicality, sanctions against absolute candour – which sanitise and neuter interaction.” In other words, offices are boring because they’re spaces designed to enable work, and work is frequently tedious. So let the punishment fit the crime, as it were; and no point zhooshing up the unzhooshable. “An office too exciting, of course, might conceivably be failing in its mission,” notes Haigh.

Most approaches towards contemporary workplace design, however, fly in the face of Haigh’s sobering message. At the thin edge of the wedge, for instance, are Google’s offices, the kindergarten- cum-assault-course aesthetics of which have since percolated through to other companies, positioning the office as a site for fun rather than work.1 “The Google offices are some of the most talked about in the world,” reads a February 2015 article on “In part, this is because they are, quite simply, incredibly cool.” Well, I don’t know about that, but a quick online search (this article will not buzz market any specific search engine) reveals a series of increasingly bizarre office spaces.

Some Google offices incorporate hammocks and bunk beds as “workpods”, while others have adopted 19th-century beach huts as phone booths – as if Scarborough once had it off with Silicon Valley and picked up some of its ways in the process. Then there are alpine cable cars appropriated as meeting rooms and – most distressingly of all – a pink slide that resembles a colon, through which employees who ought to know better are plopped out as they move between floors. Coolness here is probably in the eye of the beholder (I am, admittedly, quite taken with the pastiche Irish pub installed in Google’s Dublin office), but it’s undeniably juvenilising – an approach geared towards denying that what takes place in a Google office could ever be construed as something so mundane as work.2 “One of the things the Google effect has had is the idea that work is somehow a playground and you can infantilise your staff,” observed the design researcher Jeremy Myerson in a 2016 interview with Dezeen. “It’s actually a very bad idea.”

“That’s a brilliant point,” says Edward Barber, co-founder of the industrial- design practice Barber & Osgerby, who I meet at the campus of furniture company Vitra in Weil am Rhein, Germany. “You don’t get anything in those kinds of offices that feels adult and refined.” His partner, Jay Osgerby, is sitting nearby, flicking through a glossy magazine of office design. “Here’s another classic,” he announces, flipping the magazine round to show off a double-page spread. It’s a photograph of an office that appears to be in deep cover as a soft-play area. The employees in the photograph are walking around purposefully and look as if they might be experiencing deep, shuddering synergies. The space has a number of traditional dedicated workstations with desks and task chairs, but these quickly dissolve into a landscape of vogueish breakout areas, potted plants and communal foam sofas that resemble obstacles from ITV’s 1990s television show Gladiators. These sofas are intended to betoken informality and the free exchange of ideas, but end up seeming more like pool floats – chubby blocks that a head of finance might roll across to express pleasure at cost-cutting measures, or which a sales director could jerry-rig into a fort when under pressure to hit target. “That’s where we are today in terms of office design,” says Osgerby.

Osgerby has this magazine, I assume, because he is checking out the competition.3 At October’s Orgatec trade fair in Cologne, Barber & Osgerby debuted Soft Work for Vitra, an office system designed as a response to the ills of the contemporary office. “The key idea was to do a system that is nothing to do with the desk, because everyone’s working on tablets, phones and laptops anyway, so you don’t need a desk and task chair anymore,” says Barber. “We felt that a lot of people are now working in breakout spaces, so why not develop a serious contender for an office built around the sofa?” Soft Office, in short, takes the breakout spaces that have long been a quasi-recreational feature of offices and converts them into the meat and potatoes of the workplace itself. “At the moment, Vitra sells 80 per cent desking and 20 per cent soft seating for a typical office, but within a fairly short amount of time it thinks it can flip that,” says Barber. “Soft Office,” adds Osgerby, “is the death of the desk”.

Well – so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye, I suppose, although it’s not as if this hasn’t been a long time coming. As far back as 1952, Herman Miller’s then-design director George Nelson was advancing a vision of the office that, while not deskless, certainly gestured towards greater informality. An office, Nelson argued, should aspire to become “a daytime living room where work can be done under less tension with fewer distractions”. It’s a surprisingly contemporaneous suggestion, pointing out that excessive office-y specificity within the setup and functionality of a space might be deleterious to its operation. Certainly, Nelson’s suggestion falls within the same ballpark as the core ideas of informality espoused by most major office furniture brands operating today. To quote a 2016 series of white papers issued by the US furniture giant Hayworth, in order to enable the “high-focus work” that is the output of an office, spaces need to make allowance for “restorative activities”. Such a vision, Haigh notes, may well fall within the historical remit of the office: “[A] truth of the history of the office: that it was an activity long before it was a place. The office did not come into being like the spinning jenny or the factory system. It was first an area – in a warehouse, in a store, in a home – cleared for keeping a ledger or writing a letter. Office functions are as old as commerce; the customised physical location is a far more recent development.”

Barber & Osgerby’s Soft Office is an attempt to modify this physical location into a more discrete form that is better suited to open-ended working habits. The basis of Soft Office is a set of modular rails that are lifted off the ground to create a chassis, which can be specified in straight or curved formations. Combinations of seats and backrests, platforms, tables, panels and arm-mounted trays can then be applied onto it, with power connections that flip up through the gap between cushions before snuggling back down beneath the seam of the upholstery. It’s an ingenious and elegant setup, and one that manages the trick of feeling casual and relaxed without falling into the juvenile buffoonery of the Google office and its ilk. “The idea was very simple, so most of this project has been engineering,” says Osgerby.

One result of this engineering was the decision to raise the Soft Office seating above the typical height of a sofa in order to improve ergonomics and create a more natural posture for working on a laptop. “If you think about a typical breakout space, the sofas don’t really work,” says Barber. “They’re typically too low, because they’re designed for reclining – as a sofa should be – but then you’re trying to recline while typing. So we’ve designed a sofa that’s the right height such that you can work on a table. It’s quite a radical suggestion, and it may take up to 10 years for this to fully catch on, but I think people will understand the idea right away. Every single office – whatever industry it’s in – needs this.”

Barber & Osgerby’s office, then, is a coup de grace. It’s meant as a killing blow for the traditional office, delivered 66 years after the hypothetical hiding that Nelson gave it in the 1950s – the irony, of course, being that Nelson did more than most 20th-century designers to reinforce the hegemony of both the desk and its close bedfellow the cubicle. Working with the designer Robert Propst, it was Nelson who developed the 1964 Action Office I system for Herman Miller (succeeded by Propst’s solo effort, the more commercially successful Action Office II) – a concept that was intended to promote mobility, flexibility and responsiveness through porous workspaces, but which ended up spawning the cubicle culture of the 1990s and early 2000s.4 All contemporary office systems are, in one light, a reaction to the problems that emerged as a result of Propst and Nelson’s work. Action Office received initially rapturous reviews – the Saturday Evening Post ran with, “Office workers of America, beware! The Action Office is coming! We are in real danger of being enabled to work at 100 percent efficiency” – but these plaudits eventually gave way to more scathing remarks as the implications of the system and its propensity towards gruesome standardisation became clear. Within Herman Miller itself, staff were reported to label post-Action Office products with the faux tagline “From the people who brought you the problem, here’s the solution,” while Ada Louise Huxtable, The New York Times’s architecture critic, summed up the overall situation in verse: “Gild not the lily/ Perfume not the air;/ When the designer comes in/ Let the Worker beware.”

Barber & Osgerby’s system is more contemporary and sensitive in its output than Action Office, but its basic impulses are similar. “Even the most routine attempt to lay out an office[...] is a tackling of one of the foremost design challenges of the last century and a half,” notes Haigh. “[Balancing] privacy with communication, enclosure with access, autonomy with cohesion, the fear of knowing what’s happening with the desire to be secluded from it.” How that balance is interpreted tacks to shifts in technology and working cultures, but the virtues which designers espouse often remain consistent across generations: flexibility, free movement, and the accommodation of both private and communal activities. Lurking behind these ideals, inevitably, is an element of financial realpolitik, which Barber & Osgerby see as a boon. “Think how much space desks take up,” says Osgerby. “For a workstation that isn’t necessarily used or isn’t needed so much anymore, that’s a big investment.” Barber is quick to follow up on the point. “It’s about efficiencies of space,” he says. “It’s such a luxury of real estate to have a desk for someone who, for instance, will be going away on holiday for two weeks. So Soft Work comes in as a sort of replacement for that system, because you can have two people working comfortably in a space where previously you’d have only had one desk.”

This diffusion of the office space has, in part, been driven by the diffusion of work itself. Nelson’s “daytime living room” betokens an early blurring of the professional with the personal, for instance, while the Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell claimed in 2000 that people “increasingly[...] receive all the social support they need – all the serendipitous interactions that serve to make them happy and productive – from nine to five”. Eighteen years on, with the rise of mobile technologies, this cross- contamination of the office and the home has metastasised, creating a hybrid environment in which the office incorporates more elements of socialisation and relaxation, and in return likewise extends its reach into the home lives of employees – a kind of cross-fertilisation of the damned.

“[Mobile] telecommunications completed not only the blurring of work and home,” argues Haigh, “but of work and play also, for the same devices filled leisure as well as labour roles: on a Blackberry one could flick between emailing a colleague, instant- messaging or texting a commercial partner, emitting a Tweet, scrawling on a Facebook wall, bidding on eBay, shopping on Amazon, and playing a game of 3D Tetris or Colour Virus[...] Never in the annals of the office have workers proven so biddable in the face of demands for extra work[...] Future generations will surely marvel that ours dived headlong into the BlackBerry so heedless of the sticky brambles round it.” This biddability is aided by the subliminal messaging of office spaces themselves – one corollary of Nelson’s mantra is that by making offices more like living rooms, living rooms are inevitably perceived as being more like offices too. Soft Work is perceptive in its identification of areas in which the office can be made more efficient and hospitable, but its real test will come in seeing to what use businesses put its virtues of informality, flexibilit and variety. As with Action Office, well-intentioned, highly considered designs do not always have a wholly positive impact.

In the 1971 film T.R. Baskin, actor Candice Bergen is welcomed to her new job as a typist with a recorded voice message: “We would like you to think of your desk as your home during the day.” This idea of work being positioned a a species of lifestyle ought to be familiar. At the time of this article going to print, a scandal broke out within the video-game industry when Dan Houser, co-founder of Rockstar Games, spoke with pride that members of his studio had been “working 100-hour weeks” in order to meet the deadline for its Red Dead Redemption II game. This kind of excessive, intrusive overtime – whether explicitly or tacitly demanded – is a phenomenon that exists across industries, but which, as far as I know, only the world of video games has put a specific name to: “crunch”. It’s a phrase that ought to be adopted more widely. The evolution of the office across the 20th and 21st centuries has seen repeated collisions of home and working life, with the two now so splintered and splattered into one another that disentanglement seems hopeless. Even the sofa, for so long the sanctum sanctorum of the home, belongs to the office now.

“Soft Work is about breaking down that very notion of the office building,” says Osgerby. “We question whether you need an office building anymore because in a sense all buildings are now offices, and even the word ‘office’ [could be] irrelevant. You can work from the minute you wake up to the minute you go to bed, and you don’t have to be at work to do that. And even the word ‘work’ doesn’t necessarily capture what we do so much anymore. You know, we ‘collaborate to earn money’.” Here, then, it seems that Haigh perhaps didn’t go far enough in identifying the office as not so much a space as an activity. Today, it seems, the office has become the only activity. To quote Nelson: “These are not desks and filing cabinets. These are a way of life.”

  1. Herman Miller’s 2013 Living Office programme, for instance, is marketed with the quote: “This is a place where people will work not because they have to, but because they want to.” I suspect that this is not true.

  2. And which also helps the office to annex elements traditionally ascribed to an employee’s personal life. It is widely known, for instance, that Google employees can eat every meal at work for free. Convenient but whether people should ever be in a position whereby they might want or need to dine three times a day in the office is another matter.

  3. Although who knows. Maybe he’s a keen subscriber.

  4. Memorably captured in films like Mike Judge’s 1999 Office Space, which was tellingly publicised with the tagline “Work sucks”.