The Office Made Better

September 1, 2017 | | View Comments

By Karin Sharav Zalkind, Interior Designer, NoBox Studio // No Name Office

Editor’s note: Karin Sharav Zalkind is a Think Tank member for the Boston Workplace Innovation Summit on October 27th.

“The scale of the technology and infrastructure that must be built is unprecedented, and we believe this is the most important problem we can focus on.” Mark Zuckerberg

I come from a small country, an island of sorts.* As it so happens, this small island  is a huge exporter of innovative ideas across many fields like agriculture, technology, and medicine to name a few. Some claim it’s the people, some claim it’s the small space in which these people live in, that creates just the right amount of constraints which forces them to constantly push boundaries.

Most likely, it’s a combination of both.

When I arrived in the U.S., the land of endless skies, and expansive woodlands,  I felt everything is possible because there is so much space to think and grow.  Then the rude awakening happened – the more space I had, the less creative I felt. Like a speck of sand on a football field. That is an extremely alarming feeling for a creative person.

However, between confined and infinite space there is a blurry unknown that most likely is the bridge that allows both worlds to meet. That is most  likely the space where innovation meets regulation and allows both to coexist without it becoming complete anarchy, or a stale standstill.

In his book “The European office” Juriaan van Meel proclaims “Office buildings (…) are perhaps the most important building types of the 20th century… They dominate the contemporary city and accommodate more than half the working population in the Western world”.** And data from the Small Business Administration indicates that as of 2014, Massachusetts firms of under 500 employees account for 46.8% 2 of overall employment in the state, which is a huge economic and growth engine.

Yet the interior spaces and design for these small and innovative small businesses are almost always neglected, and over the years have been left in the hand of cost per square foot demands, business cooperations, market trends, real estate forces, furniture manufacturers, and various management theories. The offices design gold standard in the USA feels and looks almost identical – 7′ ceilings, frayed wall to wall carpet, stale coffee smell, fluorescent lighting, HVAC humming and walls painted a pleasing non-offensive contractor beige.

Since the 1950’s we have not seen much change in the design of our office buildings. They follow an almost identical architectural plan – central core, large uncomplicated floor slabs. deep floor plan and suspended ceilings. These buildings can be anywhere regardless of the urban context around them.

Our way of working in the world has undergone a revolution no smaller than Gutenberg’s printing revolution, but workplace design has yet to get the memo.

Our way of working in the world has undergone a revolution no smaller than Gutenberg’s printing revolution, but workplace design has yet to get the memo. We have seen some impressive attempts of communal work spaces, the likes of ‘We Work’, but they are merely a drop in the ocean in the world of workplace innovation. These solutions work great for the more affluent small business owner, or as satellite office space for expanding small businesses, and until what I like to call the awkward teenage years in the evolution of a small business.

Teenage years of a small business are not that much different than when we grew up and left our homes. A small business outgrows the comforts and perks of the ready made communal work space and is in search of a small space that will accommodate the small business with big ideas. Usually these businesses do not have the financial resources that allow the creation of a cohesively design and magazine-cover-worthy work environment.

Therein lies the core issue; most of these transitional small spaces (for between 50-200 people) are pretty much stuck. Either they are in prime locations, but the space is extremely small with odd shaped layouts, or they are in oblique nondescript office parks on the outskirts of prime locations. Neither of them help promote innovative thinking, nor do they provide the platform which allows small businesses to recruit the proper talent that can produce and promote innovative ideas and products. As I have come to learn, some of these places are where innovative ideas and small businesses come to die.

Yes, an argument can be made that this is self-selection at its best. If a small business cannot survive these terms and conditions, by default it does not have a ground breaking innovative product or business; therefore, it should not continue to exist. I argue that these conditions by default hold back our innovative progress.

Like an adolescent, the small business, makes  its way into the real world. It is an extremely critical point in time of the business life cycle, it is a time when a company is scaling up in size, and needs to create a clear vision for  its newly recruited employees. A vision that needs to be cemented not only in ideas but also in the look and feel of the physical space it occupies. It is a point in time when company culture starts to evolve, when trust between strangers is created, which allows for a free flow of innovative ideas to emerge and thrive. It is a time when a company’s need for a space to become part of  its  growth engine  cannot be underestimated.

Innovation in corporate America comes from these small businesses, a case in point made by the high tech industry that continuously thrives through acquisition of small companies, sometimes to shut down a competitor, but nowadays to further enhance a product line and beef up company culture. Innovation needs a space to ever change and grow, that’s why bootstrapping garage legends hold such a romantic notion for us – a notion of exploration and being allowed to make mistakes that won’t cost us the whole company. These companies need a place where thinking templates can be broken, so they will have freedom to build something new. These small businesses bring with them a culture that is different and unique, that allows people to shine and be seen. As designers, we must harness and guide that notion to allow for the spaces that house these small companies to drive  workplace innovation  further along.

*The author immigrated to the United States from Israel when she was a teenager

**The European Office | Office Design and National Context | Juriaan van Meel Page 9

To learn more about the future of workplace design be sure to join us for the 2017 Workplace Innovation Summits in Boston on October 27th and in San Francisco on November 17th!