“Humans live best when each has his own place, when each knows where he belongs in the scheme of things. Destroy the place and destroy the person.” Frank Herbert, Dune.
In 1993, Jay Chiat, proposed a radical change: to take away cubicles and desks. Equipped with portable phones and PowerBooks, the employees of the influential advertising agency were freed from their desks and turned into wandering nomads. “The idea is,” he told WIRED in an article in 1999, “that you go to ‘lectures’, gather information, but do your work wherever you like”. It was free-flow. Chiat had replaced private offices and cubicles with couches and tabletops in common areas, and large conference rooms. He also installed brainstorming domes. It was forward thinking, but maybe too forward thinking to work. The change bred disaster: removing personal space was unsettling.
The office was as equipped as one could imagine: rows of lockers, data ports, receivers (for portable phones). The issue was just that, “it was weird,” said one of Chiat’s associates Rabosky, “you just had no idea where you should go.” With no space they can call their own, Chiat’s employees had no destination point in the wide-open office. So time was spent searching for their personal space, then worse still, people began battling for space. Chiat predicted this, “people panicked because they thought they couldn’t function,” he said but by 1995 he began to notice that there seemed to be no settling from the unsettlement, “most of it I felt was an overreaction but we should’ve been more prepared for it.” When he sold his agency and exited the executives immediately launched a major office renovation to return it to its everyone-has-an-office-space glory.
The ones who had survived Chiat’s social experiment have said to have found in them an appreciation for wall and space. There were no longer fantasies about working on the beach. “Deep down we’re still cave dwellers,” declared a Chiat associate. Chiat himself however still believed in his idea. “We all have been taught that the corner office is a badge of success. It is difficult to change that but my fault was not recognising that emotional reasons were the reality.” But maybe things are a-changing. What Jay Chiat began though was the conversation about ideal office space which is, now, even more rampant. Now we see cool offices budding that seem to resemble Chiat’s radical virtual office idea. While space is necessary, the question companies now ask is: but what sort of space? What sort of culture do we want to inculcate? How much trust do we give? As we sit and plan our new office space up at Menara KEN@TTDI we are faced with these questions and we still wonder where the balance lies. So here’s the question: What sort of office space do you idealise?