A friend of mine from IT has this cool old ash tray, it's a plain aluminium dish with our company name stamped around the rim and the words FAMILY DAY 1963. It's awesome. I picture all the kids at a factory open house with some guy handing out the ash trays, here you go kids, light up!
And the funny thing is, that wasn't such a big deal because back then everyone had ash trays right at their desks, they'd just light up right in the office. Oh how our spaces have evolved. So it's fun to think about the history of offices, ask ourselves what they're for, and maybe use it all to see if we're evolving our own workspaces.
Those ashtrays were usually a fixture on desks in long rows, there were giant rooms full of them, with shared telephones for 8-10 people. That was typical in the 50s and 60s. Rows of men at desks all facing the same direction.
The Herman Miller furniture company is given credit for introducing the cubicles. They wanted to design furniture around what people were doing in offices, and said the rows were great when we just assembled cogs, but more and more jobs were about processing and analysing information. People needed some privacy to focus. So why not introduce a flexible, economical way to do it?
Cubicles give us an illusion of privacy that makes for some odd situations, like having to listen to your coworkers' loud phone conversations. And as time went on, some of them got smaller and smaller and smaller until we felt like penned up cattle.
So some innovative companies transitioned to open workspaces - everyone just grab a seat at a big huge table and let's work together. I've also worked in this type of environment. I kinda love it - you magically know what everyone is working on, it's fun. And since lots of face-to-face time builds trust, we all knew each other REALLY well. But I have to admit it can be tough to focus when I needed to. I also noticed that people were less likely to write things down, since everyone just knew everything.
The solution, according to the researchers now, is to just be flexible. Let everyone get up and move around and change spaces based on what type of work they're doing. Don't mandate one thing for your workers, let them decide on an hour-by-hour basis what the task they're on requires. College libraries are actually a great model - quiet corners for intense concentration, tables for group works, coffee shops for relaxed productivity in a noisy, but not-too-noisy, setting. You pick what's right for you and move when it's not right.
And getting up is good for you anyway. Maybe we don't smoke at our desks any more but we do sit. a lot. Being glued to the chair sends a message to all your major muscle groups that they're just not that important. After an hour of sitting, your fat-burning enzymes have almost bottomed out, and they just stay there at the bottom if you never get up. Several markers of good health, like "good cholesterol" HDL, are tough to maintain if you sit all day. Even if you work out for 30 minutes, it won't cancel out the harm you've done, you're worse off than someone who skips the official workout but stands up and moves around at least once an hour.
The real trend-setters are trying out standing desks, and even treadmill desks. They're turning their smaller meetings with 2-3 people into "walking meetings" - great for getting people to put away their phones, relax and chat.
But if you're not feeling that innovative, at least try to move around every hour. "Planned inconveniences" are a good way to make this happen - set up your workspace so that every time you have to recycle something you have to walk over to the big recycle bin at the end of the hall. Or every time you have to staple something, you have to go use the community stapler in the copy room. In other words don't just fill your desk with everything you need at an arm's reach.
The point is that you don't just take what you're given as a workspace, you put a little thought into it, so in 50 years if we look back at the way you work we'll think you had some good ideas.